The case of the misplaced auto plant

MCG couldn’t find that darned old auto factory anywhere. Naturally, it was under his nose the whole time. 

 

Above is a very familiar photograph in the collector car world. A legion of auto writers (MCG included) have used this old PR image to illustrate their stories about the car pictured, the stately Continental Mark II. Often mentioned in these articles is the building in the shot, typically identified as the “Continental Division plant on Oakwood Boulevard.”

Sidebar: Now is a good time to mention that technically, the 1956-57 Continental Mark II was not a Lincoln. It used a Lincoln drivetrain and was sold and serviced through the Lincoln dealer network, but the Continental Division was regarded by Ford as a stand-alone entity—hence the brand new building above with the elegant signage on its facade.

It was after churning out one of these Continental stories some years back that MCG happened to mention the well-known photo to friend Bob Casey, transportation curator of the Henry Ford Museum. “Oh, yes. I know that photo,” he said. “Hey, where was that building, anyway?”

Du-uh. At that moment, MCG realized he had no idea. It was one of those things he thinks he knew at some point in the distant past, but if he did, he was unable to summon up the info from his creaky memory banks. MCG had mislaid an entire auto plant and now he would have to go track it down again.

If you’re not familiar with the area, this might be harder than it sounds. The Ford mega-complex in Dearborn stretches out nearly a mile along its Oakwood Boulevard side and includes dozens of buildings arranged blocks deep. And naturally, the lovely Continental signage in the photo would have been removed decades ago.

So it took some looking around, but MCG was able to locate the building. Actually, the building’s address is on Oakwood, but it’s at the far end of the Ford sprawl, and the unique facade shown in the photo doesn’t face Oakwood but Interstate 94,  where, luckily, it’s visible from the road if you happen to be looking for it. Here’s an aerial view:

Though a wing has been added to the right of the frame, there’s the building in our photo. This facility is still in use by Ford today as a pilot plant, where production lines are developed and tested. If you’d like to perform your own drive-by, here’s a map with the plant’s exact location.(17000 Oakwood Boulevard, Allen Park, MI.)

The red diamond marks the spot at the north-most corner of I-94 (Detroit Industrial Expressway) and Oakwood Boulevard. By the way, the rail line shown crossing Oakwood on our map is Henry Ford’s old DT&I Railroad featured previously at Motor City Garage. If, as long as you’re in the neighborhood, you’d like to view the electric railroad’s catenary trestles, this is a good spot. The rail line, which features some double and triple trestles along this stretch, runs northeast from here straight into the gigantic Ford River Rouge plant. A few more photos:

When the Continental Division was folded after the 1957 model year, the plant became home base for the new Edsel brand.  Here, a 1958 Edsel convertible duplicates the Continental Mark II’s pose. But then Edsel soon went kaput, and the building eventually was converted into a pilot plant. Proper name: Ford New Models Production Development Center.

Finally, here’s a view of the plant when it was nearly new, taken from the westbound lanes of Interstate 94, when the highway itself was relatively new as well. Though the greenery is more mature, the view today from this spot is essentially the same. Just ahead is Exit 206A/206B for Oakwood Boulevard.

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42 thoughts on “The case of the misplaced auto plant

  1. Love the scholarship in this, Bill. As a former Dearbornite, I’ve passed these more times than it would be possible to count. The really interesting part is that Continental did not build bodies in Allen Park — they just assembled the vehicles.

    Mark II bodies were built and painted at Ionia Mfg. Co. which had originally made their bones by carving out GM station wagons. Interestingly, they also handled Edsel trim work. Later, the company was known as Mitchell-Bentley, and ultimately as A.O. Smith/Inland. I’m fairly certain that A.O. Smith handled the Shelby Mustang for 1968-69 due to their experience with fiberglas and GRP finishing.

    There are completed assembled vehicles circulating (albeit, few) that carry the plant code “S” and likely a very low serial number. I will defer to any Ford experts here, but my hunch is that few pilot vehicles were ever registered with private owners, because Ford did not want the liability issues related to their production.

    One tantalizing tidbit surfaced on Fordflashback.com: an email inquiry from an owner of a SOHC 1966 Galaxie. It carried the proper engine code “D” and surfaced in the downriver area, not far from the former home of Jacques Passino, head of the Ford racing program. Passino actually had a SOHC company car, a white XL500 4-speed. While one doubts the possibility of such a vehicle leaving company ownership, it remains a mystery.

  2. All of the Mark IIs were sold to the public, including the two “cobbled” cars made on Mark II chassis with altered ’54 Lincoln bodies. The only Mark II I know of that never made it into public hands was the Mark II “Retractable”, made by Hess & Eisenhardt, to test the top mechanism as a potential option for the Mark II. Continental spent $2.9 million developing the top, but it was never used on the Mark II. It saw duty as the Ford Skyliner metal top and then covered in fabric for the ’61 Lincoln convertible.

    Hess & Eisenhardt also made two convertibles, which were offered at $18,000 when the Sports Coupe was $10,000. They had no takers. Derham offered the same conversion, which ended up in the hands of the WCF family after it came off the show car circuit.

    The “Retractable” is rumored to still exist, after being taken home by one of the engineers when summarily dismissed when the program was cancelled in late ’56. It was rumored to be walled up in a garage in Dearborn for fear of the engineer losing his Ford pension.

    One of the Ford engineers working at Hess & Eisenhardt sent me original Polaroids of the “Retractable” under construction.

    http://i244.photobucket.com/albums/gg18/barry2952/1%20Mark%20II%20docs/Retractable.jpg

  3. Yep. Ionia Mfg and all its siblings and successors make an incredibly complex story. There should be a book, but unfortunately the target audience is me, you, Myron, and seven other people.

    • I recall reading some letters from some frustrated Continental executives about the slow delivery of the first production run of bodies in white. The quality wasn’t good and the supply too slow so production was shifted to M-B. Does anyone know the name of the original manufacturer. My car was probably made by them as it’s the 137th car made.

  4. I knew that Continental was a separate line but I see the gunsight logo on the building. I associate that logo with Lincoln, but I grew up when every Lincoln was a Continental. Was the gunsight originally the emblem of the Continental division exclusively?

    • The logo was designed specifically for the Mark II. Lincoln had previously used an 8-point star and a knights head, nodded to on the key hole cover on the trunk lid. The “Continental Star” was created just minutes before the Division was introduced to the Ford BOD. An interesting fact is that the hood ornament wasn’t built by Ford, but by an outside gun sight manufacturer as Ford’s foundries were incapable of producing such a fine casting.

  5. Ford in developing the retractable finally decided on using it in their Ford lineup due to the fact the volume return would make the cost of devolopment and engineering more profitable using it in their high volume division as opposed to Lincoln or Continental.

    • Actually, the retractable lid was a Continental Division project. The division spent $2.9 million of the project. Had Continental been reimbursed for this sum they wouldn’t have lost $1,000 a car.

  6. @Andy DInardi: I’ll try to keep this straight as I can. If I get it wrong, I hope Barry, Bob & Co. will help me out…

    1956-57: Continental is a stand-alone division with one product, the Mk II. Continental star is introduced on hood and deck lid

    1958-60: Continental is part of Lincoln division, including star

    1961-80 All Lincolns are Continentals, star generally used.

    1981-2001 Lincoln Town Car in production. Is not a Continental but does use stylized star badging.

    2002 Last Lincoln Continental discontinued, Taurus based, used stylized Continental star badging.

    Also, the Continental designation was apparently dropped from the Lincoln Mark series part way through the Mk VII model, but the Mark VII and Mk VIII continued to use star badging.

    And recent Lincolns — Navigator, Blackwood, LS. Zephyr, MKZ, etc are not Continentals but employ the star badge. So at some point the Lincoln brand assimilated the star badge but then eventually disassociated the Continental from it.

    • MCG, nope. Although later Continental owner from later years think they have something special it’s just a model designation, nothing more. They built the Continental Marks out of the same parts bins on the same assembly lines as the Sedans, Coupes and T-birds at Wixom.

      The last and only Continental is the Mark II. The rest are Lincolns. Some Mark owners are simply delusional.

    • I hope they get rid of their alphabet soup soon. To me, LincolnContinental is one word. They made a mistake when they used the prestigious name for their standard model but made a bigger mistake when they dropped it altogether. It takes years to build name recognition.

      I understand that the Mark II is the only genuine Continental, but I’ll always associate it with the 61-69 Lincolns. Those are cars to be proud of, but the name should have been retired until the Mark III. That was always just a Mark III to me and never a Continental. Cadillac cheapened their Fleetwood brand in a similar way.

      I’m anxious to see if Lincoln can pull themselves out of the hole. There hasn’t been much to be excited about since 1970. They need an outstanding design and a move out of the truck business.

      • Nothing was worthy of the Continental name after the Mark II, IMO, of course. I like the ’70s Lincolns. I have a triple black 22,000 mile car that rides like a dream.

        • I have the current MKZ. Although it’s nothing like the Lincolns of old it is a nice car, very reliable, drives well and is only considereed an entry level luxury car by todays standards. The all new 2013 I hear is upgraded quite a lot and I’ll most likely get one.

          • We were asked to be part of a video shoot at the Edsel Ford estate with Edsel Ford II being interviewed on the legacy of Lincoln. It’s an 8 minute segment being aired next Sunday on the CBS morning show. I think the design of the 2013 they had there was very pleasing to the eye. At least, I found nothing offensive. However, it was not built for the large person. I’m 6’5″ and if I could get into it I’d need a chiropractor to get me out. The car is diminutive, compared to my ’77 Townie. I think that losing the size made it less Lincoln. I was surprised to see Edsel II state that Lincoln would never build an uber-luxury car like the Mark II again. Too bad.

            Personally, I think Lincoln should sell Mercury level cars and sell high-end Continentals as a separate brand and platform. What do I know?

            There were three cars there for the shoot. There was a stately ’40 Zephyr sedan, a ’41 Continental convertible and our Mark II convertible. I told them it wasn’t a Lincoln, but they wanted it, anyway. I did, however, cringe when Edsel II called it a Lincoln Continental Mark II.

            http://i244.photobucket.com/albums/gg18/barry2952/1%20Mark%20II%20docs/photo2.jpg

          • Prior to my MKZ I had a Mercury Grand Marquis and I like driving the MKZ a whole lot more. The MKZ has more back seat leg room, performs better and gets far better fuel economy. I’am 6′ 1″ and the car fits me so I’am going to check out the 2013 as soon as one comes in at the local Lincoln dealer.

  7. Could they name that building after my wife so I can get a new one every few years?

    Keep the history lessons going Mac, very enjoyable!

  8. It’s true that from 1961 to 1980, all Lincolns were Continentals – but not all Continentals were Lincolns. Ford maintained a sort of pretense that the Continental Division still existed – that is, the Mark cars never used “Lincoln” badging, nor did their brochures. At a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in 1972, for example, you could buy a “Lincoln Continental” (2- or 4-door) or a “Continental Mark IV.”

    • All marketing nonsense. I think it’s hilarious that current owners of old Marks think their car is something special and different from the Coupes and Sedans. Somehow, they believe that the Continental Division still exists, when it never really made it past May of 1956, when the program was cancelled by Edsel. I suppose you could say it ended in 1958 when the assets were rolled into Lincoln, but production ended long before that.

      • 1958 sales literature still treats Continental as a separate make and the Continental cars don’t carry any Lincoln badging. In 1959-60 the literature subtly transitions into calling the top end models the “Lincoln Continentals.”

        • Built in a different plant by different people and different management and totally different construction, and advertised by people that wanted to trade on the previous division’s high-end name. Like you said, it was sales literature.

          I grew up with my father in the advertising business. I became cynical of sale literature as a source of facts.

  9. I was selling Lincolns back in 73 to 75 and the Marks sold very well. In 73 a Mark stickered for around $10400.00 and every one was sold at MSRP. No discounts were offered in 73 and we sold every one we could get our hands on. A flat commission of $250.00 was paid to the salesman. The dealer was selling about 40 a month with no problem.

  10. Bit more down memory lane: I remember my dad coming hom and tell me that he was going to be part of the new M-E-L division that would take over the Special Projects building across from the Rotunda, which was Henry Ford’s last headquarters. Dad met mom there after the war. I remember because he told me on my 7th birthday, Jan 15. He was told prior to the official public announcement. He was part of the future pricing analysis for any products coming out of that new division. Also remember the time he came home a few years later to say the the E in M-E-L would be removed, becuase the car was being cancelled. A few weeks after that he brought a giant box of papers home with some of the original papers for the Edsel product plans. I still have them in the attic with all his war medals. He took me over to see the Kennedy assassination car in the garage when it was brought back to that building to take out the bloodied interior and get it ready for HF museum donation a few years later. And yes, I saw the Rotudna burn down as well. Quite a lot of history for that small area of Dearborn.

    • I was under the impression that the Kennedy limo went right to Hess & Eisenhardt for refit when the authorities were done with it, but I could be wrong.

      I was 10 when the Rotunda burned, but lived a distance from it, in Oak Park. That must have been a sight to see. From what I understand by 1962 it had become the repository of a ton of Ford records. I heard rumors that there were some prototypes and show cars in there, too.

      • There was a karge tunnel between Rotunda and MEL/Mercury headquarters that stored a TON of archive material (bomb proffed shelter), thatv was sealed off at the Rotunda end when that place was demolished. I got to peak in with my dad, but was never allowed inside. The Kennedy lincoln may have come from Hess or was on its way there when we saw it. All I recall is what dad said and what I saw.

        • Since Ford owned the car, I believe, I could see how it would have come to headquarters before being sent to H & E. I believe the car was retrofitted to its current configuration, returned to service and donated to the museum years later.

          Is that correct?

  11. Where can I get some info on the Rotunda? In 1957, my family took a train from Texas to Dearborn Mi. to pick up a new Mercury ordered thru the local dealer. I remember it was a big show thing, FOMOCO employees sat us in a theater style setting, possibally the rotunda, opened the curtains and on a revolving platform, showed us our new ’57 Merc. It must have been a deler promo thing. Trying to get some info or history on this if anyone knows.

  12. When you consider how many significant special interest cars traced their heritage, one way or another, to Ionia, one could put together a pretty good car show out of those cars: the woodies, Corvettes, Shelby Mustangs, the Continental Mark IIs, Nash Healeys, Kaiser Golden Dragons, Packard show cars, and GM station wagons from the late ’50s into the early 1960s. I’m surprised that local boosters don’t put on a big annual show for cars with ties to Ionia. There’s a car show there every year but it doesn’t feature cars with local ties.
    Ronnie Schreiber
    Cars In Depth

  13. Interesting tidbit: With the automobiles divisions in that building, the Continental Division came first, then the Edsel Division.

    In Los Angeles, there was an Edsel dealership on La Brea, north of Wilshire Blvd. After Edsel was discontinued, it became the headquarters for Continental Graphics, a large printing company in Los Angeles! The Los Angeles building kind of resembles the Michigan building in some respects too. Coincidence?

    http://districtlabrea.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/story-bluelabrea.jpg

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