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Compared with the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles and its network of beige boxes, block after block of identical restaurants with identical menus and laced with choked four-lane freeway sand bumper-to-bumper traffic, Palm Springs is a breath of fresh air.
Traffic lights strung over wide deserted streets swing lazily in the afternoon sun, and from every corner and garden towering palms stand against an azure blue sky, their shadows and silhouettes flashing across the bonnet as we roll down main street.
Before long we arrive at our destination – or rather, at the start of our tour of the city: a nondescript outcrop of industrial buildings with red roll-up shutter doors that could be anywhere in the world.
The rest of the building is asleep, but Chris Menrad’s unit is open, and as our eyes adjust to the gloom a modest yet beautifully curated collection of mostly American classics gradually appears.
Rarely has a design so outwardly conservative been so groundbreaking.
Against a backdrop of space-age-inspired fins and afterburner taillights, roller girls balancing shakes and fries and drive-in movies, the slab-flanked Continental stood alone.
A Modernist study in clean lines and flat surfaces, it didn’t owe much to the extravagance of the 1950s, instead reflecting the Minimalism of the new decade, somehow managing to look both elegant and trim, despite measuring some 18ft long.
Seeing one on the move isn’t something you’ll soon forget; like catching sight of a two-storey Airbus A380 leaving the ground for the first time – both graceful and preposterous – you can’t help but wonder how either stays afloat.
Styled by Elwood Engel, the new Continental was intended to take the fight to rival Cadillac.
Interestingly, it began life not as a Lincoln but a design concept for the 1961 Thunderbird, and it’s on this unibody platform that the car sits – albeit stretched to a 123in wheelbase, which grew by a further three inches in 1964.
You could order the Continental as either a hardtop or a convertible, but each had to have four doors – the rears a reprise of Lincoln’s ‘suicide’ arrangement not seen since the EL-series in 1951.
It’s thanks to the convertible that Menrad’s pillarless hardtop looks so chic, with frameless windows adding a touch of flair that would be carried on to many Fords that followed.
Menrad has generously offered his wonderful ‘clap-door’ sedan for a guided tour of Palm Springs, and there could hardly be a better car in which to do it.
The wide, empty streets of the Coachella Valley lend themselves to laid-back cruising, and with such space on offer even the titanic Continental fits in.
Menrad’s Platinum car is as fine an example as you’re likely to find, having been the beneficiary of a high-quality restoration in an earlier life.
“A good friend of mine had one that we took to a car show on the central coast of California,” he explains, turning the key and kicking the big V8 into life.
“There are some great drives near Cambria and San Luis Obispo, and while we were there I realised that it’s a really great car – the styling, everything.
“My friend introduced me to the seller of this car, who had a decent-sized collection and had restored it to perfection; it was an original one-family-owned car when he got it.”
“He didn’t drive his cars very much, seeing them more as beautiful objects to look at,” Menrad continues.
“So when I started driving it we had to fix a lot of mechanical issues due to lack of use. Suspension, steering, brakes; you name it.
“I got really lucky because it’s a great example with every option you could order. They were well-equipped anyway, but this has rare options such as the electric antenna – hardly anyone ticked that box.
“It even has electrically operated quarterlights, and that box sitting under the steering column to the right is a primitive form of cruise control. It’s too much money to get it fixed, but it’s cool; it lights up at night.”
Swing open the heavy passenger door and you find an interior as well preserved as the outside, with acres of colour-coded leather, vinyl and matching carpet with attractive stainless-steel accents on the doors and instrument binnacle, rather than the more common California Walnut veneer.
“Almost everyone ordered wood, but I like the plain look better,” he adds.
With a muted rumble the Lincoln rolls on to the main road, listing gently on its springs in a leisurely arc as we join the flow.
Despite its size the car goes largely unnoticed, testament to Engel’s under-the-radar styling, and we waft along on an immense, unstressed wave of torque.
A lazy turn on to East Tahquitz Canyon Way, with a slight whine from the power-steering pump, has the Continental ’s nose heading towards one of the most striking buildings in the area and a favourite of Menrad’s: the City Hall.
Swiss-born Albert Frey had a hand in the 1952 building’s design, a striking blend of the geometric and the industrial.
Its most alluring feature is the large portico overhang that dominates the main entrance, at its centre a circle through which three palm trees grow, and that today makes the perfect backdrop against which to photograph the Lincoln.
Turquoise paint was intended to blend the building with the sky (and deter birds from nesting), and it complements the car well, while partial walls created from cut and stacked steel tubing are both aesthetic and practical, shading walkways without stopping the cooling breeze.
It’s a feature that was copied on a number of public buildings throughout the city, including the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Despite its artistic significance, the DMV offers a glimpse back in time at the city’s troubled past; the identical decorative partial wall that frames the old drive-thru is covered with a tarpaulin here, the building itself temporarily repurposed to organise care for the area’s homeless population.
“The first time I set foot in Palm Springs was in 1978 or’79,” says Menrad, spinning the Lincoln’s huge wheel with an effortless hand.
“I’d always heard about the town as some great resort, but all I saw was foil on all the closed shopfronts and windows.
“I remember being depressed for days, thinking, ‘What happened to that town?’ It didn’t start to come back again until shortly after I bought my house in 1999.
“In those days you could have bought every property on the street even if there wasn’t a ‘for sale’ sign – people didn’t even bother putting them on the market because no one was buying them.
“It was a decrepit place – the red-headed stepchild of the desert,” he laughs, as we turn in to one of the city’s most famous neighbourhoods, Sunmor. Its quiet streets are lined with palms and brightly coloured single-storey houses.
One of the earliest mid-century developments, Sunmor is an attractive estate of prefabricated homes built in the mid-1950s to the same floorplan – though you wouldn’t think it as we drive along East Plaimor Avenue.
Each house looks different from the last, some open and welcoming, others giving away little more than along, low frontage.
“Some are attributed to architects, but others, such as Robert C Higgins and Jack Meiselman, were builders who used draughtsmen and copied other styles,” explains Menrad.
“They would hire an architect to do a similar floorplan, but change the façade and roofline treatments to differentiate the designs; I like rock roofs, they’re my favourite. These vast tract neighbourhoods are the background noise of mid-century Palm Springs.”
Some of the buildings have yet to be restored and we pass a number that still reflect the area’s faded glory.
“This is an example of one that hasn’t been dealt with – this is what existed everywhere. You can see what’s under there, but it’s almost completely hidden by junk,” Menrad says, gesturing through the Lincoln’s open driver’s-side window to a run-down bungalow.
But for every project there’s a dozen restored gems, and we can’t resist a photo outside a stunning yellow building with a yard speared by perfectly manicured evergreens.
“I love the mix of nature and artificiality; the junipers, the grass, the cacti and breeze blocks,” he enthuses. “It’s just a great example of Palm Springs.”
The history of the city stretches beyond the mid-century architecture for which it’s now famous, and evidence of its previous life can still be seen on the streets near to its international airport – the one-time site of a wartime transport hub and flight training school.
As we round Easmor Circle at the heart of the Sunmor estate, the big Lincoln rumbles over avast 60ft concrete disc set into the asphalt, one of dozens of hardstandings that littered the area to the west of the base and were used to tie down aircraft such as the C-47s used for flight training.
The site was abandoned by the army shortly after WW2, left to the city to do with as it saw fit.
From Sunmor, Menrad kicks the big Lincoln into gear by drawing down on the column shift and heads towards the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.
Gradually the decorative homes give way to desert, and with it comes the perfect chance to get behind the wheel.
Seeing the ’62 cruising down the street, you get a sense of just how radical the design must have appeared, sitting so much lower than its contemporaries and almost managing to look sleek.
That sensation fades slightly after sliding across that wide front bench seat and getting a view over the vast bonnet: from here the Lincoln suddenly feels like a lot of car.
Underneath that bonnet sits the same 430cu in V8 that powered the third-generation Continental, though detuned from its 375bhp peak in 1958 to 325bhp for the 1961 model year.
It’s about as well-mannered as a 7-litre eight-banger can be, and although it’s refined there’s still slight menace from its distant, deep rumble.
Mad Men has inspired a resurgence in interest for Modernist design, and though Don Draper was drawn in by a Coupe de Ville rather than the Continental, it’s difficult not to feel like a suited-and-booted Madison Avenue executive while cruising through the valley in the Lincoln.
Our meandering route takes us back through town and past some of the motels that have been a fixture of the landscape since before ‘our’ Continental was built, and it’s remarkable how easy such a large car is to navigate through these streets.
The combination of vague steering and intrusive power assistance would seem terrifying in almost any other car, but here it just serves to heave the vast Continental around, asking little more of you than to keep one finger on the wheel.
And that lazy V8 is a dream, smooth as silk even when you give it some gas, lifting its skirts with surprising enthusiasm as the mascot rises in response.
Almost all effort seems removed, bar the gentle massaging of the wheel to keep the big boat heading in broadly the right direction – never much of a chore given the graph-paper-like layout of US city routes.
Before long we arrive at our final stop, Menrad’s house in the beautiful Twin Palms estate – so named for the pair of trees planted in each front garden.
“It was built in 1957, designed by the architectural firm Palmer & Krisel,” says Menrad, walking up the driveway and passing a carport housing a ’61 Cadillac.
“The houses were mostly vacation homes and weren’t really meant to be lived in year-round. Palm Springs had a permanent population of around 8000 at that time and the place emptied out in the summer.
“The houses weren’t particularly cheap –it cost about $32,000, when you could get a similar home in Los Angeles, at least in the suburbs, for around $11,000.
“I bought my house in 1999 and did the renovation about six years later. I was lucky, it must have been a second home because they hadn’t made many changes. The only thing they had altered was the kitchen; the bathrooms were still original and the glass hadn’t been messed with.
“The restoration mainly involved returning the kitchen to what it was like in period and cleaning stuff up; there were all kinds of pipes and wires all over the outside.
“I discovered the original colour of the house in the carport, in an area that had never been painted over.”
“Before I bought the house I had restored a 1968 Corvette,” he goes on, “and in the Corvette world they’re very particular.
“They created that whole ‘survivor’ series of perfect cars that are factory correct, even down to the markings on the bolt heads.
“I was fascinated by that standard of restoration, so my goal with the house was similar, to make it feel like it would have been when you wanted to first buy it in 1957.”
Much like the Modernist Continental, mid-century architecture such as Menrad’s Krisel home has only been properly appreciated with the passing of time.
“Many really great buildings were demolished, having been torn down and destroyed in the hope that someone might buy the land and build something new,” reflects Menrad.
It is a fate familiar for once underappreciated classics such as the Lincoln.
As we head back to the city, thoughts drift to the UK’s Modernist past and the 1961 Markham Moor service station in particular.
After the ignominy of being a Little Chef in the ’80s, its wild hyperbolic paraboloid concrete roof now lies in partial ruin.
Out of nowhere, its twin rises from the haze: the Albert Frey-designed Tramway gas station, which I later discover has been restored to stand sentry over the entrance to the town.
As Modernism makes a comeback, there’s no better place to be than Palm Springs – especially if you happen to be behind the wheel of a1962 Lincoln Continental.
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Chris Menrad, Palm Springs Modern Committee
- Sold/number built 1961-’69/334,345 (fourth generation)
- Construction steel unitary
- Engine all-iron, ohv 7045cc V8 with Carter two-barrel carburettor
- Max power 300bhp @ 4100rpm
- Max torque 465lb ft @ 2100rpm
- Transmission three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted worm and roller
- Brakes drums, with servo
- Length 18ft (5494mm)
- Width 6ft 6in (1946mm)
- Height 4ft 6in (1372mm)
- Wheelbase 10ft 3in (3124mm)
- Weight 5055lb (2293kg)
- 0-60mph 10.4 secs
- Top speed 120mph
- Mpg 12
- Price new $6292
- Price now £9-45,000*
*Prices correct at date of publication