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1939 Lincoln Model K Convertible Sedan. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)
1939 Lincoln Model K Convertible Sedan. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

Classic Cars

A Lincoln K car fit for a king Add to ...

‘What kind of car is this, dear?” Queen Elizabeth might have asked of King George VI while admiring the poudre bleu broadcloth upholstery and the handy little compartment she could place her gloves in when not required for regal waves to the crowds along the 1939 Canadian Royal Tour route.

The traditional rides of Britain’s kings and queens since Edward VII got the royals mobile with internal combustion generated horsepower at the turn of the 20th century were suitably stately Lanchesters and Daimlers. But when the incumbents decided to play tourist in our not so far flung outpost of empire in 1939 it was from the back seats of North American-style automotive aristocracy. The royal cortege included a pair of McLaughlin-Buicks, a Chrysler and a Lincoln.

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And George, a keen motorcyclist during his younger years and an enthusiastic motorist, would likely have known which-was-which and so informed his Queen Consort when she was riding in the 1939 Lincoln Model K Convertible Sedan with body by LeBaron.

Seventy-two years later, and a couple of weeks ago, this historic Lincoln, still resplendent in its Royal Maroon paintwork and bearing the royal insignia, was rolled out by RM Auctions at its St. John’s (formerly Meadow Brook) auction in Plymouth, Mich., and when the hammer dropped, went to a new U.S. owner for $297,000.

What the king likely didn’t know that far off early summer was that this extravagantly sized, styled and powered Lincoln was in its final year, winding up an automotive era launched by the seemingly boundless prosperity of the late 1920s but soon to sink up to its axles in the mire of the 1930s depression.

Or that within a couple of months the world would be at war – although his Canadian tour’s purpose was in part to ensure we loyal Canucks would step in beside the motherland when all the peace treaties hit the fan.

The original monarchical visitor to Canada was Prince (later king) William in 1786, but George VI was the first reigning monarch to turn up on our doorstep expecting the royal treatment. And then prime minister Mackenzie King was all too happy to provide it, including ordering four classy cars from General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

King, as minister in attendance, toured from coast to coast with the royal entourage including its dip into the northeastern U.S. The irony of this side-trip apparently delighted King. He described it as “poetic justice” as George VI was great grandson of Queen Victoria, who had placed a £1,000 bounty on the head of King’s grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, who promptly booted it across the border to escape.

The King’s Lincoln was among the last of a class of lavish cars created for an America awash in money in the 1920s, but soon to drain away when the Wall Street crash of 1929 pulled the plug. Lincoln, Marmon, Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Cadillac were among car makers cashing in by producing large luxurious automobiles, but couldn’t seem to prevent their momentum carrying them into the early 1930s when even more elegant examples emerged, among them the K class Lincolns of 1931.

The Ks weren’t all-new designs but their mechanicals were updated from the previous L models, including the L-head V-8 engines and the chassis stretched to provide an impressive 145-inch wheelbase. The look was lower and wider on the 23 models offered in nine body styles and, of course, custom bodies were also produced by best auto couturiers of the day, names such as Brunn, Dietrich and Judkins.

In the face of the deepening depression, Lincoln introduced an even more extravagant V-12 model in 1932 in response to rivals V-12s and V-16s. But initial sales of the K models of about 3,500 annually dropped to the 2,000 range by the mid-1930s and never bettered that.

It was all over for the big Ks by 1939, their pride of place taken by the smaller more affordable Zephyrs, and it appears only 133 were built in 1939, among them the King’s K car.

To create it, Lincoln modified a standard Series 413 Le Baron Convertible Sedan. The powertrain remained standard – with the 414-cubic-inch L-head V-12 producing 150 hp delivered by a three-speed manual – as did most of the bodywork, but alterations included a higher windshield and side glass – described as “shatterproof” – and a raised rear seat to allow the royals a better view. “Puncture-proof” tires were also fitted for their peace of mind and lap robes for their comfort, plus a pair of umbrellas in a drawer under the driver’s seat.

The Lincoln was returned to Ford and spent until the mid-1980s in the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, getting an outing in a parade marking the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and again in 1959 for a visit by the Queen and Prince Phillip. It was sold to the Carail Museum in Detroit in 1985 which lent it to the Queen Mum again to help her celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Queen Elizabeth Way highway. It was sold to a private owner in 2004.

The two royal tour McLaughlin-Buicks survive here in Canada, but the Chrysler has disappeared.

It is hard to imagine collectors seven decades hence being much interested in acquiring the black Cadillacs and Chevy Suburbans that provided transport for the most recent royal tour by Prince William and his bride, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. But it seems likely this wonderful old Lincoln will still be generating interest and commanding a significant investment in the coin of somebody’s realm.

globedrive@globeandmail.com



Back in 1939

Nazi Germany ramps up the rhetoric and aggression throughout the year and finally invades Poland, which results in Britain declaring war on Sept. 3 and Canada formally joining the fray a week later.

The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland as Dorothy premiers at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood while stars Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard headline in Gone with the Wind.

Harvard University students make headlines by demonstrating the fad of goldfish swallowing.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair, themed Dawn of a New Day, features wonders such as a streamlined pencil sharpener and Smell-O-Vision which adds to motion picture realism by pumping 30 smells into theatres. Forty-four million people turn up to take it all in.

General Motors introduces the Hydramatic, the first mass-produced fully automatic transmission, on 1940 model year Oldsmobiles.

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