Forgotten makes: No 84 Lincoln Zephyr

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Bargain twelve

Number 82 in this series (Motor Sport, July 1988) dealt with the Zephyr light-car of 1919, which is not to be confused with the later Zephyr made by Lincoln Cars. More readers will recall the latter, although it is seldom seen these days and has been largely forgotten outside the realms of specialist clubs.

When it surfaced in 1935, the Lincoln Zephyr was to British eyes flamboyant – not quite the kind of car for “Land Rover” or “Lady Lanchester”, although I remember pioneer motorist Commander Grahame-White was quite fond of it. It was notable for its V12 engine in what was a comparatively cheap machine – only possible because Ford (of which Lincoln Cars was a subsidiary) had after much toil and expense solved the problem of manufacturing a low-cost V8 by casting the blocks and crankcase as one unit. This was such as great breakthrough for the Ford Motor Company that by 1934 it found it possible to play down the four-cylinder cars which had been produced since 1932 alongside the epoch-making V8.

The Lincoln Motor Company of Detroit was founded in 1920 by Henry M Leland, who in earlier days had been associated with Henry Ford, had supplied engines to Oldsmobile, and (as chief engineer) had based the first Cadillacs on the simple Fords of the time.

In 1915 he introduced the first Cadillac V8, copied from the 1910 De Dion Bouton V8, six years after the company had been absorbed by General Motors. Thereafter, the Cadillac name was synonymous with the V8 configuration, so it was no surprise that after resigning from GM in 1917 to start his Lincoln Motor Co Leland’s first car was a big side-valve V8 luxury offering. And a fine motor car it was.

The ironic thing is that old Henry Ford, who by 1922 had tuned out nearly seven million examples of the lowest-priced automobile in the world, should have become interested in the financially-ailing Lincoln concern. What is more, instead of using his purchase as extra manufacturing capacity for his expanding Model T business, he continued the Lincoln tradition of building big luxury cars.

This seems to have been too much for Henry Leland and his son Wilfred, who both resigned within months of Ford’s takeover. They had established the Lincoln as a fine and respected make, capable of some 70 mph from its pressure-lubricated 5.8-litre engine, but in keeping its price down to a competitive $4300 they apparently skimped on the quality of the bodywork – a decision which probably contributed to their downfall.

Henry Ford might have been expected to continue with such economy measures or introduce a smaller, less expensive car, but did neither. He was no doubt delighted that he would soon be selling luxury cars as well as the famous “Tin Lizzie” or “Flivver” which had opened up the outbacks of the American continent and given wheels to the world since its first assault on the domination of the horse in 1908.

His prestige was enhanced when President Coolidge became a Lincoln user in 1942, and indeed the White House seemed to become addicted to the make: Franklin D Roosevelt had a V12, Harry Truman an open Lincoln in 1950 and John F Kennedy a Continental. However, Ford realised that it would not be politic to use his name on cars at both ends of the price-spectrum, so the Lincoln remained a Lincoln, and has done so into modern times.

It was soon introduced to British motorists. One of the first Lincolns ready for assessment by the Press was a fine 586cc tourer, in the summer of 1923. This was priced at £1200, at a time when a Packard tourer of similar engine capacity cost £1345, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost chassis £1850, and no prices were quoted for the Cadillac.

This Lincoln was found to be a comfortable car with good acceleration. Its outstanding feature was an excellent top-gear performance: it was not necessary to change down for hills as steep as Guildford High Street, Kingston Hill or Robin Hood Hill, and so smooth was the clutch that it was even feasible to start in this gear! The engine was very quiet, apart from a slight whine, possibly from the dynamo which fed the Delco coil-ignition, and the most noticeable noise was the hum of the 33 x 5 tyres on the tarmac.

Interesting details included an electric carburettor heater which operated in conjunction with the air shutter, an early form of automatic cigar-lighter, a folding steering-wheel for easy access, locks on just about everything including the spare wheel-rims, courtesy lamps (almost unknown at the time) to the rear compartment, an inspection lamp with a long flex (as had the cigar-lighter for use by back-seat passengers), and a steering-column lever for dipping the headlamps. Brakes were the subject of some criticism, but the bands were to be enlarged; the V8 made carburettor and valves rather inaccessible, but the big car gave 13.1 mpg. The agent in this country was SJ Frost of the Automobile emporium in Praed Street, London.

So much for the first of the big Henry Ford Lincolns. By the time Lincoln Cars had established a headquarters on the Great West Road at Brentford, under the directorship of Edsel Ford the Rt Hon Lord Perry MBE, CE Sorensen and Sir Malcolm Campbell MBE, the Lincoln Zephyr was in production beside the larger models.

After Henry Ford had finally replaced the immortal Model T with updated four-cylinder cars, he suffered fierce competition from Chevrolet’s new six-cylinder models, and he retaliated with his famous V8. The complexity of rival engines (it is said that in the course of the intensive research Ford Thoms, on Ford’s orders, obtained nine different V8s for the technicians to study, these presumably including Cadillac, La Salle, Viking, Oakland, Cunningham and Peerless, while a Lincoln unit or drawings of it would be easily available) convinced him that a new approach would be needed if a low-cost V8 was to be successfully marketed, and his company’s advanced foundry methods eventually made possible the simple monoblock engine.

The Ford V8 was to prove a sensation, providing vivid acceleration for an almost unbelievably low price. Success in the Elgin stock-car races and adoption by American and British police forces enhanced its allure.

Henry Ford was conscious that there was a big gap in his catalogues between the Fords and the Model-K Lincolns, and the solution was the “interim” Zephyr, which would have the Lincoln name for prestige and a V12 engine like its namesakes, but would sell at a low price, reaping the benefits of the problems solved I the evolution of the V8.

The small Lincoln, which had all the sales-appeal you would expect of a V12, appeared in 1935. Its 70mm x 95mm (4375cc) 110 SAE hp engine developed about the same power per litre as the V8, but at a higher peak speed of 3900 rpm, and with the advantage of even smoother torque. A four-door sedan cost £480 in Britain in 1936, and was good for 0-60 mph in 15 seconds, 90.9 mph over the Brooklands half-mile, an ascent of the Test Hill at 22.24 mph, and 16-17 mpg (the equivalent Ford V8 saloon cost £250, and recorded 0-60 in 17.5 seconds, 87.38 mph, a 22.04 mph ascent and 17-20 mpg). There was a weight penalty of 5 cwt over the V8 more space within and more bulk without, while the annual tax was five guineas more for the Zephyr at £25.15s.

The Zephyr had to endure some of the V8’s teething troubles, the through-the-block exhaust manifolding giving rise to cooling problems although the water pumps were already in the cylinder blocks – a modification not used on the V8 until 1937. To effect a partial cure, the Zephyr’s water capacity was increased from 27 to 30 quarts and the radiator area from 391 sq in to 464 sq in by 1940. Both cars had three-speed gearboxes, and Henry’s dislike of hydraulic brakes meant using self-energising cable brakes, with 12in drums as on the Ford but with a lining area 168in less due to increased efficiency.

The 10in longer wheelbase and greater weight of the Zephyr showed up short-comings in the transverse springing which Henry Ford insisted on keeping, in spite of revised mountings; a front strut had to be added to restrict sideways float, and this was retained even when torsion-bar stabilisers were fitted in 1940.

The big Lincoln-K floundered in 1939, by which time the unitary-construction Zephyr had at last acquired hydraulic brakes and a steering-column gearshaft in place of the previous year’s dashboard lever. After the war the emphasis switched back to bigger Lincolns, but many will remember the Zephyr (not, of course, to be confused with the six-cylinder Ford Zephyrs which appeared in 1951) as an inexpensive means of driving behind twelve cylinders. WB

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