Concept cars are known to be costly to build for manufacturers, in terms of both money and labour: every component is bespoke, most parts have to be handmade from the most exclusive and glitzy materials to make an imprint on the auto show circuit, and the building process can keep an entire design department busy for weeks on end. And at the same time, manufacturers have no choice but to go big to preview their next production models, stirring up excitement and interest for a product that will most likely be much more reasonably styled and built.
That’s why, usually and even more so today, a brand will present only one concept preview of a coming production model. In recent memory, only Suzuki went to the trouble of building three Kizashi concept cars which, over a period of three years and two auto shows, refined a dream car into something closer to a production vehicle. And yet, as many may have forgotten, nearly forty years ago Lincoln did just that, building up the public with two different but closely related concept cars announcing the legendary Mark VII personal luxury coupe.
Act 1: the 1982 Lincoln Continental Concept 90
No doubt capitalising on the futuristic (sic) perspective of the 1990s (any related 90th birthday being far away yet), Lincoln released its first show car in 1982 at that year’s edition of the Chicago Auto Show. Few photos of the car survive, but it represents a very important step in the evolution of Lincoln’s design language but also of FoMoCo’s as a whole. Indeed, for the 1982 model year, Dearborn’s full-size personal luxury coupes were still very much marked by the boxy styling of the late 1970s: cue the 1982 Lincoln Continental Mark VI (on the Panther platform), Mercury Cougar and Ford Thunderbird (both already on the Fox platform).
At the time, and the average consumer would have been forgotten for not noticing, FoMoCo was actually about to take the auto world by storm with its “Aero” look. Engineers and stylists had started in 1979 to explore the benefits of aerodynamics, starting the “Probe” family of concepts and experimental vehicles. The most important being probably the 1982 Probe III which previewed the ground-breaking European 1982 Ford Sierra (later introduced in the North-American market as the Merkur XR4Ti).
The Ford Taurus was still a couple years away, but the public was about to discover the Aero-look 1983 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar. Thing is, neither of those got a proper concept car reveal on the auto show circuit. At best, the 1982 Probe IV gave a taste of what Dearborn had in store for coupes in the coming years. The Continental Mark VI on the other hand, did get a show car replacement with the Continental Concept 90, but as we see now in hindsight that one turned out to be inspirational for all three of Ford’s big coupes.
In the lone available photograph of the Concept 90, all major characteristics of the redesigned Fox-body platform: flush headlamps which appear to be composite here, aircraft-style doors that set into the roof and not against it, fewer air intakes, aero rearview mirrors and an overall wedge-shaped profile. From a styling perspective, the car is also very close to the subsequent production vehicle, as evidenced by the window openings, headlights and grille designs, as well as the pinstriping along the sides. One thing that does stand out is the use of horizontal taillamps. Flush wheelcovers are very much set in the drag-obsessed 1980s. As the car appears to have no interior, it is difficult to judge if designers had already the production design in mind back then!
As forgotten as it may be today, this concept turned out in hindsight to be spot-on on many levels, as shown by its description in the 1982 press kit, which reads just like that of the production Fox-body luxury coupes:
Act 2: 1983 Lincoln Continental Concept 100
As if that was not enough of a reveal, Lincoln fired again at the 1983 Detroit Auto Show with an improved and reportedly “driveable [and] functional” concept for its upcoming and by then already much anticipated Mark VII.
Interestingly, as you can see this new concept was actual further remote from the production vehicle than the original! Gone were the Lincoln stand-up grille and large, flush composite headlights which became a trademark of the produciton Mark VII when it became the first production vehicle to be released with such technology in the North American market.
In their place, the Concept 100 featured a totally flush grille (if not for the floating Lincoln emblem) working with larger lower air intakes, and most curiously quad in-set sealed beam headlights which make us think of the Aero-look Thunderbirds and Continentals rather than of the Mark VII. Look for instance at that picture of the 1985 Cougar at that year’s Chicago Auto Show:
Even the curvature of the front bumper seems really similar. The Concept 100’s beltline and glass area do remind very close to both the Thunderbird and Mark VII however, as shown here with a picture of the Thunderbird at that same 1985 Chicago Auto Show:
And an official photo of the 1984 Continental Mark VII. As you can see, it sports the more detailed fender contouring of the Concept 90, rather than the plain slab-sided design of the Concept 100:
Inside, Concept 100 was pretty much all Mark VII though, with the driver-oriented dashboard and console instead of the horizontal design of the other two Fox-body coupes, and even with a steering wheel very similar to that of the production model. Interestingly enough it did not feature the Lincoln star logo or a Mark medallion but rather a very United Nations-like and generic looking globe and crest emblem. As you can tell too, the car (like its press release above) was going all out with electronics, thanks to a digital gauge cluster, touch sensitive pods instead of stalks, a fully automatic HVAC and media system, as well as a rudimentary navigation system. Engineers probably were imagining here a system similar to that of the 1986 Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera.
Given how much well-deserved hype was being built up for the release of all Fox-body luxury coupes around that time, is it possible that the Concept 100 was actually meant to shine some media light on the Continental Mark VII, Cougar and Thunderbird all at once? Stranger things have happened. Either way, most pundits agree that with its modern looking and dynamic full-size coupes of the second half of the 1980s Ford managed to steal the show and become the champion of aerodynamics. Of course, the Tempo and Taurus all played their part, but the Fox-body coupes and in particular the Lincoln Continental Concept 90 and Concept 100 sure managed to make progress look sexy and exciting.
- Suzuki Kizashi concepts, on Wikipedia
- Popular Mechanics, May 1983 (p. 14-16), on Google Books
- Popular Mechanics, June 1982 (p. 50-52), on Google Books