Skip to main content

Lincoln's Ford Centennial

The history behind the complicated Lincoln and Ford relationship. Henry Leland and Henry Ford would be the driving forces behind establishing the Lincoln Motor Co. as a lasting marque.
Early Model L Lincolns were mechanically superior to many other marques, but styling was a bit dated, as seen by these 1923 sedans on the assembly line.

Early Model L Lincolns were mechanically superior to many other marques, but styling was a bit dated, as seen by these 1923 sedans on the assembly line.

In the earliest days of the American automotive industry, there were hundreds of inventors trying to come up with a better idea. Two of the most gifted engineers in the race were both named Henry: Henry Leland and Henry Ford.

Henry Leland was a mechanical genius and cofounder of Leland & Falconer, which supplied engines to early Oldsmobiles. Henry Ford had built his first Quadracycle in 1896, and in his second attempt to get into the automaking business, his “The Henry Ford Co.” had mediocre success in design and development. To make matters worse, by early 1902, The Henry Ford Co. was so over-extended it had to liquidate its assets. Henry Leland was called in to help determine the value of The Henry Ford Co. and while there, he determined that the basics of the automobile chassis under development there were splendid, and it would be a success if the investors took that design and used a one-cylinder engine his company had developed.

1924 saw the introduction of the Lincoln Police Flyer, three of which are shown here shortly after delivery to the Detroit Police Department.

1924 saw the introduction of the Lincoln Police Flyer, three of which are shown here shortly after delivery to the Detroit Police Department.

Henry Ford was shown the door, the Leland-supplied engine was installed and the company started producing cars under the Cadillac name.

Meanwhile, Henry Ford found a new group of investors and went on to establish the Ford Motor Co. Using many of the same designs he had previously developed, along with his own single-cylinder engine, he would produce his first commercial success, the original Model A of 1903.

Leland stayed on for a while with Cadillac, which continued to grow in stature, while the Ford Motor Co. also found success in the fledgling automotive industry. Eventually, Henry Leland left Cadillac, and in 1917, he established the Lincoln Motor Co. His new venture was spawned by a $10 million contract to produce Liberty V-12 engines for the U.S. Government. When Lincoln Motor Co. had fulfilled its obligation to build 6,500 engines, Leland shifted his company’s efforts towards the automotive trade, and the Lincoln motorcar was born.

Edsel Ford encouraged coachbuilders to use Lincoln chassis, and the responses were often quite attractive, such as this Fleetwood bodied 1924 Model L limousine.

Edsel Ford encouraged coachbuilders to use Lincoln chassis, and the responses were often quite attractive, such as this Fleetwood bodied 1924 Model L limousine.

With the first Leland-built Lincolns starting production in 1920, sales were slow, and by late 1921, the company was awash in red ink. With an estimated value of $16 million, Lincoln Motor Co. went into receivership. Henry Ford responded with an offer of $5 million, which the judge over-seeing the liquidation sale rejected. Ford was not coming to Leland’s rescue, but serving a little revenge as he remained a bit miffed over the Cadillac deal in 1902. Henry Ford eventually upped his offer to $8 million, and on Feb. 4, 1922, the deal was made for Ford to buy Lincoln. Henry Leland and his son, Wilfred, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, posed for photographers as papers were signed to consummate the deal. Thus, Lincoln became a member of the Ford Motor Co.

Under Ford’s original purchase agreement, Henry Leland stayed on to oversee the operations of Lincoln Motor Co. with his son, Wilfred, serving as his assistant. Throughout the early part of 1922, orders started to come in for new Lincolns once people found out that they were now backed by Ford Motor Co. Ford employees started to show up at the Lincoln plant to “learn” about the production of these prestigious vehicles, and Edsel Ford was intimately involved during this period. Less than five months after the deal was struck, Ernest Liebold, one of Ford’s top executives, arrived at the Lincoln factory on the corner of Warren and Livernois to deliver a demand for the resignation of Wilfred Leland from the Lincoln Motor Co. for unspecified reasons. Hearing what was happening to his son, Henry Leland also immediately resigned from his post, leaving the entire operation under the control of Ford Motor Co. Shortly afterward, it was announced that Edsel B. Ford, who was officially the president of Ford, would be in charge of Lincoln.

By 1928, Lincoln styling was keeping up with the industry, and was additionally aided by coachbuilders such as Judkins, which produced this very handsome coupe on the 1928 Lincoln chassis.

By 1928, Lincoln styling was keeping up with the industry, and was additionally aided by coachbuilders such as Judkins, which produced this very handsome coupe on the 1928 Lincoln chassis.

Edsel directed the company to strive for constant improvements, and while the original Model L would stay in production up to 1930, there would be constant advances in engineering, with major updates seen in 1924. Among them was the introduction of the Police Flyer, made exclusively for law enforcement. The Police Flyer model featured added spotlights, bullet-resistant windshields and radiator shutters, plus brakes on all four wheels. Two years later, all Lincolns would enjoy the latter safety feature.

After Henry Ford bought Lincoln Motor Co., and shortly after its founder, Henry Leland, left, Edsel Bryant Ford built the brand into one of America’s premier automakers, which it remains to this day.

After Henry Ford bought Lincoln Motor Co., and shortly after its founder, Henry Leland, Edsel Bryant Ford built the brand into one of America’s premier automakers, which it remains to this day.

In 1930, the new-and-improved Lincoln KA was introduced with its V-8 engine featuring an improved carburetion system, plus better brakes and a much-improved suspension with a lower chassis that allowed for sleek, new body styles. Two years later, Lincoln introduced its new V-12-powered Model KB series, which saw many grand limousine, town car, phaeton and convertible victoria body styles fitted. With the grips of the Great Depression still limiting top-shelf luxury cars, Edsel Ford oversaw the development of the all-new, upper-medium-priced Lincoln-Zephyr line in 1936. Sales of the Zephyr helped prop up the Lincoln Division and serve as the basis of Edsel Ford’s crowning achievement when, in 1940, Lincoln introduced the fabulous Lincoln Continental. Offered in both coupe and cabriolet body styles, these were the epitome of chic in the early 1940s. Making the Continental so popular was E.T. “Bob” Gregorie’s exquisite styling, and the specially selected and prepared V-12 engines used in the model.

After America entered the war and all production efforts were aimed at defense, the last 1942 Lincoln rolled off the assembly line on Feb. 10. It would also be the last V-12 Lincoln-Zephyr as the postwar Lincolns dropped the Zephyr name.

After America entered the war and all production efforts were aimed at defense, the last 1942 Lincoln rolled off the assembly line on Feb. 10. It would also be the last V-12 Lincoln-Zephyr as the postwar Lincolns dropped the Zephyr name.

So prestigious had the Lincoln brand become that, in 1939, Ford Motor Co. offered up the “Sunshine Special,” a specially prepared Model KB open parade car for President Roosevelt. Roosevelt used this car extensively during his administration, and it has been reported that he enjoyed being driven in that impressive car, because it offered him comfort, room and security. That car would stay in service well into the Truman administration, when it was replaced by a new, up-to-date Lincoln in 1950.

Shortly after war came to the United States in late 1941, Lincoln production shut down as it did throughout the rest of the American automotive industry. Lincoln factories then switched to equipping the military to defend the United States and its allies. Sadly, in May 1943, the Lincoln Motor Co. lost its leader when Edsel Bryant Ford passed away. At the end of World War II, a major marketing shake-up occurred within Ford Motor Co. as Lincoln was paired with the young Mercury brand — another one of Edsel’s innovations — to create the Lincoln-Mercury Division. Throughout the 1950s, there would be many changes to the structure of Ford Motor Co., but Lincoln was always considered too valuable of an asset to shelve.

With the introduction of the mighty Lincoln V-12, Lincoln was well established as one of America’s premier automakers with examples such as this 1933 KB with a convertible victoria body by Brunn.

With the introduction of the mighty Lincoln V-12, Lincoln was well established as one of America’s premier automakers with examples such as this 1933 KB with a convertible victoria body by Brunn.

In 2011, it was announced that the Mercury brand would be discontinued, leaving Ford Motor Co. with just two basic brands: Ford and Lincoln. During the year 2022, Ford is planning to recognize its 100th anniversary of ownership of the Lincoln. With exciting new products, the future looks bright for this prestigious brand from the big, “blue oval” group.

While Lincoln-Zephyrs were considered upper-medium-priced cars when new, the Continental would become an instant classic. Shown here is Edsel Ford’s personal prototype Cabriolet.

While Lincoln-Zephyrs were considered upper-medium-priced cars when new, the Continental would become an instant classic. Shown here is Edsel Ford’s personal prototype Cabriolet.

In 1939, Lincoln created the “Sunshine Special” parade car/limousine exclusively for use by President Franklin Roosevelt. In late 1941, the car was given a facelift based upon 1942 Lincoln styling.

In 1939, Lincoln created the “Sunshine Special” parade car/limousine exclusively for use by President Franklin Roosevelt. In late 1941, the car was given a facelift based upon 1942 Lincoln styling.

The Lincoln Motor Car Foundation, which oversaw creation of the Lincoln Motor Car Heritage Museum & Research Center, will hold a Centennial Homecoming on Aug. 10-13, 2022, on the grounds of its Lincoln Museum in Hickory Corners, Mich. Additional pre-Homecoming events will take place in Dearborn, Mich., from Aug. 7-10. Learn more at www.lincolncarmuseum.org.

Old Cars Divider

If you like stories like these and other classic car features, check out Old Cars magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.

Want a taste of Old Cars magazine first? Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter and get a FREE complimentary digital issue download of our print magazine.

Old Cars FREE ISSUE Promo

*As an Amazon Associate, Old Cars earns from qualifying purchases.

Where to Bid

Car Auciton

Check out the Old Cars Auction Calendar

The Old Cars Auction Calendar has the when and where you are looking for when it comes to classic car auctions.