So you know we like old German cars, and you may know that we (at least I) like some of those cars best when they burn diesel fuel. But what if you combined (arguably) the best that the American luxury car industry had to offer with the glorious, if loud-ish, efficiency of a German inline-six diesel? German precision and American plush? It might just work – and this 1984 Lincoln Continental Givenchy Diesel in Gloversville, NY for $6,500 could just be the ticket to finding out.
Mercedes-Benz first proved to the motoring public that you could have both luxury and diesel efficiency in the same car with the late-1970s introduction of the W116 300SD turbodiesel. They took the short-wheelbase S-class sedan of the time and plunked a turbocharged version of the existing 3.0 OM617 inline-5 diesel into it. This was after extensive testing of the concept in platforms including the C-111 supercar. The car sold well AND helped the good folks at Mercedes-Benz bring up their corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) numbers while performing nearly as well as the EPA/DOT-strangled sixes they offered at the time. So it was no surprise that the same motor found its way into the newer W126 S-Class as well as the venerable W123 range including coupes sedans, and wagons. Yup – diesel engines became part of the luxury lifestyle in the U.S. thanks to the folks at Mercedes.
General Motors saw this happening, but instead of buying motors from the Germans or investing heavily in real R&D, they took a few of their existing V6s and V8s, made a few tweaks, and released some of the worst and most unreliable diesel motors ever. I kid you not. You can still find them out there today, but my advice to you is run away – fast. Power from the GM Diesels ranged from 85-120hp and 160-220 lb-ft of torque – but that’s not the whole story. Failures from these motors included head bolts, fuel system seals, and timing chains compounded by transmission problems at the same time. Many GM diesels owners replaced them with gas engines, while others just scrapped the whole car. There were class action lawsuits and all that, but that’s an article for another day. Later GM diesels were more reliable, but by then the ship had sailed. Ford – well, Lincoln to be specific – sat back and munched on their popcorn while this all went down. As they came to the realization that perhaps there was something to this diesel car thing (probably about 4 years too late), they took a slightly different approach.
Lincoln introduced their relatively sleek and aerodynamic front-engine, rear wheel drive seventh generation Continental in 1982 – a modern car in front of a long legacy of traditional long-hood boulevardiers with even longer doors. In fact, the new Continental, like its 2-door Mark VII stablemate, was built on the same Ford Fox platform as served as the base for Mustangs – along with a lot of other cars from Dearborn – for literally decades. Smooth and swooping, the new Conti embraced what Ford (and a lot of others) were doing at the time: crafting sheetmetal approximating used bars of soap – all in the name of aerodynamic efficiency, of course. While not as slippery as the forthcoming Taurus, it wasn’t too shabby. The designers did manage to work in a “bustle back” similar to, but less pronounced than, the contemporary Cadillac Seville while at the same time they managed to incorporate the traditional Continental “hump” – although it was pretty far removed from the days when it housed a spare wheel.
The inside of the Conti is ALL AMERICAN – from the column shift to the parlor velour upholstery through to the broad but relatively lacking in information dashboard. The digital displays are gloriously green a’la my original Apple II, and there are buttons – so many buttons – controlling a rudimentary trip computer and the HVAC. The AM/FM/Cassette player got knobs with its buttons, just to keep you on your toes. Fords of this vintage also pioneered steering wheel-mounted controls – in this case the cruise control controls. Tres fantastique!
This example being a Givenchy edition (yes, that Givenchy), it came from the factory with dual power front seats (note the inboard controls) to glide your easy chairs to just the right position. This is in addition to the automatic climate control, premium sound, power locks and power windows. As the top of the line, this car would have stickered around $26,500 in 1984, or approaching $70,000 in 2020 dollars. The inside of the Continental is actually a very pleasant place to be, but decidedly not very German. You’d think it would be cavernous while, in fact, it’s good for four but 5 would be tight. This is not a Town Car, after all! It’s a quiet place, though, even with the diesel, the ride is more supple and less squishy than one might expect, and the brakes are actually very good.
All that aside, more than anything we’re here to talk about the lump under the hood. The Continental’s M21 inline-six turbodiesel was designed and built for Lincoln by BMW, a close relative of the M20 2.3, 2.7, and 2.5 gas inline-sixes familiar in the E30 3-series and the 528e. This Deutsche-diesel displaces 149 cubic inches (2.4 liter) and is rated at 115 hp and 155 lb-ft of torque. On the road those numbers translate to about 13.5 seconds 0-60 (not far off a contemporary Mercedes 300D) and terminal velocity of about 109mph. But you don’t drive an old Diesel for drag strip numbers, do you? On the road this car can average about 30mpg – and that from an American luxury boat weighing over 3,500 lbs. When you consider that it has a 22.2 gallon tank, that means that this car can conceivably go as far as 666 miles between fill-ups. There are manufacturers today that still struggle to make that happen. The transmission is the same smooth ZF 4HP22 four-speed automatic found throughout the European auto industry of the 1980s and 1990s. Point: it’s a known entity and not some bespoke train wreck.
Lincoln only built and sold about 1,500 of these diesels and only in 1984 and 1985, making clean ones like this a rarity today. For 1986 BMW put the same motor into the E28 5-series and it sold fairly, but by then automakers were making better gas engines and diesel was on the way out of the luxury mainstream. The same motor plodded along in one form or another through 1991, having found homes in other BMWs as well as a handful of interesting oddities like the Vixen motorhome.
The Continental’s rarity obviously doesn’t translate into being a highly prized collectible, but it is an interesting piece of American-German automotive history, and a rare, comfy collaboration between unlikely parties. Parts for the motor and the car are still widely available, and there are even baubles like suspension kits still available. You wouldn’t buy it to go fast, but as a car to go far both on a tank and for the long-term, you could actually do much worse for a highway mile-eater. Change the timing belt periodically, keep the oil fresh, and go. Heck – all the maintenance is reportedly caught-up and the AC even works. What are you waiting for, road warriors?