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Art of the design – 1940 Lincoln Continental

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s redesign of the 1940 Lincoln Continental. Photos from Hemmings archives.

Frank Lloyd Wright was that rarest of architects whose name and work transcended his field, becoming part of the lexicon of 20th century culture, in the U.S. and beyond. His works such as Fallingwater, Robie House and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum remain familiar to those who don’t even consider themselves aficionados of architecture. Wright’s status as a celebrity remains unrivaled in the field decades after his death.

But Frank Lloyd Wright was also a car guy, interested not only in the aesthetics of a vehicle’s design, but in the importance of the role of the automobile in modern life. Robie House, in Chicago’s Hyde Park, the last and best known of Wright’s influential Prairie Style homes, finished in 1909, includes a three-car garage, complete with a mechanic’s pit in one bay and car washing equipment in another. Wright loved his cars.

Wright’s unmitigated talents might have only been rivaled by his tastes for the good life. In addition to being concerned with every element of his structures, from the edifice to the furniture to the floors to the stained glass, right down to the dinnerware, Wright also took great interest in his personal appearance. Although financial strife was a frequent visitor to his life, what with three marriages and some seven kids of his own, along with an adopted child, Wright still liked to dress in the finest clothes–and drive the nicest cars.

His neighbors nicknamed his 1908 Stoddard-Dayton Model K the “Yellow Devil” as the architect would tear up the roads with the 45hp two-seat roadster capable of 60 MPH. Wright’s race-proven Model K also provided plenty more for his Oak Park, Illinois, neighbors to gossip about as he was often spotted in it with his mistress, the wife of a prominent client.

While Stoddard-Dayton had earned a reputation for building very well engineered and rigorously tested vehicles, Wright’s taste in cars clearly was based on style to go with performance. Over the years, the array of automobiles owned by Wright reads like a collector’s “must do” list: a coachbuilt Cadillac from the early 1920s, two Cord

L-29s, a Packard Speedster, a Jaguar, a prewar AC 16/80 roadster, a Bentley, Riley–and so forth. When Wright designed the interior of the Park Avenue showroom in New York for foreign car import impresario Max Hoffman in the 1950s, he took as payment for his services a pair of Mercedes-Benzes–and opulent 300S sedan and a 300 SL Gullwing sports car.

There were other cars that populated the garages at the various Wright homes, including several Crosley Hotshots and American Bantams. Later in life, a 1955 Lincoln Capri became part of the collection.

But the car most associated with Frank Lloyd Wright would have to be the original Lincoln Continental, of which Wright owned a pair: a 1940 convertible and a 1941 coupe, the former customized to his discerning tastes and both painted in a deep brick shade of red called Cherokee.

1940 Lincoln Continental

Said to have been visually overwhelmed at the sight of the Lincoln Continental during the Chicago Auto Show of 1939, Wright ordered a convertible, which Lincoln completed on December 28, 1939. While the stories differ on what happened (either Wright, his son-in-law or his daughter crashed the car), the Lincoln was extensively damaged. Rather than return the car to its factory-original condition, the man with strong opinions on design sketched a new look for his 1940 Continental.

Contracting with the Ideal Body Shop of Madison, Wisconsin, Wright had the Continental recreated as a town car, with the rear roof fixed and a removable section over the driver, who also looked through a cut-down windshield. Originally built with a tan top to match its tan leather, Wright’s Continental had other unique features, most notably in the fixed rear section. A removable, leather-covered piece could be installed to protect the driver and any front seat passenger during inclement weather.

Wright insisted on having no backlite at all and just two semicircular, half-moon windows, one on each side. Apparently, not only did Wright not like to look back, but he also liked his privacy while riding in what had to be quite the conspicuous car. The distinctive look of Wright’s customized Continental surely polarizes and few would argue that it enhances the look of Bob Gregorie’s masterwork.

Around the same time, noted industrial and automotive designer Raymond Loewy also acquired a Continental convertible, his a 1941 model. Loewy treated it to a very similar customization, though he used smaller, fully round side windows and kept the backlite, albeit in much smaller form than the factory coupe’s rear window. Loewy also incorporated a transparent plastic removable roof section and something akin to a low shark fin on the rear where the erstwhile Continental spare tire normally would be found.

Wright purchased his second Continental, a coupe, in 1941, and also insisted on having that one delivered in the same shade of Cherokee Red. Wright owned both cars until his death at age 92 in 1959. Both cars passed through several hands, the modified 1940 convertible once being owned by Wright aficionado and big-spending collector Tom Monaghan, of Detroit Tigers and Domino’s Pizza fame. Monaghan subsequently sold the car to Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who is known for such films as Lethal Weapon.

Silver, also a big fan of Wright’s work, was able to acquire Wright’s other Continental and had both cars restored. For a while, both were displayed in a Wright-designed home in the Los Angeles area that Silver also restored.

Wright’s legacy lives on as he continues to inspire architects the world over, as does his attempt at remaking one of the most distinctive automobile designs ever to come from from Detroit.

This article originally appeared in the May, 2015 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.