The Continental has been a tradition at Lincoln since 1939 when Edsel Ford, Henry's son, decided he wanted just a little bit more in an automobile than Ford Motor Company was offering at the time. Although he had a great interest in European cars - or, as he referred to them, ''continental'' cars - he apparently felt it would not be good public relations for the president of Ford Motor Company to be riding around in a competitors' car, especially a foreign car.

So what happened, in essence, is that the Ford design department took a Lincoln Zephyr and cut a bit here, added a bit here until it came up with a really classy-looking car - the original Lincoln Continental.

The one design touch that has lived the longest was actually even out of style back in 1939. This was the outside, rear-mounted, spare tire that became known as the ''Continental Spare,'' no matter what make car it happened to appear on. In later years, the Continental Spare became an indention in the rear trunk lid and symbolic rather than functional.

But today, some 47 years later, the Lincoln Continental still can be identified by this styling touch. The only problem, though, is that Ford Motor Company, through its Lincoln-Mercury Division, gave the Continental name to two separate cars. One, which has now evolved into the Mark VII, is a two- door, specialty-type vehicle that follows pretty much the concept of the original Continental - and the other a mid-size, four-door sedan, that at first may seem conventional, but is far from it.

The four-door Continental, the subject of today's Road Test, does suffer somewhat of an identity crisis compared to the more dashing Continental Mark series, which is somewhat of a pity since it is very ''continental,'' in the original concept of Edsel Ford. It is an American version of a European luxury-sports sedan, a type of car that has become very popular and is offered by manufacturers worldwide.

The one problem with the Lincoln Continental, that I could see, is that it is not taken as seriously as it should be. Consumers usually think of it as a smaller Lincoln Town Car and not a car with fine road manners that could please the driving enthusiast. Part of this, of course, can be attributed to Ford Motor Company, which tends to push the luxury aspect rather than the driving traits (for example, Givenchy instead of anti-lock braking).

But here's a car in which you can really put the pedal to the metal - either accelerator or brake, do some serious back road running and cruise along the highways at ''continental'' speeds. Or you can forget all your cares and woes, aim it in the general direction you are heading and let the automatic controls take over.

The most impressive feature of the test car - and this is a subject I'm somewhat fanatical over - was the anti-lock braking system (ABS). This is a feature that first appeared on very expensiv e European luxury cars in the late 1970s and is beginning to filter down to some less expensive - less expensive than out-of-sight - models. I predict that some day ABS will be required on all new cars, no matter what their price range. This might not happen this year or the year after, but someday . . .

ABS is standard on all Continentals this year (last year it was available on a few select models). This is usually thought of as a European idea, and the Europeans, particularly the German automakers, must be given credit because they did push it. But I recently read an old Ford publication that pointed out that the engineering idea initially was generated back in the early 1960s, and in 1968 Ford was the first of offer a two-wheel anti-skid system on the Continental Mark III. But enough of ancient history.

To get somewhat technical, the Continental's ABS utilizes an electronic digital computer and electronic sensors to constantly monitor and compare the individual rotation speed of each wheel. During braking, which the sensors alert the computer that one of the wheels is slowing down at a quicker rate than the others, the computer compares the signals and determines how best to modulate fluid pressure in the appropriate channel of the three-circuit hydraulic system, (and here's really the important part) thus preventing wheel lock-up that can produce a skid and/or loss of steering control and/or increased stopping.

This braking system is best appreciated in adverse driving conditions. And since the Continental was tested during a period of snow and slippery roads, it really impressed me. In very simple terms, ABS will prevent skid-producing wheel lock-up, thus helping the driver maintain steering ability during emergency stops. And the beauty of the system is that you don't have to know anything or do anything special. Just lay that Gucci on the brake pedal and let the computer do the thinking.

To further belabor this issue, theoretically, if you don't get into a panic stop, you might never realize you've got the system in the car. But who hasn't had a panic stop situation?

Moving right along, we now come to another interesting feature of the Continental, an Electronic Air Suspension that provides automatic, constant three-way car leveling. This system is also computer operated and, in essence, keeps the Continental on an even keel under all conditions and combines a luxury ride with good handling. This all sounds somewhat contradictory, but give it a try and see what happens.

Standard and only powertrain for the Continental is a 5.0 liter/302 cubic inch V-8 and four-speed automatic overdrive transmission. The engine features sequential multi-port fuel injection (new for '86) and is rated at 150 horsepower at 3,400 rpm and 275 foot pounds of torque at 2,000 rpm. This is enough horsepower to provide good performance for a car weighing 3,800 pounds. Fuel mileage for the test car averaged 14 miles per gallon for city driving and 23 mpg over the highway. The four-speed automatic can be credited with helping fuel economy.

As mentioned, the Continental is a mid-sized car. The EPA volume index is 117 cubic feet, 102 interior and 15 trunk. Other dimensions include: wheelbase, 108.5 inches; length, 200.7; width, 73.6, and height, 55.6. What all of this means is that five people can ride in comfort.

Base price for the Continental is $24,556, which is quite a base in any ballpark. Standard features are numerous and include: power four-wheel disc brakes, automatic climate control, coach lamps, power everything, electronic AM-FM stereo with cassette, compass temperature group, keyless entry system, dual visor vanity mirrors and a very high level of trim.

Full price on the test car, including a delivery charge of $524, came to $26,346. Options included: leather seat trim, $551; ''Traction-Loc'' axle, $101; up graded puncture sealant tires, $190; geometric cast aluminum wheels, $298, and upgraded audio system (among other things has 12 speakers), $506.