The pantheon of legendary American automobiles is small but strong; the Ford Mustang, the original Jeep, the Chevrolet Corvette, along with names like Thunderbird, Eldorado, Charger and Camaro. This line-up must also include the Lincoln Continental, the all-American luxury model that can lay claim to being America’s equivalent to Rolls-Royce. Back in the 1960s, a special edition of the Continental entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most expensive car, and the model has always had a strong pull for the country’s royalty, whether of the political or Hollywood variety.

1939 Lincoln Zephyr special for Edsel Ford

The 1939 Lincoln Zephyr Continental for Edsel Ford

It’s almost 80 years since the first Continental badge was placed on the droptop flagship of the Lincoln Zephyr. Just 404 examples of the Lincoln Continental Cabriolet were made from 1939 onwards, and over successive generations it has cemented its place in automotive history. Frank Lloyd Wright drove a Continental Mark I, while the Mark II, built between 1955 and 1957, found its way into the garages of Elvis Presley, the Shah of Iran and Frank Sinatra, among others.

The iconic Mark III arrived in 1961, an enduring piece of automotive minimalism that is still reverentially quoted today. Right angled, flat bonneted, wide and monumental, the Mark III made great virtue of its ‘coach doors’, each set opening away from the C-pillar for ease of access to the massive passenger compartment.

1961 Lincoln Continental four door car

The 1961 Lincoln Continental Mark III

After this triumph, Continental’s IV, V, VI and VII felt like rather lacklustre sequels, increasingly out of step with a fast-changing market. The model still had its fans – Givenchy did a 1982 edition and Versace put the finishing touches to a bespoke 1984-5 edition, but the glory days had passed. Plushness and luxury – and price – never dipped, but in 2002 the model was officially retired, as rival models from Europe and Japan elbowed out American luxury and the SUV became the vehicle of choice.

Current Land Rover design boss Gerry McGovern had a high-profile stint at Lincoln in these doldrum years, and his work included the striking 2001 Lincoln MK9 Concept, the 2002 Continental Concept and the 2004 Mark X. All made explicit reference to the iconic 1961 car, a personal favourite of McGovern’s.

1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III

A 1969 Continental Lincoln Mark III

Despite the critical success of McGovern’s designs, Lincoln bottled the Continental comeback for over a decade. It wasn’t until 2015 that another concept broke cover, this time heralding the arrival of a 10th generation model in 2016. This time, Lincoln got it right. The current Continental is comfortingly American in scale and presence, with detail design, proportions and an interior that are all world class.

Steering wheel and dashboard of the new Lincoln Continental

Inside the 1960s-inspired 80th Anniversary edition

Now the company has announced a new version to celebrate 80 years of the name. The 80th Anniversary Continental Coach Door Edition model revisits the best bit of the 1960s-era cars, with doors that offer up graceful access to a stretched rear compartment with two individual seats. Just 80 examples will be made (a lesser specced Coach model will also be available), with Lincoln throwing in membership of its ‘Black Label’ club of enhanced customer privileges.

Lincoln has teamed up with the British creative director Simon Doonan (and Barney’s creative ambassador-at-large), for the launch event in New York, which includes a window-like installation that surveys the past, present and future of Lincoln. We quizzed long-time ex-pat Doonan about the project. ‘I came to the US in the 1970’s when the streets were filled with outrageously designed oversized cars,’ he recalls, ‘I immediately fell for the Lincoln Continental because it combined futuristic design and glamour with a certain sophistication. It was Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk.

Inside the Lincoln Continental 80th anniversary edition model

The launch of the new model was orchestrated by Simon Doonan

Given access to the Lincoln archive – he describes it as ‘beyond intoxicating’ – Doonan has rifled through decades of luxury to inspire his installation. ‘Lincoln’s advertising imagery evokes that era when women wore "nylons" and men never left the house without a hat,’ he says. Doonan calls the end product ‘surreal and whimsical.’ ‘I think there is room for more experimentation and rule-breaking in car design,’ he adds, ‘right now the emphasis is on creating groundbreaking technology, driverless cars etc. I am hoping that design does not get lost in the shuffle.’

He is a confirmed fan of the Coach Door edition. ‘It’s an outrageous piece of design, but also very sophisticated and effortless,’ Doonan says, ‘it’s like a tailgate picnic, but for men in tuxes and women in cocktail dresses.’ Like him, Lincoln hopes the Coach Door model opens the way to a new era of bespoke luxury, taking the brand back to its headiest days. §