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The 1939 Lincoln Zephyr’s Design Was Ahead of its Time

1939 Lincoln ZephyrWhat started as a project in the early 30s to fill the gap between the Ford Custom V8 and Lincoln Model K became the iconic Lincoln Zephyr, a car New York’s Museum of Modern Art named as one of the world’s most functional and influential automobile designs.


The Lincoln Zephyr Project

Edsel Ford and E.T. “Bob” Georgie worked for over five years on a new model that would offer luxury at a more affordable price. To keep costs low, a new V12 was developed around Ford’s famous V8-flathead design rather than downsizing the Model K’s more complex engine. At 267 c.i. (4.4 liters), it was barely larger than the Ford motor, but the extra cylinders added smoothness. The running gear was also conservative, using transverse springs and cable-operated brakes, technologies that were verging on obsolete.


Influenced by Airplanes because Airplanes Are Cool

Ford and Georgie chose to make the Zephyr stylish by connecting it to the public’s ongoing fascination with airplanes. To that end, the car used a plane-style, monocoque chassis designed in cooperation with aircraft specialist John Tjaarda. Since it didn’t need a separate frame, the car sat lower to the ground than its contemporaries.

The airplane theme continued through Georgie’s styling, which gave the exterior a streamlined shape, a risky move after Chrysler’s disastrous Airflow cars, but art deco touches were enough to keep the car from looking too alien.


Turning a Success into a Masterpiece

The first Zephyrs reached dealers in late 1935, accounting for 80 percent of Lincoln’s sales. This success allowed Georgie to pull out all the stops for the mid-cycle refresh. The conservative grill was replaced with an iconic waterfall design that stretched over the fenders, while the bumpers and running boards were reduced in size to blend into the streamlined shape.

Inside, the airplane theme continued with a symmetrical dash that housed a massive speedometer in the center, akin to the modern Cooper Mini. A long shift lever mounted in the dash meant easier gear changes than standard column shifters. Hydraulic brakes, a torque-tube rear axle and an improved engine producing 110 hp made it much easier to drive. In fact, sales literature at the time aimed the car at women, emphasizing its mix of ergonomics and luxury.

Production ended in 1942 to shift to war production, but the underlying design would underpin every Lincoln built from 1941 until 1948, proving the Zephyr’s worth was in more than just its styling. Still, the car’s unique looks have made it a favorite of classic car collectors and hot rodders alike.

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