A slogan, an icon, and a title – have you been able to guess what my post is about?
The Lincoln Motor Company founded in Dearfield, Michigan and was created by Henry Leland in 1917. Leland, who was a former manager for Cadillac, cited Lincoln as a hero he had personally voted for in 1864. Leland was also the head of a group of investors who had forced Henry Ford out of his second company, the Detroit Automobile Company – forming a bitter rivalry between the two.
Lincoln Motor Company Plant
Photograph by Ralph Christian
Henry Leland and his son, Wilfred C
Photograph courtesy of the Detroit News.
Originally, Lincoln Motor Company produced the Liberty L-12 , a 24 litre, 12 piston engine used in the Liberty fighter planes of World War I. After the war, the Lincoln Motor Company focused on making luxury vehicles, but went bankrupt shortly after. The company was then sold to Ford Motors in 1922, which Ford himself considered a victory over his former rival.
A conspiracy-theorist might note that this is the second time that the name ‘Ford’ has appeared in the Living Lincoln project, as Ford’s is also the name of the theater in which President Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Boothe. If this is a mere coincidence is for the reader to determine.
Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold with the first Liberty V12 engine complete photograph courtesy of the U.S. Airforce
Even if naming the company after the Great Emanicpator was Leland’s way of honoring a hero, the use of Lincolns name has come to represent much more. As the company evolved, so to did the this unique blending of history and Commercialism. One way to see this is the obvious use of Lincoln as a selling strategy. This function of utilizing a dominant memory to sell is known as “instrumentalization” in the words of Schudson . This is process where memory is put to use to facilitate the process of selling products and services.
The most tangible way to understand the intrumentalization of memory and its interactions with business is to look at commercials. Since ads become incorporated into dominant memory, they can be a useful window into public perception. Take the following Lincoln ad with Matthew McConaughey. Personally, I used to hate this ad – bringing about vehement reactions whenever I saw it. However, my reaction is more of a testament to the ads effectiveness than my taste. According to one source, after this commercial was released, Lincolns sales raised 25% .
Some have used these commercials not as a way to sell product but as, “The use of history, not as memorial to the past or promotion of a particular view of it, but as fodder for amusement…”(Schudson). Take the following sketch performed recently on Saturday Night Live:
Another ad from 1957 shows that the goal of the company has been to makes its name synonymous with luxury for some time.
Interestingly, both of these commercials (and the parody) don’t even reference Lincoln directly. As this company’s name naturally brings in the ethos of Honest Abe, others are forced to reference him more clearly. Take the Toyota ad used here as an example. Also, you should check out this awesome explanation on the use of Honest Abe in Commercial Culture here.
In addition to monetizing Lincoln’s name, the Company also serves a facilitator for memory. Motors have generally come to symbolize a spreading of fame. For instance, the train which Lincoln campaigned on has become a physical manifestation of the man’s spreading legacy. So too do the cars bearing his name reinforce his dominance in today’s society, even if what exactly is remembered changes over time.
Lincoln’s Funeral Train courtesy of an unknown source
Unfortunately, the branding of cars is in many ways superficial and leads in part to a negatively ‘processual’ memory, in the words of Zelizer . That is, a brand only forces society to know a name – in this case Lincoln – without it demanding any more being known. Put another way, a foreigner would learn nothing about Uncle Abraham by reading the logo on a car.
Lincoln the Railsplitter (1965) painting by Norman Rockwell
Another effect of processual memory has been to change the meaning of the name of Lincoln to, “American Luxury”. This goes to show the unpredictable nature  of memory because it is counter-intuitive to the normal characteristics associated with Lincoln. Usually, He is viewed as a tough and powerful president, a man of the frontier. The use of Lincoln as a high-end vehicle is contrary to a historians view of the President as the “Illinois Railsplitter”. It would make much more sense if Lincoln was the name for Jeeps (which has come to embody the frontier) or the name of other cheaper and more durable cars.
Comparisons of Lincoln in dominant memory may also be made to Plymouth Rock. McPhee informs us that the rock, while being viewed as a longstanding landmark, had actually been moved, broken, and pieces of it are spread across the country . In a similar way, the centralized site of Lincoln’s memory is his monument at Washington DC, but like the pieces of Plymouth rock, the car is spread out over the country. In many ways, this movement keeps the history alive, forcing people all over the country to in some way confront the past.
Finally, the Lincoln brand name is subconsciously powerful because of the people who have chosen to drive them. Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, President Obama – all of these powerful American figures drove (or were driven in the case of President’s) in Lincoln’s. There use of such vehicles has added to the perception of Lincoln’s as ‘classy’ or ‘high-end’ vehicles for the wealthy.
Nixon in his Lincoln Photograph courtesy of Dave Gelinas
Furthermore, JFK was shot in the back of Ford Continental . Once again, I would encourage any would-be conspiracy theorists to notice that this is the second time a president was assassinated within the confines of the name “Ford”.
Kennedy in a Continental before his Assassination
Photograph courtesy of the Detroit News.
In all these ways, the Lincoln Motor Company has served as a useful example to examine the hybridization of memory and institution. It has used the name of Lincoln to brand the car as “American Luxury” and exploited the name to make money. However, the company also serves to spread Lincoln’s fame and helps to continue his dominance as one of the most idealized president’s of American History. How Lincoln’s name will be continued to be used in the future I can’t say, but I look forward to finding out.
1) Lincoln Motor Company Briefing Book (PDF). New York: Ford Motor Company. 2012-12-03. Archived from the original on 2012-12-03. Retrieved 2012-12-03.
1917 August – After departing a management position at the Cadillac Division of General Motors, Henry Leland and his son Wilfred Leland form the Lincoln Motor Company, which produces aircraft engines to fill World
2) Michael Schudson, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past. Eds. Daniel L. Schacter et al. (1995), 346-378;
3) Barbie Zelizer, “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communications (June 1995): 214-39.
4) John McPhee, “Travels on the Rock,” in Irons in the Fire (1977), 187-216
5) McAdams, John (2012). “Changed Motorcade Route in Dallas?”. The Kennedy Assassination. Marquette University. Retrieved 2012-11-26.
6) “V-12, Liberty 12 Model A (Ford) Engine”. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 1 January 2011
7) Herman, Barbara. “Are Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln Ads Working? Increased MKC Sales Announced.” International Business Times. 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.