aside postThe quest of a lifetime

Lincoln and the Search for the Holy Grille banner


Auto designers do an amazing job differentiating vehicles, considering most vary little dimensionally. Brand distinctions often involve a styling signature, such as the vertical taillight elements Cadillac has incorporated one way or another since the 1960s. BMWs have been easy to spot by their quad-round headlights, since the 1970s, and twin grilles, since the 1920s. Speaking of grilles, it was around 2004 that Audi helped re-popularize the over-sizing trend which is still their characteristic of note. In 2010, Lexus doubled down with a mega-sized spindle interpretation and, for good or bad, forged an unforgettable signature.

So, what about Lincoln? Well, there were the full-width taillights but, despite being invoked a few years back, I’m not sure their patchy use ever solidified in peoples’ minds. There were also the trunk lids, with faux spare tire hump. Though a little smarmy in its final iterations, the reference actually dates to the original Lincoln Continental, from 1940. But that’s just it, it was a trait tied to Continentals (apart from some Mercurys too… not digressing).

1940 Lincoln Continental and 1957 Continental

The 1940 Lincoln Continental (left) stored its covered spare at the rear due to its short hood and small trunk. For the 1956-57 (non-Lincoln) Continental Mark II (right), the spare tire was legitimately located behind the trunk hump. However, the Mark III and later humps were nonfunctional, style statements. Interesting side note: following the demise of the short-lived Continental brand, Mark series III through VI (and the first two years of VII) were not marketed as Lincolns but simply Continentals. It wasn’t until 1986 that the model quietly retired “Continental” and became the Lincoln Mark VII.

No, the iconic styling element that I associate with the brand comes from the 1960s: the Rolls-style grille. Although, despite three decades of heritage, chrome-boxed ornamentation is not terribly compatible with Lincoln’s current “quiet luxury” approach. Then again, it’s not totally clear what is appropriate considering they’re actually on their third round of grille designs since that blingy hallmark was retired. Here’s a look back at some of their more noteworthy efforts.

1936 Lincoln Zephyr Club Coupe

The 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr was a new model and sported a basic but, for the period, streamlined grille. At that time, Lincoln was still Lincoln Motor Company and the Zephyr was a marque, hence the hyphen.

1941 Lincoln Continental Coupe

Effective May 1, 1940, Lincoln became the Lincoln Division and in 1941 the Lincoln Continental replaced the Lincoln-Zephyr. The grille evolved sensibly.

Perhaps if Lincoln’s marketers had referenced the richness of heritage in their now-defunct-again winged grille, it would have achieved greater public acceptance. Well, that and better execution but we’ll get to that shortly.

1951 Lincoln Cosmopolitan Sport Sedan

This 1951 Lincoln Cosmopolitan was the last year for a peculiar design that was introduced, as a new model, for 1949. Typical of the period, its wide chrome grille was chromed, and had a chrome finish with chrome accenting to contrast the chrome surrounds. If you hadn’t noticed, the Cosmopolitan sedans featured ‘suicide’ doors.

Remember that the 1940s weren’t the only period from which Lincoln would draw inspiration for later styling touches. The best was yet to come.

1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible

This 1961 Lincoln Continental needs no introduction as it is arguably one of their most iconic models. Along with most other grilles of the period, Lincoln filled in the gaps with tight meshes and intricate patterns.

As the story goes, according to Lee Iacocca—president of Ford Motor Company at the time, it was his idea to adorn a Thunderbird with a “Rolls-Royce grille.” That was in September 1965 and the Mark III came out in April of 1968 (as a 1969 model) wearing what would become an identifying Lincoln trait for roughly 30 years.

1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III

This 1969 Mark III shared much of its components with the Ford Thunderbird but that wasn’t readily discernible; the boxy, upright grille helped insure that. This generation lasted through the 1971 model year.

1980 Lincoln Continental Mark VI Givenchy Ed Coupe

By the 1970s, pretty much every Lincoln adopted the Rolls grille and, eventually, blocky styling to compliment it. This 1980 Continental Mark VI was a festival of linear geometry. Although, in contrast, did you remember the headlights were yet round?

1992 Lincoln Town Car

This 1992 Lincoln Town Car is from the model’s second generation, running 1990 through 1997. It came out during the bar of soap period when traditional profiles were having their edges beveled. I found this generation to be attractive, in a straight-forward sort of way, while retaining Iaccoca’s ol’ blingy grille.

During the early to mid 1990s, Lincoln had been toying with grille designs that ranged from blasé to bizarre but the Town Car stayed the Rolls course. Then, in 1998, a substantially new Town Car came along and, while paying homage to the old, much of the bling had subsided. Although, the truly big news for 1998 was the Navigator and it too sported a new-design grille for Lincoln. In my opinion, the SUV wore the better looking of the two.

1998 Lincoln Navigator

The Lincoln Navigator turned out to be a pivotal vehicle introduction, unfortunately, in the long run, for Cadillac. Don’t get me wrong, I happen to be a big fan of this generation (and the next) but it has withered on the vine. Regardless, this might be my favorite of all the Lincoln grilles—and one of my favorite SUV front ends of all time.

2000 Lincoln LS

By this time, Lincoln was showing some real signs of life and it seemed they were starting to zero in on a look for their grilles. This 2000 LS was a fantastic looking car that was possibly a little too ahead of its time for Lincoln. Sales ran through 2006 with just over a quarter-million units being sold but its best sales year was 2000.

2006 Lincoln Zephyr

The subdued turbine-like vanes that had run vertically in Lincoln’s new grilles had gradually become a rote styling execution, as on this innocuous but also anonymous 2006 Lincoln Zephyr. Not unattractive but also not much of a nod to its namesake.

By 2007, Lincoln was again exploring a new course for their grilles, this time looking back for motivation. The intricate meshing indicates how far back they went.

2007 Lincoln MKX

With the 2007 MKX, it’s clear Lincoln attempted to tap the epic magic of their 1960s models; even incorporating full-width taillights. Independent of its fraternal Ford proportions, I happen to think the grille’s execution was very successful. Conversely, that execution may have been a little too ‘classic’ for modern premium tastes.

2007 Lincoln Navigator

That same year, the third generation of Navigator was introduced. My first thought when I saw it was, “ouch!” The memories it elicits of wearing braces are painful. Admittedly, some body colors reduce the glare but this 2007 design unnecessarily took complex to a new level, not a good level.

And there was more grille exploring…

2009 Lincoln MKS

In 2009, the MKS was added to Lincoln’s lineup, along with the winged grille design. This one was sort of a homogenization of new and old, very old. They’d reached all the way back to the original Lincoln-Zephyr and fused the vertical vanes still in use on other models, like the MKZ. Not stunning but not bad, and there was heritage.

Then, tragedy struck.

2010 Lincoln MKT

In terms of grilles, the 2010 MKT was to the 2009 MKS, what the 2007 Navigator was to the MKX: styling negligence in the name of brand language conformity. Mercifully put, the MKT was sort of a low point for the winged grille’s rebirth.

Following additional model design conformities across their line, Lincoln turned the vertical slats horizontal and seemed to finally hit their stride with the winged grille.

2015 Lincoln MKZ

There was something about the grille on the second-generation MKZ that was a little stunning. There was complexity, with dimension, that invited the eye to browse around.

The problem is, the damage seemed to have been done following years of mediocre offerings wearing winged grilles that ranged in execution from not that bad to bad. On its own, this was a handsome and well-integrated grille, with character-defining presence. Unfortunately, the mid-level model had to turn a ship around that, I think, had already taken on too much water.

So, Lincoln changed again.

2017 Lincoln MKZ

For 2017, the MKZ wears yet another new grille. It has been described as derivative (of several brands) and I have to agree. It would be hard to describe it as unattractive or not premium but I think calling it conventional is entirely fair.

I actually started to write this as a simple commentary on Lincoln’s latest grille switch but, as usual, I carried on. One of the reasons it’s been on my mind is because of the neighbors, next door.

For as long as I’ve lived here, their fleet was comprised of Volkswagens; initially a Passat and CC, followed by a Touareg and Tiguan. Curiously, about six months ago, a new MKC was parked in their driveway and I just figured it was a guest. When the Touareg didn’t come back and the MKC stuck around, I realized there had been dissension in the VW camp. Then, about three months later, a new MKZ showed up and it too stuck around, in place of the Tiguan. They had made a noteworthy brand switch and the fringe benefit to me was increased familiarization with the winged grille. I like it, in fact I like how it looks on both of the models.

You know, I was among those that lamented Lincoln’s winged grille. So, I should be happy now that its gone, right? I’m not, because I think I’ve changed my mind. I like the wings and, though they were short lived, I think they had a lot of potential to make Lincolns stand out. Potential they were just tapping in to.

Well, I’ve shared my opinions on the matter, now I’d like to read yours.