Fixing Lincoln has been on Ford’s to-do list for more than a decade, and today the job is more urgent than ever. Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo are gone, so Ford is forgoing the fat markups that come with luxury models at the same time that it is boosting its range of less profitable small cars. Former Lincoln Mercury dealers are clamoring for more product and higher volume to fill the void left by the death of Mercury. And Ford needs to move quickly before ceding too much additional market share to more nimble competitors such as Audi.
So Ford has formed a 92-person Lincoln task force to come up with a plan to start the revival of the languishing brand in time for the 2013 model year. Unlike past schemes involving celebrity designers and high-powered, rear-wheel-drive flagships, Ford is setting the bar lower this time. It is targeting the entry-luxury buyer with $35,000 to $55,000 to spend, and it will be offering a compact sedan and a small crossover for the first time. New Lincolns will get large helpings of Ford technology, such as eight-speed transmissions, computer-controlled dampers, EcoBoost engines, and MyLincoln Touch electronics. But dreams of big-displacement engines powering exclusive Lincoln models, as was the case back in the day, will have to remain just that—dreams. An analysis of Lincoln’s product plans reveals only models built on Ford’s corporate platforms and nothing larger than a V-6.
The company that put America on wheels and later adopted a “One Ford” philosophy has had a complicated relationship with the luxury market. Founded by Henry Leland in 1917, Lincoln was acquired by Henry Ford in 1922, and his descendants made it a viable competitor to Cadillac and other top luxury brands. Henry’s son, Edsel, championed the development of the refined 1940 Continental, with its eponymous bumper-mounted spare tire; Henry’s grandson William Clay led the styling of its successor, the stately 1956 Continental Mark II.
As recently as 1998, Lincoln ranked as the bestselling luxury brand in the United States, propelled by the enormous success of the Navigator SUV. But then-CEO Jac Nasser directed his attention and the company’s resources to its overseas luxury brands, Jaguar and Land Rover. Lincoln was shoehorned uncomfortably into the Premier Automotive Group (PAG), where it languished. Charged with finding a new styling theme for the brand, Land Rover designer Gerry McGovern created a massive slab-sided concept based on the 1961 Continental that remained stuck in the clay-model stage. Nasser departed Ford in October 2001, and PAG was disbanded a year later.
Lincoln never recovered. Its sales for the decade peaked in 2000, at 193,009, and declined steadily after that. A new naming convention inaugurated in 2006, replacing old favorites (Zephyr) with initialisms (MKZ), did nothing to arrest the decline, nor did in-your-face bow-wave styling created by designer Peter Horbury. Sales bottomed in 2009, at 82,847, before recovering slightly in 2010, only to begin sliding again. During the first five months of 2011, Lincoln sank another eight percent while Cadillac rose 23 percent.
To take a fresh look at Lincoln, Ford’s president of the Americas, Mark Fields recruited half the task-force members from outside the company. Group marketing director C.J. O’Donnell came from Jaguar, and others have joined from Audi, Lexus, and Cadillac. They are taking customer service seriously; more than half of the team’s members are working on dealership upgrades. Last October, Ford announced plans to eliminate 175 of its roughly 500 Lincoln franchises in the top 130 markets (metropolitan areas where it is overrepresented) and is demanding substantial improvement in showroom facilities and customer service from the remaining franchisees.
Another foreign-born designer has been selected to spearhead Lincoln’s product rebirth. In December, Ford lured Australian Max Wolff, 39, away from Cadillac, where he was in charge of exterior design and had been working on the DTS replacement, the 2013 XTS. Looking over his shoulder will be Fields and global product development boss Derrick Kuzak. Wolff and company will be plenty busy. Lincoln has promised to introduce seven all-new or redesigned models during the next four years.
The first Wolff-inspired designs arrive for the 2013 model year. Look for an all-new MKZ, which will be based on the Fusion again but with Lincoln styling. As there is today, there will be a hybrid version to add fuel-economy/green cred. Coming in 2014 is the first compact Lincoln—the MKC—which is a crossover based on the Focus.
This November, Lincoln will unveil the 2013 MKS and MKT with refreshed styling and engineering changes to the powertrain and chassis. The jumbo-size Navigator gets a mild midcycle enhancement and an optional twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 from the F-150.
A new version of the Edge-based MKX crossover may arrive in 2014. A completely redone MKS flagship is expected late in 2015. The three-row MKT crossover continues; a replacement is being discussed but has not yet been determined.
Compared with the $4 billion General Motors gambled on Cadillac’s turnaround a decade ago, Ford is making a conscious decision to keep down costs and spread its bets. For the foreseeable future, Lincoln’s products will continue to be based exclusively on Ford products. Cadillac builds some of its models on dedicated architecture, but many of its future models will share components with other GM brands. With the upper middle of the domestic market relatively underserved and even stricter government fuel-economy regulations on the way, Lincoln’s blend of shared global platforms and smaller engines may be smarter than it looks, and may be just what’s needed to reverse the brand’s sales slide. True product differentiation, apparently, will have to wait for another day