Quite Frankly My Dear I Don't Give A..

Whether he did or he did not will always be a subject of much debate, but one thing we do know about Clark Gable is that he loved his Lincoln’s. And quite rightly so. Why wouldn’t the proclaimed ‘King of Hollywood’ want to drive one of America’s most glamourous luxury cars? After all, Gable was without doubt, a successful man of discerning taste and pure unadulterated class.

Of the many great photographs of Gable, the one which particularly interests me shows him climbing out of his 1946 Lincoln Continental Convertible parked in front of his mansion off Tara Drive, in Encino Los Angeles. It’s a wonderful time-capsule picture of the late 1940’s, because it not only shows an immaculately dressed Gable with his legendary handsome looks, but also the beautiful architecture of the wonderful home he had shared with his wife Carole Lombard, and the exclusive convertible from Ford’s flagship luxury Division. I often wonder what happened to this very special car and my research has only ever led to dead ends over the years.

In September 1945 Henry Ford II had assumed control of the Detroit based Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo). The company’s fortunes were suffering to the tune of $9m a month following America’s entry into World War II and the subsequent suspension of automobile production from February 1942. The company further lost it’s direction following the death of the FoMoCo President in 1943, his Father Edsel Ford. Henry was actually recalled from his service with the US Navy to take the helm of the company and he immediately set about an action plan to regain the lion’s share of the US automobile market.

One element of this project would be to make FoMoCo America’s premier personal luxury car manufacturer, a crown that had been held by GM’s Cadillac Division prior to the outbreak of war. Henry believed that the Allied victory in WWII and the new-found post-war optimism amongst the American people would increase demand for luxury products, so he had famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy re-style a new post-war Continental. Henry’s design brief specified a return to the opulence and glamour of 1930’s motoring which would see the continuation of the extravagant pre-war flat-head V12 cylinder engine, completely going against the industry trend towards smaller 8 and 6 cylinders. The Continental would have to be a unique stand-out car with grace and magnificence, it would retain a flat one-piece windshield and the distinctive touring trunk and continental-style rear mounted spare wheel. Henry targeted wealthy industrialists, the movie industry and Hollywood stars as prospective owners of Continentals. Several cars are believed to have been gifted at the time of launch in 1946. Clark Gable must have been very high priority on Henry Ford II’s marketing list, as he was an international super-star and well-known lover of Lincolns.

Fast forward to the present day. It’s January 2019 and I’m chasing some engine parts for a 292ci Lincoln V12 for a customer’s restoration in Belgium when I get a lead on a 46 Continental Convertible. It’s belongs to an elderly gentleman in the San Diego area, it’s a pale colour (Gables was Wing Grey) and is unrestored. Apparently, it had been hidden in a Beverley Hills garage in 1953 and was not uncovered until 1980 when it was bought on a notarised bill of sale without a Title or license plate, by a local antiques dealer. This is an intriguing car ….the game is on!

I make contact with the guy and his description of the car is vague, but he is more than happy to show me it because he has been wanting to sell it for some time. Unfortunately, he’s just listed it on ebay and I can’t get there before the auction ends, so I make the decision to bid on it. If this is a genuine unrestored late 1940’s rust-free Continental Convertible, I’m seriously interested in it, regardless of any history or not!

I get the winning bid and I’m very excited about this car, but I unexpectedly have to fly back to the North East of England (UK) because my Father is very ill in hospital. Fortunately, Dad is soon on the mend and I’m certain his recovery is accelerated by our shared excitement about the Continental. I soon get back to Southern California and I get to see the car and meet the owner who are located on the shores of Lake Miramar. Carl and his Wife are a lovely couple in their Eighties, she is of Irish descent and Carl’s family are originally from Scotland. I am English, so we are all ‘Northerners’ and we get on great! I’m really thrilled with the condition of the car overall; it’s 100% rust free, the panel-alignment and door hang is perfect, the interior is original, there are no missing pieces, the original engine is in-situ and it runs like a Swiss watch. If you’ve never seen or heard a good one of these flat-head V12’s running you have missed something to behold. Although often criticised for reliability due to it’s aluminum cylinder heads, this low mileage example is simply incredible …the only noise I can hear is the suction of air as it’s drawn into the carburretters… just magnificent. One of the finest running engines I have ever heard.

But could this be the Gable car? A few things look promising but there’s much uncertainty about the history of this Continental, and a few things look incorrect. Firstly, the car is presented in a non original off-white colour. I dig a little deeper and identify the original colour of light Grey behind door trimmings and under the trunk lid. Check. The interior is the correct maroon and white colour scheme and it’s old, tired but original. Check. We pop the hood and the car is running a non-standard custom Edelbrock alloy inlet manifold and twin Holley carburretters, but I’m actually encouraged by this because Gable was keen on improving the performance and may have had legendary local performance specialists modify the car. Check. On the downside, the ornament on the hood suggests that the car is a 47 or 48 model, but we know Gables was a 46. Game over.

Or is it? There’s only a very small detail difference between the 46-48 model years, and the hood ornament is one of those differences. Although this could potentially sink the quest, ornaments are easily changed in minutes and are often taken or swapped, so it’s not a definitive indicator of year. Carl, however, informs me that the California Title document states it’s a 48, which would correlate with the ornament. But as an archaeologist, I’m not convinced. In my experience a Titled year is not essentially definitive. Having worked in this old car game for years, I know that inaccuracies on Title documents is common. One source of error was commonly the original supplying dealers in the 1940’s who often mistakenly used engine numbers or mis-recorded VIN’s when first licensing a car for the buyer/first owner. The Titled year is raely confused in this way, but the only way we can accurately identify the year of the Continental’s manufacture is to examine the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) that would have been stamped on the chassis by the engineers on the production line at FoMoCo. Period. But this opens up a new problem with the investigation, because I am unable to identify any VIN stamping on the chassis. I crawl under the car and examine the usual locations but I find nothing. We already know this car was purposely hidden away and lost from DMV records, so it’s possible that someone has tried to conceal the identity of this car many years ago and removed the stamping with a metalwork grinding tool. Car crime and the changing of ID’s was rife in decades gone by, and this car may possibly have a murky past. Unlike modern automobiles, these older cars from the 1930’s and 1940’s have few ID markings and they are very easily changed by people with a criminal intention and engineering know-how. Over the years I’ve assessed 100’s of classic cars and classic motorcycles that have had their ID’s changed or ‘rung’ as it’s commonly referred to. I have consulted for the Authorities in the UK to identify fake ID’s on classic cars because few people these days actually have the knowledge to accurately identify original historic factory markings and stamps. Authenticity has a huge correlation to value of old cars, so the assessment of numbers, stamps and ID’s is crucial. We also have to be acutely aware of forgery which is another huge issue in this field. Carl is slightly un-nerved by my revelation of the missing VIN stamp because he’s never seen it and it’s never occurred to him to inspect it. We can’t solve the mystery right now, but I assure him I will take full responsibility for any legalities surrounding the vehicle and we complete the transaction on an agreed ‘as is’ basis. We shake hands and I arrange to have my shipper collect the car asap.

I’m determined to accurately date and identify this car, in the meantime, my good friend at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles is researching images of the Gable car so we can gather comparisons and reference points. Back at the workshop I scrutinize the chassis of the car for the VIN and the various body stamps. I scrape away almost 70 years of oil residue, grime and light corrosion from different parts of the car where the ID would normally be stamped during assembly, but find nothing. Eventually I uncover feint traces of a character near the engine cross-member on the frame. As these markings were effected by human hand with a punch-style stamp and a swift crack with a lump hammer (not a computer programmed robot!), they are not always guaranteed to be in exactly the same location on each car or of the same imprint quality. The marking I find is very shallow and almost invisible, but there is definitely factory marking there. I delicately clean it with spirit and a tooth-brush and I can just about make out a letter H. Got it. Further cleaning and scrutiny under a purple UV light shows the VIN number is original and unaltered. Check. The stamping is a Ford production line font but it shows the frame as an H8 series car, which denotes 1948 manufacture. The car is legit and the Title data is correct. The engine numbers are correct also, but alas, this magnificent Continental is not the Gable car. The search continues.

I eventually ship the Continental to the UK and you can see pictures of it in our archive section below, as it sat at ‘The Carding Shed’ Holmfirth Yorkshire, prior to departure on it’s next inter-continental journey. The car now resides in a collection in the city of Mumbai, India, alongside some other incredible automobiles from the period.

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