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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2002 / 4 Shevat, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

It's a little like foreclosing on a Rockefeller -- So the question becomes:

In what kind of car will the rich guys arrive at the funeral of the Lincoln Continental?

The big news out of Detroit over the weekend was that the Ford Motor Co., whose name was once synonymous with success and profitability, will cut 35,000 jobs and shut down at least five plants. The smaller news was that, as part of this cost-cutting, four vehicles that were selling poorly will no longer be manufactured.

One of those cars is the Lincoln Continental.

Amazing. The Continental is being laid off. The Continental made its reputation as the automobile driven by the people who never had to give a moment's worry to being laid off -- Continental owners were the people who did the laying off, not the people victimized by it. So the news that, as thousands upon thousands of Ford employees are being let go, the Lincoln Continental is being let go, too. ...

Well, you probably should have seen it coming. The world -- even the world of corporate-suite big business -- is not a Lincoln Continental world anymore, and hasn't been for quite a while. The Continental -- at least the classic, boat-like Continental -- was an artifact of the era in which supremely wealthy men were not a bit reluctant to proclaim their richness by means of the size and heft of the cars they drove (or, more to the point, the cars in which they were driven). The stereotypical American rich-guy's car, in popular imagery, was the Cadillac -- but the Cadillac was flash, sizzle. The Continental was old money. Wherever you arrived in a Continental, the message was that you hadn't just arrived.

One phrase often used to describe the big Continentals was "slab-sided." That's what they looked like -- as if an enormous, solid slab of (very expensive) metal had been slathered onto their sides. Fort Knox on wheels. If a Continental had been a business office, it would have been the penthouse -- the whole floor. Continentals came in different colors, but in your mind they were always black.

Elvis Presley's friends will tell you that, although he was renowned for buying (and giving away) Cadillacs, he may very well have owned more Continentals. The Cadillac was for the glamorpuss part of Presley's life. When he wanted to affirm, in his own mind, that he was a stable and successful person of substance, he went with the Continental. (With a cigar in his mouth as he drove it, by the way. You would find a lot of cigars in Continentals.)

So what happened? Several things. Rich guys became much more skittish about showing the world they were rich. They didn't want a big, overbearing car to be their calling card. Men who once lusted after the old-style Continental eventually decided they wouldn't be caught dead in one. (John Kennedy literally was -- he was riding in one of the oceanliner-like Continentals in Dallas that day.)

Maybe that was the beginning of the end, although it didn't seem like it at the time. There were certainly long periods of national excess in the years between 1963 and last weekend, but there was also a steady downward trend from the peak of ostentation toward a sense of subdued quietude. Car services report that titans of industry no longer ask for stretch limousines -- in fact, they specifically stipulate they don't want them. They believe the huge cars work against them -- make their clients resent them. Some corporations would rather have their executives arrive at a board meeting in three separate chauffeured sedans than one stretch limo. It ends up costing more -- but looking as if it costs less.

That's the big-business style today -- CEOs showing up in anonymous-looking town cars, or in SUVs of the sort favored by suburban carpool moms and Secret Service agents. A fellow with his eyes on the corporate prize may once have yearned for a big old Lincoln Continental, but recently, evidently, such a desire never crossed his mind -- and if it did, it wouldn't have mattered. The Continentals weren't big anymore -- they, like the Ford Motor Co. itself, had long ago been downsized.

And now they're about to be gone for good -- given the pink slip. Unimaginable, really -- the man in the Continental was the one who sent people packing. Who's going to tell him that his car's position has been eliminated?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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