Story and photos by John Bellah
The annual LA Auto Show takes place late in the calendar year and allows those in the Los Angeles area to see the latest and greatest in automotive technology — smart cars, “green” technology, concept cars, new models and the latest in aftermarket accessories. While everyone was looking forward to viewing the 2013 models, the vintage Lincoln exhibit became the true star of this year’s show.
The seven-vehicle Lincoln Heritage Display showcased immaculate vintage Lincolns ranging from a 1929 Model L Dietrich convertible coupe to a 1961 Continental sedan. This was a one-day-only media event on Nov. 28, 2012, and taken down before the public was admitted. The star of the display was a 1956 Continental Mark II spinning atop a carousel. While most Mark II’s were painted standard colors such as white, black, burgundy or bronze, this particular Mark II was painted a unique but familiar violet blue.
Robert Ratinoff and his wife Nancy currently own the blue Continental that wowed crowds, and this was one of the few times it had been publicly shown since winning the Ford Trophy at the Lincoln Nationals in 1980. Ratinoff, being a dyed-in-the-wool car guy, developed a love for the Mark II when he noticed one driving down the street when he was 5 years old. Had he seen his unique blue Mark II that day, he probably would have been more interested in its driver.
About six years ago, Ratinoff began looking for a Mark II. After an extensive search, his quest led him to a restored Mark II in Missouri that was painted an unusual shade of violet blue. Ratinoff purchased the 50-year-old car and had it shipped to his home in southern California. Part of the purchase included a stack of paperwork documenting the extensive restoration in the late 1970s. It was only by carefully perusing these documents Ratinoff learned his car once belonged to Oscar-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor.
The beginning history on this car is cloudy, and there are two versions of how the car came to be owned by Taylor. The Liz Taylor Mark II is assigned VIN No. C56G3196 and shows a production date of May 28, 1956. Factory documentation lists this car as a Domestic Special Order (DSO) as it had optional air-conditioning and custom paint and trim. After assembly, it was delivered to Berl Berry, a Los Angeles Lincoln dealer. Exactly who ordered this car and how it was paid for remains a mystery. It could have been ordered by Taylor herself, as she reportedly only owned blue cars.
The following year, Taylor wed husband No. 3, Michael Todd, who is also listed as owning a Mark II (Todd’s Mark II is a late-production 1957 model). This car is also a DSO car, equipped with air conditioning and special gray paint.
The second version of the story is that Warner Brothers Studios gifted the Mark II to Taylor, again choosing the color combination to match her eyes.
The Warner Brothers’ version of the story also merits credibility as Taylor starred in its film “Giant,” which was released that year. Incidentally, Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, and his brother, Harry, are also listed as being Mark II owners, with Jack’s car also being listed as a DSO car. Perhaps a deal was hatched between Warner Brothers and Ford Motor Co., as Ford was known to provide celebrities with cars to promote its products.
Regardless of where the exact truth lies, the fact remains that the Continental Mark II was a car as special as a star. It was Ford’s effort to build a hand-built luxury car on the level of Bentley or Rolls-Royce. While the drivetrain utilized Lincoln components, the Continental Mark II was manufactured by Ford Motor Co.’s Continental Division and sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealerships.
From its Oct. 6, 1955, debut at the Paris Auto Show, the Mark II was powered by the “Y-block” Lincoln engine, which dates to 1952, and is different than the Ford and Mercury Y-block. Fed by a Holley four-venturi carburetor, the hand-tested 368-cid V-8 in each Mark II delivered 285 hp in 1956. That power was transmitted through Lincoln’s Turbo-Drive three-speed automatic transmission (essentially a beefed Fordomatic). For the following year, horsepower was bumped to 300 units. Engines and transmissions selected for the Continental Mark II were factory blueprinted and balanced upon assembly. After a 30-mile road test, the engine and transmission were disassembled, meticulously inspected, reassembled and given a final tune-up before the car was released.
Ford utilized only its most-skilled craftsmen to assemble the Mark II. Paint was meticulously applied, hand-sanded, rubbed and polished to perfection. The same care was utilized in upholstery and interior fittings. An example of the meticulous craftsmanship is the finned wheel covers. While less-expensive automobiles would have stamped wheel covers, each fin on the Mark II wheel cover was individually attached using two threaded fasteners per fin.
Standard Mark II equipment included power steering, brakes, seat, windows and wind wings; white sidewall tires; AM radio; tachometer; leather upholstery; carpeting; and heater. Thus, the Continental Mark II had a MSRP of $10,400 (the equivalent of $86,500 today). This was about double the cost of a contemporary Cadillac or Lincoln, and well into the Rolls-Royce/Bentley range. The only available option for domestic buyers was air conditioning, a $595 option, which also included tinted windows, side scoops in the rear fenders (on 1956 models) and 8.20 x 15 whitewall tires over the standard 8.00 x 15 tires.
Many Mark IIs were exported, and these models were equipped with a higher-capacity battery, stiffer export suspension for better handling, a foot-operated tire pump and the speedometer calibrated in kilometers.
The Mark II was a car of the rich and famous. The Shah of Iran, Howard Johnson of hotel and restaurant fame, President Dwight Eisenhower and his brother Milton, Senator Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, film producer Darryl F. Zanuck, actress Hedy Lamar, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley each owned a Mark II.
Ford Motor Co. produced 2,600 Mark IIs through the 1956 model year and only 444 examples in the first part of 1957 before it pulled the plug on the project. It’s estimated that Ford lost between $1,100-$1,200 per each Mark II produced. At that time, Ford ceased to be a private corporation and went public, and management deemed these losses unacceptable. The Continental Division was therefore dissolved and merged again with Lincoln for the 1958 model year.
The Continental Mark II was one of the most handsome automobiles produced in the 1950s and is certainly a milestone car. They remain to be treasured; of the 3,044 Mark II models produced, about half have survived.