When I heard Lee Iacocca passed away earlier this week, I was crushed. His death was marked by a few articles in mainstream media, remembering him as a hero to the automotive industry, a true businessman and a leader. The man behind the Ford Mustang, the minivan and savior of a nearly-bankrupt Chrysler.
Iacocca’s achievements are numerous and well-documented, yet there is one that seems to be often forgotten; one that changed the U.S. luxury car market forever, and one that made him my hero. Appropriately-dubbed Iacocca’s Lincoln, the 1969 – 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III was one of the most extravagant and influential cars to come out of the Ford Motor Company in late 60s, defining the Lincoln Division for decades to come.
This is the story of Iacocca and the Mark III.
First though, let’s focus on the man. He was born Lido (Lee) Anthony Iacocca in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 1924, to Italian immigrants Nicola Iacocca and Antonietta Perrotta. After earning his degree in industrial engineering at Pennsylvania’s Leigh University, he continued his studies at Princeton University, after which he began his career as an engineer for the Ford Motor Company in 1946.
Iacocca’s earnest ingenuity and fierce dedication granted him bigger and bigger roles within the company; as such, he became the point man for Ford’s most revolutionary product to date, the Ford Mustang, and single-handedly restructured Ford’s then-fledgling Mercury brand. Iacocca soon turned his sights on Lincoln, Ford’s “luxury”division, which, despite producing some good cars like the Mark II and Edsel-based Mark III, was struggling to define its image and purpose. Meanwhile, General Motors had the American luxury car market cornered, with pompous, over-the-top land yachts like the Cadillac Brougham and Deville, Buick Riviera, and later the revolutionary front-wheel-drive Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado.
Naturally, Iacocca – who by mid 60s was vice president of Ford’s car and truck group – wouldn’t put up with that crap; so he formulated a plan to develop a new kind of Lincoln on the same platform as the Ford Thunderbird. It would be smaller than its predecessors and body-on-frame construction, simplifying manufacturing costs and breathing new life into the Wixom, Michigan assembly plant. This made total sense, considering the Thunderbird had short-lived success until plummeting in sales by 1965. Why design an all-new platform from the ground up when you can re-purpose a new-ish platform and make it better?
So, he went to work. Iacocca put Ford’s lead designer L. David Ash and styling VP Eugene Bordinat (who was also designed the Mustang, Mercury Cougar and Thunderbird) on an important mission: make a personal luxury car that people loved to be seen in and would line up in droves to purchase.
After spending months on the design, Bordinat and Ash came up with a car, initially named Lancelot. Upon seeing the model, Iacocca was less than impressed. Despite having a clean design, in his eyes it was just another bland coupe with a Lincoln badge on it, lacking any distinction. By their own admission, Iacocca came up with several styling elements which gave the car what it was missing all along: balls.
First, he asked them to add an upright chrome grille, like that of a Rolls-Royce, but V-shaped instead; then add the spare tire hump on the trunk lid, a design cue of old Continentals. Iacocca also wanted a “hot rod” look, so Bordinat and Ash raised the rear quarters and decklid by two inches, allowing the roofline to sink low into the body. Last touch was the long (and I mean long) six-foot-five hood. Combined, the car now had an aggressive, athletic presence, really speaking to Iacocca’s desired hot rod look.
The name Lancelot was also tossed, replaced by the much-deserved and punch-your-teeth-in Continental Mark III.
Not everyone agreed on the design, some critiquing it as too vulgar and ostantencious. But Iacocca only needed to impress one man: his boss, Henry Ford II, who, upon seeing the clay model of the car, was so impressed that he reportedly said, “I’d like to drive that car home.”
Under that long hood there was something special too. Lincoln took the existing Ford 429 V8 and made it bigger, raising it to 460 cubic inches, or 7.5 litres. Bolted to a 3-speed automatic transmission, this monstrous powerplant put out 365 horsepower and a tire-shredding 500 lb-ft. of torque. This was enough to move the 4,800 lbs Mark III from 0-60 mph in under 9 seconds, quite a feat at the time for such a car as big and heavy as the moon.
The Mark III was also loaded with features you’d find in a modern car today: power windows, power locks, A/C, even cruise control. It was also the first American car to feature an early form of anti-lock brakes (albeit only on the rear wheels) known as Sure Track, for “sure stops” as marketed by Ford.
Needless to say, it was another home-run for Iacocca. The car was put into production and was on sale at the end of 1967 as a 1968 model (there is no 1967 Mark III) for a whopping $6,758 (or just over $50,000 in 2019). Despite being panned by critics for being expensive, old-fashioned (standards rear-wheel-drive rather than the progressive front-wheel-drive layout as seen in the Eldorado) the Mark III gave its competition a run for their money, bringing in strong sales between 1968 all the way until its last production year in 1971.
Iacocca was named president of Ford in 1970, helping bring continued success with the Mark IV, Mark V Continentals for years to come. Unfortunately, his tenure at Ford was brought to an abrupt end in 1978 when he was fired by Henry Ford Jr. It’s suspected that the two, known for their strong personalities, did not see eye to eye.
Lincoln’s Continental line continued without Iacocca, albeit their decline already began as soon as the Malaise era; the cars were bigger, large to the point of grotesque, and none were as powerful as the Mark III due to increasingly-restrictive emissions and fuel-economy standards at the time. Iacocca, meanwhile, went on to save Chrysler from bankruptcy, becoming CEO in the process and launching the K-car platform, one of the most versatile and successful car platforms in automotive history. Using one ingredient, Iacocca managed to spawn a small family of cars from this one platform, including the Chrysler LeBaron, Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries, Dodge Daytona, Chrysler Laser, Dodge Renegade (a pickup) and of course, the Dodge Minivan; the world’s first true minivan.
That’s the funny thing; Lincoln (and Ford) had their ups and downs over the years, while Iacocca just kept going up. I’m saddened I will never get to meet this great man, but his legacy will remain for generations to come. The Mustang, the minivan, those are the vehicles he’ll be remembered by most, but to me he’ll always be the father of the coolest Lincoln to ever to grace the roads.
Rest in peace Mr. Iacocca. And thank you.