August 12th, 2003

Lincoln languishes as PAG plunders

A company of three mindsets - soon to have just three, disparate products

Now effectively down to three products, Lincoln has yet to form a cohesive strategy between them. With just $650 million to spend, and now out of the PAG preferred circle, the brand is likely to have a tough time.

was founded in 1917 by Harry Leland, whose intention was to build aircraft engines for the First World War. It was not until 1920 that the first Lincoln, the ‘L’ series, was introduced and not till 1922 that the company was acquired by Ford
The failure of Lincoln's Aviator (above, here at the 2002 New York Auto Show) demonstrates - if the Lincoln Blackwood (top) had not already - that mimicking the Lincoln Navigator is not enough
The Navigator, according to Michigan Lincoln dealer Jack Demmer, is "selling like popcorn." Indeed, it is iconic (if somewhat gaudy) in its own right. A full sixty percent of Navigator customers are new to Lincoln. But for how long will it continue to sell, and why must a truck guide Lincoln's strategy and design?
The capable Lincoln LS, revised with more horsepower and better interior materials, sells well enough but neither makes enough of a statement for the Lincoln brand nor enjoys the type of brand support it should. Pictured is the '04 LSE, a cosmetically altered model which, while a welcome sign of life, adds less substance than Lincoln enthusiasts might have hoped for. Clearly, a wider range of Lincoln enthusiast cars is needed. For this, we simply need to turn to Lincoln's own concepts
A little mystique, a little pride, and this 1996 Lincoln Sentinel Concept show-stopper was a good example of Lincoln's inherent ability to right itself. The modern interpretation of the '40s Continental grille ensured that the car could only be a Lincoln, while the close proximity between the front fender and the wheelwell gave it as much aggression as the upwardly sloping rear lent it a certain elegance - much as with the 2003 Cadillac Sixteen Concept. What happened to this design?
Class-leading Lincoln design, the 1961 Continental remains a masterpiece that, according to the company itself, "established a signature look for Lincoln that was totally unique (with) its sheer body surfaces, unique center-opening doors and chrome accented upper shoulder line"
Is it any wonder, then, that we are so fond of the 2002 Lincoln Continental Concept? The car used aluminum and composite body-on-frame construction with composite outer skin, and was finished in 'silver sea spray'
The Continental Concept's horizontal emphasis continued at the rear of the car, and a Lincoln star badge divided the large LED lamps. While there was relatively little critical acclaim for this design, we love it. The next LS, perhaps? But, please, rebadge it 'Continental' - a name which could only be affixed to a Lincoln
While the 2001 Mk 9 Concept was not one of our favorites, it was low, wide, and had enough presence to be worthy of consideration. Expect its details to feature on future Lincolns
The 1936 Lincoln Zephyr is considered by many to be the first successful streamlined car
Lincoln's 1977 Versailles signaled the start of its problems. Based on the Ford Fairmont, the Versailles' greater refinement could not disguise the staid driving dynamics at a time when Mercedes and BMW were pushing the envelope. Lincoln's future with car platforms outside of PAG concerns us; it is critical to Lincoln's past and future - inextricable from each other - that its design department be permitted to grace viable componentry

"For quite a while, people have been talking about what the future of Lincoln might be. We need to concentrate on the present. It's irresponsible not to put all your effort into improving your performance today."

Darryl Hazel,
Lincoln Division (speaking to Automotive News)

"It's a lot easier to go to (Ford CEO) Bill Ford and ask for a couple billion dollars for future products if you're doing well."

anonymous Lincoln insider (speaking to Automotive News)

”Cadillac has the bit in its mouth and it's charging... Lincoln can turn it around, too, but it won't be easy."

Jim Hossack, consultant, AutoPacific (speaking to Automotive News)

"People don't just say, I drive a Lincoln... they say, 'I drive a Navigator or an LS' because Lincoln doesn't really stand for anything. It's really hard to sell against a Lexus or a Mercedes, which offer so much status."

Jack Trout,
Trout & Partners (speaking to Automotive News)

Lincoln has experienced its second failure of the millennium. The Aviator, an Explorer with an inspired interior but a somewhat prohibitive price tag ($39,000 through $54,000), will cease production with the 2004 model after just one model year-and-a-half on the market – and will join the Blackwood as a Lincoln that, quite simply, did not go according to plan.

The Lexus RX330, BMW X5, and Volvo XC90 likely had something to do with it -

- which brings us to our topic this week: Lincoln's impending plunge as a brand as it continues to take its identity for granted.

Lincoln's greatest strength this past year was in its SUVs and its fleet vehicles. The Navigator has enjoyed a privileged position since its launch, and - as if to underscore the use of their cars as luxury hire transportation - Lincoln Canada recently publicly congratulated a Town Car owner for having driven one million fleet and private kilometers.

It might seem that the last time a Lincoln was considered quite so fashionable, Vietnam and not Iraq was the talking point of the day.

A Lincoln - and not 'Lincoln' as a brand - is the key to this statement, though.

If you are a fan of one of the Lincoln's three separate mindsets, you are part of a cult following of one and only one of Lincoln's three (effectively, once the Aviator dies) cars: Navigator, Town Car, and LS.

The relation between the three? Vague, at best.

Automotive News last year quoted Lincoln President Darryl Hazel has suggesting that until Lincoln improved its performance, there was "no point waxing about what the brand could become."

Respectfully, we disagree.

To ignore the looming problems at Lincoln - which lost almost $1 billion in 2001 - is to close one’s eyes to the turnaround going on across town. After years in the wilderness, arch-rival Cadillac is positioning itself as a company whose cars are worthy of cross-shopping against the omnipresent Germans and the ever-eager Japanese.

Rumors abound, however, that Cadillac’s rejuvenation will cost seven times the budget that Lincoln has been afforded. For $4.7 billion, the General is gunning for the BMW 3 series, the M3, and the Mercedes-Benz SL – and, if predictions about the SRX's and upcoming STS' abilities are to be believed, for the BMW X5 and 5 series.

In the meantime, Ford has quietly revoked Lincoln’s PAG (Premier Auto Group: Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo) membership, apparently so as not to step on Jaguar’s territory, and has reduced its available cash to a paltry $650 million.

As we understand it, former PAG Head Wolfgang Reitzle (now departed) had estimated that it would take $2 billion and ten years to turn Lincoln into a 'global brand.' Lincoln coupes, crossovers, and convertibles were planned from a new platform which the money would afford. When the budget was reduced, Reitzle removed Lincoln from PAG because there were no synergies.

Former Lincoln president Brian Kelley likely left because, under these terms, making Lincoln competitive would be nigh-on impossible.

Focused on the present, one might counter with the notion that the Lincoln LS is a great car. We have not forgotten it (although it might be argued, as we will, that Lincoln has). Yes, the LS is an excellent car. Now revamped with more power, better finished, and better-built, only the lack of a stick-shift (quietly removed from the V6 and never offered with the V8 as was once promised) gives us pause for thought. It is fitting, though, that the majority we have seen are painted in dark colors; not only does this emphasize the dashes of chrome (without which it might well be confused for a Mitsubishi Diamante), but it seems apt considering that the car seems doomed to remain a dark horse in Lincoln’s stable.

The LS was good enough to receive Motor Trend’s 2000 ‘Car of the Year’ award and to donate its platform for use in Jaguar’s S-Type. Yet Jaguar’s development continues – attracting relatively mixed attention even as Lincoln's entire budget was reportedly spent on just the X-Type's all-wheel-drive transfer case – while Lincoln languishes. A pity, since the work done to create the 400hp S-Type R could no doubt help give the LS range some pep. Without re-iterating last week’s rants about the X-Type, we do want to remind Ford that the question of overlap would never have been a problem if Jaguar had been allowed to concentrate on the cars it should have been building all along.

More to the point, Lincoln has been in a sales race with Cadillac for as long as Jaguar has not been primarily measured by its commercial success. In other words, Lincoln has a better chance of concentrating on sales figures than Jaguar, while the British retain their more exclusive image and chase profitability.

Its hands tied behind its back, Lincoln is a company of three mindsets.  With the Navigator, Lincoln is riding an uncertain trend; with the Town Car, it ensures sales (if not quite positioning), and with the LS, it attempts to prove that a Lincoln, too, can Lambada.

Does Lincoln’s success with the Navigator not prove that Americans still appreciate large cars? Is the Lincoln badge not well-endowed enough to deliver them?

Automotive News has reported that Lincoln will field a new convertible and a rear-wheel-drive vehicle that is a cross between a sedan and sport-utility, both likely as 2006 models.

Why is Lincoln worth this investment? Lincoln as a brand remains a formidable name, with historical upscale implications of mystique, innovation, power, and refinement. The 1936 Zephyr is considered by many to be the first successful streamlined car, and the 1961 Continental remains unforgettable. In addition, the '55 Lincoln Futura Concept-based Batmobile from 1966 retained enough Lincoln cues to have planted a potent seed in the minds of many current potential Lincoln buyers. It is up to Lincoln to exploit it.

Just a few years ago, Lincoln was America's best-selling luxury brand. In J.D. Power's 2001 Vehicle Dependability Study, Lincoln placed fourth. The 2002 J.D. Power APEAL study, which  measures "owner delight with the design, content, layout and performance of their new vehicles," placed the Lincoln Town Car at the top of the Midsize Luxury class, ahead of the BMW 5 series and Lexus GS300/ 430. Of all the Ford brands, only Volvo beat Lincoln in that year's J.D. Power Customer Service Index Study.

While Lincoln may not recently have had bright spots equivalent to Cadillac’s Northstar engine, it has not been without talent, either. The 1996 Lincoln Continental featured the industry's first telematics system (RESCU), integrating location-based GPS satellite technology with hands-free cellular telecommunications and 24-hour call center response to offer an emergency and a convenience service.

Finally, it is interesting to note that PAG has not shown a profit in several years and has a worldwide volume roughly equal to Lincoln/ Mercury combined.

Assuming that we agree Lincoln is worth saving, what needs to be done? A uniting strategy amongst Lincoln's products is critical. Evidently, the company realizes it has a problem; as Automotive News has noted, the American Luxury slogan disappeared recently because Lincoln's disjointed range belied its uniting implication.

The Blackwood and Aviator have shown that SUVs can only take Lincoln so far. Flying in the face of this logic, Lincoln/ Mercury dealerships are left with just two products that are not body-on-frame (the Sable and the LS). Leaving aside its trucks, it is hard to imagine that Lincoln can compete using car platforms external to PAG.

The Taurus-based Continental stood no more chance against serious competition than did the early '90s Camry-based Lexus ES300 (a horribly expedient car) or the Maxima-based Infiniti I30. Further back in Lincoln's history, the Fairmont-based Versailles started Lincoln's troubles in the late '70s as it struggled for credibility against the Cadillac Seville – let alone the concurrent Stuttgart and Munich 200- and 5 series.

While the Japanese, with little history to speak of, seem able to reinvent themselves until their product is perfected, Lincoln has become almost burdened by its heritage.

Celebrate it, Lincoln, for it cannot be created on a whim no matter what the marketing budget.

Indeed, Lincoln itself notes that its iconic '61 Continental "established a signature look for Lincoln that was totally unique (with) its sheer body surfaces, unique center-opening doors and chrome accented upper shoulder line." The Pacific and Northwest Region of the Lincoln and Continental Owners Club adds that "the new Lincoln Continental was a clean, elegant design which influenced the look of many of the cars of the 60's including the '63 Pontiac Grand Prix, '63 Buick Riviera and '64 Imperial."

It is true that the LS has been selling at a 40,000 unit per year rate for the last two years, on par with BMW's 5 series but well off the 80,000+ pace of Cadillac's more expensive DeVille. It does well enough, but – without the backing and brand reinforcement that a more cohesive corporate Lincoln might provide -  seems ignored by buyers (consider that a base model LS is just over $31,000).

While Cadillac rebounds with product after product, and foreign rivals stretch to fill every imaginable niche, Lincoln is left with four lines (soon to be three), and Mercury, just four. Overlap between the two brands is killing creativity as the Grand Marquis and Town Car pick up fleet buyers and the Mountaineer and Navigator chase sales that may well decline. We think it is time to bring out two of the concepts that have best captured what a Lincoln is.

The 1996 Lincoln Sentinel and 2002 Lincoln Continental Concepts are the two recent Lincoln designs we would most like to see on the road. The latter was developed by Gerry McGovern, appointed Lincoln/ Mercury Design Director in August 1999. McGovern's portfolio includes the current Range Rover, Land Rover Discovery, Land Rover Freelander, and the MGF.

Both Sentinel and Continental showcased Lincoln's inherent understanding of its visual heritage and strengths: in particular, a certain aggressive-yet-restrained elegance, wrapped up in ominous detailing and a powerful sense of presence. Imagine the Continental as an LS replacement, and the Sentinel as a profitable luxury car beyond the reach of the rental Town Car. The Continental's design is perfectly adaptable to a wagon format.

With a little work, the Mk 9 Concept could be the next Mark IX coupe - and could spawn convertible.

Considering that Lincoln is now PAG's step-child, where would the mechanical underpinnings come from? We hear rumbling out of Ford that the Mazda6 platform could spawn a new Lincoln wagon. If this is the way things must go, we wonder how far the structure could be stretched. Furthermore, how much life is left in the current Lincoln LS' chassis? We are tempted to believe it could be refined, then perhaps stretched to incorporate the Sentinel.

Incidentally, just as with Jaguar, we would argue that Lincoln does not need a car quite as small as the X-Type. Leave that to Mercury, and let's see some of the inspiration of the 2003 Messenger Concept. Lincoln's contribution to the class should be closer in size to the current Lincoln LS than the BMW 3 series; the Infiniti G35 has shown it is possible to compete with the 3 series without borrowing its 2002-inspired compact packaging.

McGovern's work is a gentle reminder to Lincoln that the reason to relocate its headquarters from Detroit to Irvine, California in 1998 was to take advantage of California design trends. After all, this was Volvo’s rationale, and the result has been some wonderful production and concept work directed by Peter Horbury.

Whether cash-strapped Ford can find the platforms for Lincoln's design renaissance remains a question. PAG or not, it is time for Ford to financially back Lincoln's inherent talent and potential.