The Pope, Mother Teresa And A Lincoln Continental

Images: Vrutika Doshi & Makarand Baokar

It was in 1985 when I was offered the car that you see here. Not to buy it, but to have it in exchange for a favour…

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Arguably one of the handsomest post-War American cars ever

Yes, it may sound unbelievable, but this is how the story goes: I was working for Maruti Udyog in those days, and I had just moved to the carmaker’s regional office in Mumbai (Bombay then). One day we had a visitor at the office, which was then on the ninth floor of Maker Chambers VI, at Nariman Point. This gentleman, a rather self-effacing Sikh said: “If you can get me a few Maruti 800s out of turn, I will give you the car that I have downstairs. It was Mother Teresa’s car.”

Of course, I rushed down with the gentleman to see the car—and lo and behold, there was this magnificent four-door convertible Lincoln that you see here. It wasn’t the first Lincoln that I had seen in my life (read the article on the Lincoln Capri Coupe: but it was the first four-door Continental Convertible that I had ever laid my eyes on.

“Mother Teresa’s car? Really?” I asked, wondering at that modest lady’s automotive fetishes.

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Viewed from all angles, the Elwood Engel design is perfect in its proportions

“Yes, it was gifted to her by the Pope,” explained the gentleman.

I didn’t quite believe him then, but as I was not going to give him any Marutis ‘out of turn’, the discussion didn’t go very far.

But yes, the gentleman was telling the truth… kind of. The car never belonged to Mother Teresa but yes, it was given to her and her Missionaries of Charity by Pope Paul VI, during the latter’s visit to Bombay in December 1964, for the 38th International Eucharistic Congress.

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The side elevation proportions of this rare four-door convertible is near perfect

Missionaries of Charity, in turn, raffled the car at Rs 100 per ticket, and the specially prepared Lincoln Continental car was won by someone who, in turn, sold it.

The Lincoln now belongs to Pune-based collector and historic vehicle enthusiast Yohan Poonawalla, whose cars have featured in deRivaz & Ives magazine ( and And like the others, most of which have either a ‘royal’ provenance or are of some historical significance, this Lincoln too has a very special place in India’s automotive history.

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Neat trapezoidal lamps inserted into the vestigial fins played up the understated look of the fourth generation Continental

At the outset, it is perhaps the only Lincoln Continental Convertible in the country, which makes it special enough, as this model is a landmark design.

Lincoln was (and remains) Ford Motor’s flagship marque, a more than worthy rival to Cadillac. There were 10 different generations of the Continental, from the very early 1940s to the current one launched in 2016. For the first four generations though, the Continental represented the pinnacle of luxury at Ford.

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Understatement and elegance remain the hallmark of Engel's seminal design

The first Lincoln Continental was designed as a personal vehicle for Edsel Ford (the favourite son of Henry Ford) himself. In 1938, Edsel asked Lincoln’s chief stylist Eugene T. ‘Bob’ Gregorie for a custom model for his March 1939 vacation.

Gregorie took the Lincoln Zephyr convertible, lowered the car, lengthened the fenders, and then added on to the small trunk the spare wheel within a metal casing, which became the ‘trademark’ of the Continental series, as well as the use of the term ‘Continental kit’ as an accessory.

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Neatly placed door handles exemplifies the fact the the rear pair are rear-hinged suicide doors 

The flattened, truncated Zephyr, with no trace of running boards left, and minimal trim, looked low, sleek, and clean, making it much more elegant than other American metal from then. The bespoke prototype was produced in time for Edsel Ford to have it for his spring break. Apparently, his friends showed great interest in the car, and Edsel suggested putting the car into series production.

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So when the doors are open, the access to both the rear and front seats are equally convenient

Initially all the Continental convertibles (and a few hardtops) were built by hand, and barely two dozen were completed during 1939. Another 400 were made in 1940, before presses got ready in 1941.

Post WWII, the Continental went through two generations, with the second having a really sublime design. The third gen though was a design disaster. For the fourth, planned for the 1961 model year, the Lincoln line was consolidated into one model.

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Wide seats allow for very comfortable seating for three healthy adults per bench

Although losing nearly 38cm in length and 20cm in wheelbase compared to the humongous 1960 Lincoln Continental Mark V predecessor, the new model was nonetheless heavier than its Cadillac or Imperial counterparts. Its solid construction and rigorous post-construction inspection of each vehicle reflected Ford's corporate management's commitment to making the best mass-produced luxury automobile in the US.

Designed by Ford vice president of design, Elwood Engel, the fourth gen Continental featured a very clean and elegant line, one that became a benchmark in good design. In fact, the 1961 Lincoln Continental and its designers received a bronze medal from the Industrial Design Institute (IDI) of New York, NY. It also won the Car Life Engineering Excellence Award in 1961.

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Powering the car is that humongous 7L V8

At launch, the fourth gen Continental was offered only as a four-door saloon or convertible. For the first time on a Lincoln since 1951, the rear doors were rear-hinged suicide type. To alert drivers of open doors, Lincoln fitted the dashboard with a ‘Door Ajar’ warning light (as seen on many modern automobiles).

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Posing proudly with this historic wonder is one of our favourite collectors Yohan Poonawalla 

Hooking together at the B-pillar with a vacuum central locking system, convertibles used a short pillar while sedans were ‘pillar hardtops’. In this configuration, a thin B-pillar supported the roof structure while all four doors used frameless glass (in the style of a hardtop or convertible).

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The enthusiastic Poonawalla family: Michelle, Zayan, Yohan and Tania

In what would be the first four-door convertible from a major American manufacturer after World War II, the Lincoln Continental convertible featured a power roof on all examples. For the first time for a US-made car, the Continental was sold with a two-year or 39,000 km warranty.

For 1964, the Lincoln Continental received its first mid-cycle redesign. The interior was also completely redesigned with a full-width dashboard, upholstery patterns, door panels and upholstery upgraded.

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Arguably one of the most significant American cars in India when it comes to historical significance 

Arguably, the ‘64 Lincoln Continental convertible is the most desirable of the fourth generation and the one that was sent for the Pope’s visit was extra special.

“The open touring, long wheelbase car was deemed ideal for the papal tour as thousands of devotees and seekers of blessings thronged the Indian streets to catch a glimpse of the head of the Catholic Church," explains Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan, historic vehicle journalist, author and curator, who has also written for deRivaz & Ives magazine. “Video footage and photographs from the visit shows the Pope traveling in this very car. It bore flagpoles on each side as it cruised past huge crowds, guarded by a battery of bike-riding policemen.”

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The discreet yet modern Lincoln mascot on the prow of the Continental 

“Prior to his departure, the Pope gifted this Lincoln to Mother Teresa, the Calcutta-based Nobel laureate, who raffled the car,” confirms Ali Khan.

After billionaire Yohan Poonawalla acquired the car in 2020, he returned the Lincoln to its historic shade of off-white. Mechanically, the car has always been in fine fettle, with the 7-litre V8 working perfectly well. An automotive monument to the first-ever papal visit to India, this Lincoln Continental has a pride of place in Yohan Poonawalla’s collection.

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Here we see the pennants of the car, as Yohan Poonawalla poses with the Lincoln

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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