1962 Lincoln Continental 297-X
David W. Temple - July 02, 2014 04:00 PM
In the 1950s, Cadillac ruled the luxury car market. Ford Motor Company aimed to make Lincoln a serious competitor to the GM division that boldly called itself the “Standard of the World.”
For a time, though, Lincoln was perceived as too much like a Mercury, so part of FoMoCo’s plan to change this image was a new line of Lincoln models for 1956. Their 1956 models seemed to represent a step in the right direction for Lincoln because sales nearly doubled.
Buoyed by their success, Lincoln managers went for a bigger, more luxurious, and distinctive Lincoln. The 1958-’60 Lincoln models and the top-of-the-line Continental reached a peak of 29,684 sales for its first year and dropped by roughly 10 percent each year thereafter. After the dismal 1958 model year, Lincoln could see they had made a mistake with this car and went to work on a much-needed replacement. It was a tough learning experience.
Originally, the concept proposed for the replacement bore some resemblance to the 1958-’60 design. The proposal had gotten as far as being approved, but then an interesting and fortuitous turn of events terminated this approach. What began as a new Thunderbird became the new Lincoln Continental.
Ford’s vice-president of styling, George Walker, ordered development of a Continental-like T-Bird, unusual since a team under Joe Oros was already at work on the next generation T-Bird. The chief of the Advanced Studio, Elwood Engel, went to work on the project. When the Continental-like Thunderbird full-size clay mock-up was viewed by Robert McNamara (soon to be promoted to president of Ford Motor Co.), he immediately ordered it to be further developed into the new Continental. In two to three weeks, the clay mock-up for the Continental was complete. Approval was given by management in mid-1958, and in so doing a thin-pillared four-door sedan and a four-door convertible Continental were born.
The first convertible
The four-door convertible was the first built by Lincoln since 1939, and was the only one in the world at the time. Lincoln made sure to draw attention to it in their advertising. With the basic external look developed, stylist David Ash went to work on the new Lincoln’s interior and the results fit in perfectly with the rest of the design.
The Thunderbird and Continental would share cowl components to reduce costs. Both vehicles were of unibody construction and assembled at the Wixom, Michigan, plant. Another decision was to use the mechanical gadgetry similar to that of the defunct Skyliner model on the sedan convertible, which was already in use on the new four-passenger Thunderbirds. The main difference between the old retractable and the new Lincoln was that instead of a metal top folding into the trunk, a conventional fabric top was employed. The complex mechanism was set into motion with the push of a single switch.
After refinements were complete, the 1961 Continental entered Lincoln showrooms across the country. The Industrial Design Institute gave its design award to Walker, Bordinat and Engel as well as others involved in the project – Bob Thomas, John Najjar and Don DeLaRosa. The reasons for the praise went beyond outward appearances. Each example built received thorough testing before being released for sale. Each engine was bench tested at what amounted to a 98 mph run, then dismantled and checked for defects, followed by reassembly and installation. Each car was driven and checked further. In all, 189 areas were tested for proper function and performance before the car was released. This was further backed up with an almost unheard of two-year/24,000 mile warranty. Other features noted were the largest V-8 in an American car (430 cubic inches) and the first hydraulic windshield wipers.
Production of the Continental did not break any records, but sales went up from there. Sales reached six figures during the ’70s and continued into Cadillac territory through the ’80s. Lincoln certainly found its long sought identity beginning with the 1961 models.
The 1962 Continentals received only minor revisions – a new grille and wheelcovers were the most visible updates. Production of the 1962 models totaled 31,061, including one for the Presidential fleet.
A unique open limousine version was built for President Kennedy for parades and other special events. This one was a 1961 model. Dubbed X-100 by the Secret Service, there was a choice of two multi-piece detachable tops – one a steel type and the other a clear bubbletop. This car was modified by Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, Ohio, a company chosen to again perform modifications to three more Lincoln Continentals, with one of them being assigned to the White House. The latter one is the car shown here and was the only one of the three to have the bubbletop. The other two steel-topped cars were built for use by Eleanor Ford, the wife of Edsel B. Ford.
History shows a 1939 Lincoln K model convertible was the first car built specifically for presidential use. It served presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. A Lincoln Cosmopolitan with a specially crafted bubbletop replaced the Lincoln K in 1950 and was used mainly by Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was retired from the presidential fleet in 1965. Open cars with a clear bubbletop allowed the president to be seen even in inclement weather conditions. Of course, that practice ended with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
The historic 297-X, also known as “The First Lady’s Bubbletop” and the “Small Bubbletop,” was built primarily for use by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, though it was also employed to transport various dignitaries. JFK preferred to leave the bubbletop off of his limo. Not Jackie. The transportation supervisor for Ford Public Affairs, Calvin Beauregard, supposedly said “Jackie’s needs were different. They didn’t want an open car for the first lady because of the hair problem,” meaning her hair would be wind-blown without a top on the car.
A black vinyl cover (secured by screws) for the bubbletop (now missing) was stored in the trunk when not in use. Other equipment included in the conversion was dual air conditioning systems (front and rear), a rear-seat telephone, a sliding glass partition to separate the front and rear compartments, emergency sirens, red lights integrated into the front bumper, fender-mounted flag stanchions, and two-way radios. Upholstery in front was of black leather and in back was light blue leather and fabric.
The 297-X was not a true limousine since it lacked jump seats, though its body was stretched in the doors and quarter panels. Furthermore, its plexiglass bubbletop was not bulletproof nor was the car body armored.
This bubbletop Lincoln generally followed the president’s car and carried the First Lady as well as the wife of a visiting president or king. Among the VIPs who rode in the unique car were Moroccan King Hassan II’s wife Lalla Latifa Hammou, Mexico’s First Lady Mrs. Lopez Mateo, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, Pope Paul VI, and the wives of the three Apollo 8 astronauts during a 1969 tickertape parade in New York City. It was also used at the wedding of Luci Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon and “Lady Bird” Johnson. Other American political figures to ride in the 297-X included Vice Presidents Hubert H. Humphrey and Spiro T. Agnew. After the assassination of JFK, this car served First Ladies “Lady Bird” Johnson and Patricia Nixon.
In 1972, after a decade of service, 297-X was returned to Ford Motor Company who had leased it to the White House. It was transferred to the Henry Ford Museum for a number of years before being sold to the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas. Since then, it has been in private collections. At the time these photos were taken, the car was in the collection of the late John O’Quinn, an attorney in Houston, Texas. In 2010, it was sold for $429,000 by RM Auctions. In late 2013, it was scheduled to be sold again, but the historic car was withdrawn from the auction.