How Lincoln Is Reinventing Itself for the 21st Century
There was a time not very long ago when owning a Lincoln really meant something. Although it had been owned by Ford since the 1920s, Lincoln was a true luxury brand and sold some of the nicest cars on the market. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, big, slab-sided Lincolns provided about as much comfort as money could buy. They were tremendously long, with a ride tuned for pillow-like softness, and thoughts of “handling” or “cornering” likely never entered the designers’ minds. They were powered by humongous engines, too, like the 7.5-liter Lincoln 460, a big block V8 with some serious grunt.
Unfortunately, when the oil crisis hit, people began to look for more fuel-efficient cars. While a 7.5-liter V8 was great for making lots of power, its fuel economy could easily dip into the single digits. Compared to tiny imports like the Honda Civic with three or four times better gas mileage, selling cars that got less than 10 miles per gallon became a lot harder, even if they were plush and luxurious. Customer tastes had changed, and efficiency became more important. Nineteen-foot-long land yachts were going out of style, and as Lincoln struggled to respond, sales dropped.
Significantly lighter and nearly a yard shorter than the Continental, the Lincoln Versailles looked like a decent attempt on paper, but it proved unpopular with customers and barely survived for three years before it was canceled. Over the next decade, Lincoln tried design changes, introducing new features and adding safety technology, but it never managed to return to its former glory. Even as successful as the Lincoln Town Car ended up being for fleet sales, on the consumer side, its reputation as a car for the elderly didn’t do much for the brand’s image.
What ultimately proved to be both a blessing and a curse was Ford’s creation of its Premier Automotive Group. After its purchase of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo, Ford decided to create a division that would oversee its luxury brands, which Premier became. For Lincoln, this meant the opportunity to share costs with other brands and finally develop a car that could reinvigorate the brand.
A collaboration with Jaguar eventually led to 2000’s Lincoln LS, a rear-wheel-drive, midsize luxury sedan that offered modern engines, sporty performance, and a distinctive look. The LS was a great success, selling more than 50,000 units in its first full year and winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 2000. Unfortunately, after pulling Lincoln out of the Premier Auto Group, Ford was reluctant to continue to update the Lincoln LS, and eventually the LS began to show its age until it was canceled in 2006.
Lincoln also saw a glimmer of hope when it introduced a luxury version of Ford’s Expedition, an SUV that Lincoln called the Navigator. SUVs were exploding in popularity at the time, and Lincoln rode that wave to sales success for several years. Sales took a sharp dive in 2008, though, and never recovered. Much like when the oil crisis hit in the 1970s, rising gas prices in the U.S. were driving Americans to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and large SUVs became less popular.
Part of Lincoln’s struggle had to do with the other cars in the Premier Automotive Group. Having both Volvo and Jaguar in the same division as Lincoln created a number of challenges. Sharing platforms and development costs helped each brand save money, but failing to differentiate the brands had the potential to force them to compete with each other for sales. After all, how is one corporation supposed to sell three luxury sedans from different companies that all compete in the same class? Moreover, it also made little sense to group brands together that ultimately had very little to do with each other.
Moving Lincoln out of the Premier Automotive Group and replacing the Lincoln LS with the Ford Fusion-based Zephyr allowed Ford to save money and provide a bit more distinction within the group. But soon after, it sold off the rest of the highly unprofitable Premier Automotive Group, which might not have been the best idea. With Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo all under different ownership, Ford was left with a Lincoln brand that lacked its own unique identity. Even after a name change to the MKZ and a complete redesign, the Fusion-based Lincoln has yet to see the same sales success as the LS initially had. Lincoln offers a handful of other Ford-based vehicles, as well, but at least for now, Lincoln remains largely irrelevant in every segment.
Considering how much Lincoln is still struggling, it might seem that American luxury is dying and that foreign brands are too dominant. It could certainly use some help, but don’t count American luxury out just yet. To see why, just look to General Motors.
Cadillac faced many of the same challenges through the 1980s and 1990s as Lincoln. Its lineup was out of touch with what the modern buyer wanted, and it was no longer the luxury icon that it once was. Introduced as a 2003 model, the Cadillac CTS landed on dealers’ lots and soon made a serious splash. Like the Lincoln LS, it was a rear-wheel-drive midsize luxury sedan with a powerful engine that was aimed squarely at the Europeans.
Unlike Ford with Lincoln, however, General Motors didn’t have to worry about the CTS stepping on the toes of any of its other brands, and it had some serious sales momentum. A second-generation CTS was introduced in 2008, and the third generation was introduced in 2014. It’s been so successful that a BMW 3 Series fighter, the ATS, was introduced for 2013, and a full-size flagship sedan, the CT6, is set to be unveiled soon.
Not everything at Cadillac has been a major sales hit, but compared to the Cadillac of 15 years ago, it may as well be a completely different car company. General Motors is committed to making Cadillacs that can compete with the best luxury cars in the world, and it’s not going to take “no” for an answer.
While Ford isn’t quite there yet, it has the opportunity to do a similar thing with Lincoln over the next few years. Selling off the Premier Automotive Group and essentially starting over from scratch with Lincoln made it difficult, but Ford says it’s committed to giving Lincoln its own identity and developing vehicles that are more than just Fords with different badges on the front. In 2012, Ford changed Lincoln’s name to Lincoln Motor Company, and while it still sits under the Ford corporate umbrella, Lincoln now has its own product design and development teams. Bringing a world-class vehicle to market takes time, though, and it will probably be several years before the first truly unique Lincoln goes on sale.
In the meantime, things are looking up. The Lincoln MKZ has seen sales increases year over year since 2009, and while the second-generation MKZ is still based on the Ford Fusion, Lincoln’s design team has given it an attractive, distinctive look that isn’t confusable with the Fusion in the least. The newest Lincoln, the Escape-based MKC, applies the same design language to a crossover SUV with similar success.
One Ford-based model that could actually work really well is a Lincoln version of the Mustang. The Mustang is one of the few rear-wheel-drive vehicles that Ford sells, giving a Lincoln version the opportunity to be a truly exciting and engaging luxury sports car. New bodywork and a luxurious interior would be all that Lincoln would need to go up against the likes of the Audi A5, BMW 4 Series, Cadillac ATS Coupe, Lexus RC, and Mercedes C-Class Coupe. The new Mustang is already such a great car, it’s a shame to see Ford only use it for one purpose. Plus, up-fitting an already existing model would take a less time to develop than a completely new model.
But to truly be competitive, Lincoln needs its own rear-wheel-drive sedan, as well. Instead of trying to compete in the luxury midsize market immediately, it makes sense for Lincoln to stay true to its history and go big, introducing a full-size 7 Series and S-Class competitor, like this 2018 Lincoln Continental proposal. A flagship sedan like a new Continental would need to be loaded with luxury features and advanced technology, but it would also be an opportunity for the brand to show what kind of risks it’s willing to take.
Ultimately, though, with little official word on what’s coming, Lincoln’s future remains a mystery. If Ford keeps doing what it’s been doing and continues to sell Lincolns as slightly nicer Fords, it’s doubtful that the brand will survive another five years. As dull as Lincolns have been, losing such a historic brand would be disheartening. With a strong commitment from Ford to fund innovative, competitive vehicles, Lincoln has a chance to mirror Cadillac’s success and reinvent itself as the pinnacle of American luxury. For now, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that Ford can pull it off.
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