The early Fifties Lincolns have been overshadowed by the later land yachts and clapdoor cars of the Sixties, which is a shame because they’re really rather good…
Jeff Theobald was a man interested in everything automotive. He had a fascination for steam cars, military vehicles and classic cars including Corvettes and dragsters. Steve Theobald doesn’t know why his dad Jeff got this 1955 Lincoln Capri or even exactly when he bought it. “Dad passed away recently,” explains Steve, “and I’ve inherited his car collection. I remember riding around in the Lincoln years back and I think he must have bought it around 1990 or 91. He probably swapped it for something with the guy who imported it.”
The Lincoln had been off the road for about six years when Steve bought it from his dad. “Cosmetically it’s just the same as when he had it, but I’m going through it mechanically. I’ve only just got it into drivable condition again. The maiden voyage was to fill it up with my mates and drive up to the Ace Cafe!
“I’ve just put a new stainless steel exhaust on because the old one was something we’d built up out of parts and it had a couple of Cherry Bomb mufflers – that didn’t sound right on a Lincoln. I rebuilt the carburettor recently too which has helped the running, but I’m not sure it’s completely right on tick-over. I’ve put new tyres on and gone right through the brakes, got a new master cylinder and replaced some flexible joints – it’s drum brakes all round of course. I bought all the parts through Rock Auto – it’s cheaper than getting them sent over. It’s alright to work on but the engine is up so close to the firewall that the plug leads are a nightmare to change, in fact any connection at the rear of the engine is.”
To the races
Ford had plenty to offer in 1952. As well as a brand new Ford car range the Mercurys and Lincolns were all new too – although all three lines shared many styling cues.
The Lincoln Capri was intended to take a bite out of Packard and Cadillac sales. The Capri replaced the Cosmopolitan as Lincoln’s top model series and was offered as convertible, coupe and sedan. Earle MacPherson – the father of strut type suspension – was employed to improve Lincoln’s front end underpinnings.
His design had ball joints at the end of each control arm, with kingpin and spindle combined into a single piece. The result was reduced steering effort, improved tracking and removal of much of the dive under braking. One review called it “the nearest sensation to flying” and the “Pullman of the highway”. Lincoln said it was “a big car that handles like a sports car”.
Previous Lincolns had been criticised for a lack of power and poor engine reliability, but the new overhead valve V8 had no such issues. It put out 160bhp and was far more refined than the ageing flathead. In fact the cars had such power and handling that Lincoln began competing in the gruelling Carrera Panamericana Mexican Road Race and took the top five places in the International Standard Class. Overall production of 27,271 sounds like a successful enough year for a luxury car maker, but Lincoln, hampered by production number restrictions due to the Korean War, was in 19th place for model production – only Crosley built fewer cars in 1952. By comparison Cadillac was in 11th place with 90,259 of its cars finding buyers. Lincoln would never get higher than 14th until the Sixties.
With massive factory support Lincoln entered three coupes in the stock class of the 1953 Carrera Panamericana. They finished 1-2-3 in class with a privately entered Lincoln in fourth. Racing had indeed improved the breed. Lincoln’s power had jumped to 205bhp through a higher compression ratio and larger intake valves making Lincoln the first manufacturer to offer over 200bhp in a volume-production sedan. Although Steve’s ’55 rides and handles in a way that really belies its size and age I still wouldn’t fancy piloting it at over 90mph down a Mexican dirt road for 10 hours at a time!
Lincolns took first and second place in class in the 1954 Panamericana but the bigger race was among rival manufacturers looking to be the one to offer the most power. For 1955 Lincoln bored out its 317.5cu in V8 making it a 341cu in with 225bhp. A new high-lift camshaft, standard dual exhausts and a small compression boost meant nearly 10% more power than the previous year. It was the only year for that displacement and the first year for the Ford/Merc-O-Matic automatic transmission – which Lincoln branded the Turbo-Drive. The ’54s had used – and this may come as a shock – a Hydra-Matic supplied by General Motors. The new set up hauled the 4245lb Lincolns to 60mph in 12 seconds.
Steve’s was one of 10,724 sedans to roll off the line for the 1955 model year out of a production total of 23,675. Sticker prices for the Capris ran from $3750 to $4070.
Car Life Magazine declared it the “safest car of the year”. Lincoln cars were solidly built using the best materials available but rarely approached a third of that of Cadillac’s sales. A popular option was power steering which reduced parking effort from 40lb to five and the steering lock-to-lock from five to three and three quarter turns. A few Capris even included a rare factory-installed automatic luber that squeezed grease into the chassis lubrication points via a dash-mounted button.
By April of 1955, Lincoln enjoyed new status as a separate division with the formation of Lincoln-Mercury, but the styling was a facelift of the same old bodyshell.
New front and rear ends couldn’t hide the fact that Lincoln was lumped in with Kaiser, Willys and Studebaker as the only Detroit cars not to have a wrap round front windscreen. Again it was all too easy to mistake an expensive Lincoln for a lowly Mercury or a Ford. The Continental name returned in 1956 with dramatic coupe styling plus a terrifically high price and with the Lincoln Premiere top of the tree, the Capri was relegated to entry-level Lincoln. The bigger ’56 Lincoln made the previous cars look athletic, but by the end of the decade Lincolns were obese. All the more reason to prize the earlier cars like Steve’s.
“I’m going to have a play with the radio aerial next, it’s not electric it’s actually pneumatic and works off the engine vacuum,” says Steve. In that case then presumably the Lincoln also has vacuum windscreen wipers? “Well, one of them is,” laughs Steve, “sometime in the past the driver’s side wiper has been replaced with an electric motor but the passenger side is still vacuum.” Unusually the Lincoln has next to nothing in the way of options. “There’s no power steering or power brakes,” explains Steve, “the only option I’m aware of is the twin heaters. I don’t know much about the car, I seem to remember it was a cold state car that ended up in Arizona. The next job will be to tidy up the engine bay and I want to get underneath to paint and underseal the bottom, it’s never been welded that I can see. It’s got the power front seat but we disconnected it – can’t remember why. Oh, and the radio’s packed up, so if anyone fancies having a go at rebuilding it then let me know!
“It’s a nice car to drive once you get used to it. It’s a lot smoother and much more powerful than I expected. The three-speed automatic ’box shifts into second gear at about 5mph and just stays there. It amazes me that back in 1955 this was the kind of car you’d give your wife and it came without power steering.”
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