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Drive Time

It's the End of the Road for an Old-School Car

January 16, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elvis had one; so did Babe Ruth and Pablo Picasso. In 1940, Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned his daughter's and had it painted his signature color, Taliesin red. In the early 1980s, special editions were created for Gucci, Cartier and Givenchy. James Bond preferred them, as did many U.S. presidents. In fact, the most famous model may be the 1961 open-top that had been specially designed for John and Jackie Kennedy; they liked it so much they took it to Dallas on that fateful day in 1963.

Now the Lincoln Continental has met its demise. Among the many cutbacks recently announced by the Ford Motor Co. was the discontinuation of several models, including the Continental. For more than 10 years it has struggled to regain a foothold in a luxury market ruled by Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, where its once-formidable dimensions have been dwarfed by ever-inflating SUVs and tricked-out pickup trucks.

Even so, it has remained an icon, the automotive symbol of a certain kind of sedate luxury. Less flashy than the Cadillac, it served as shorthand for the announcement of life attainment--of business success or social elevation, of a settling into a life of tennis clubs and golf vacations, of winters in Miami Beach or Palm Springs, of cigars and fedoras and Harry Winston and charge accounts at Saks.

During the '60s and '70s, it was considered glamorous, the ride of rock stars and movie directors; even in the early '80s it had a certain cachet. But even as other objects of desire became less traditional and more youthful, the Continental found itself the vehicular equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award, the car of choice for men and women of a certain age,

And that's exactly why it's being retired.

Because Americans no longer accept age, much less the concept of a certain one. We want to write our autobiographies at age 27, cash out our stocks at 35 and want our Lifetime Achievement Awards by 40, thank you very much. The baby boomers have graciously decided that 50 is the new 40, which makes 60 the new 50, and if 50 is really 40 well, there's really no mathematical possibility of getting older in the traditional sense of the term. There is only the early 40s and, one assumes, death.

In this new ageless American landscape there is simply No Parking for old folks' cars. And that is what the Lincoln Continental has become. One sees them pulling up to the valet at Lawrys or Dan Tana's, nosing around the lot at the Tam O' Shanter, full of the last generation to believe in beauty parlors, Thousand Island dressing and the reality of being old.

We want none of that. We want a car that says we're rich and young and ambitious and sexy, adventuresome and stable and unique even if we're, say, only two of those things--even if we are, say, none of those things.

Oddly enough, the Continental did not lose ground for what might be considered sensible reasons--its size, its appetite, its general unwieldiness.

No, no, Americans are just fine with elephantine gas-guzzlers; we just want them to look as if we're heading out to the Sierra or recently arrived from the veld. The curse was its image. No one drives a Lincoln Continental on the veld.

Recently, Ford tried to streamline the Lincoln in the hopes of making it appear more youthful, more fun, but so many mid-size cars have gone luxe, there was no place for a trimmed-down version. And you can't really mess with an icon.

The car was designed in 1938 at the behest of Edsel Ford, who wanted something swell and "continental"-looking to drive when he went to Florida for winter holidays, something befitting the head of a fast-growing, innovative company, something the neighbors would stare at and secretly covet. He got what he wanted, and for 60 years, it has remained just that. For all the tinkering and futzing, the Lincoln Continental hasn't changed all that much.

But we have.

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