The Lincoln Wheat Ears reverse was replaced with the Lincoln Memorial reverse, designed by Frank Gasparro, in 1959. The main reason for this change was simply that people were getting a little tired of the Wheat reverse as it approached its 50th anniversary. Various proposals were put forward for a new reverse type, including a depiction of the log cabin in which Lincoln was born.
In the end, the awe inspiring Lincoln Memorial building was chosen, along with a release date that marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth: February 12, 1959.
As is the case with nearly all first year coin design types, people saved them in mint state in large numbers, making the 1959 Lincoln Memorial an easy to find coin in the higher grades. Usually, the second year coins of a new type are generally ignored by all but the collecting community, but this wasn't the case with the 1960 Lincoln Memorial Cents.
Although the 1960 Large Date and Small Date varieties are nowhere near the seminal types that the 1955 Doubled Die penny was, the public took notice of a change in the size of the date that was made early in the production of the 1960 cents. Apparently, the Mint was having trouble with the digits of the date chipping on the dies, (especially the zero,) so the Mint made a new master die in mid-year. The last time the U.S. Mint is believed to have changed the master tools in mid-year for the Lincoln Cent was back in 1909, when they removed the V.D.B. from the reverse!
Due to various economic factors, a serious coin shortage ensued in the U.S. in the early 1960s, and by 1963 the government was grasping at straws trying to solve the problem. One of the Mint's solutions was to remove the mint marks from the coins, in the hope that coin collectors wouldn't save as many of them if there were fewer varieties to keep. Another bright idea was to freeze the dates on the coins, such that 1964 dated pennies are reputed to have been struck as late as 1966! The U.S. Mint was working around the clock, churning out coins at full capacity, but it took until 1968 before coin supplies eased up and the mint marks were restored.
The Lincoln Memorial Cent continued to be struck in an alloy that consisted of 95% copper until 1982. The price of copper bullion had risen so high that it cost more to make each penny than the penny was worth. Since the Mint was no longer making a profit, something had to be done.
The solution was to change the Lincoln Memorial Cent alloy to 97.5% zinc, with a pure copper coating that comprises 2.5% of the total alloy. The hope was that the pennies would still look the same, while the government didn't lose its shirt manufacturing them. Although there were some problems early on, with the coins corroding quickly and the plating becoming streaky or bubbled, overall the zinc-alloy cents have a been a great success.
1982 is called a "transistional" year, because the Mint was transistioning from one major alloy type to another. Under normal circumstances, we should have had 4 different 1982 Lincoln Cent varieties; one from each active Mint in copper, and one from each Mint in zinc. However, the Mint also made a rare master die change in 1982, resulting in another of the so-called "Large Date and Small Date" variety types. When it was all said and done, these were the seven major circulation varieties of 1982 Lincoln Cents:
In addition to these, a 1982-S Proof Copper Cent was struck.
The Lincoln Cent has had quite a journey during its nearly 100 years of existance. Today's Lincoln Cents are generally very well-struck specimens when compared to random cents of the past, and since the Mint has worked out most of the kinks with the zinc-copper bond corroding, streaking, and bubbling, the durability of the Lincoln Cents of today is much improved. However, the days of the Lincoln Cent might be numbered, as once again, the cost of making the pennies has exceeded their face value. Most pundits expect that the Lincoln Cent may finally see retirement following the anniversary issues of 2009.
The Presidential Dollar Act of 2005 calls for a special commemorative series of Lincoln Cents to be struck in 2009. Four reverse designs are called for, which are to be emblematic of various stages of President Lincoln's life (as stated in the Act):
The obverse of this special commemorative penny, which will be minted in the same 95% copper alloy as the 1909 pennies were, will retain the Victor David Brenner portrait as depicted on the original coin dies.