Lincoln, Quo Vadis? (written in 1997)
In the face of an increasingly competitive, fractured car market, where goes Lincoln? Will the marque that survived the Great Depression and World War II be able to withstand a ruthless global market where more and more competitors are fighting for what amounts to less and less market share? The near term outlook is more hopeful than further out thanks to Lincoln's Navigator catching what still appears to be the upward crest of the sport-ute craze. Navigator, for the time being, has outclassed the competition in the luxury sport-ute market. The product is a logical and sensible extension of the the wildly popular Ford Expedition vehicle. In terms of styling, size, performance and amenities, there is nothing in the market to compare with Navigator. Assuming that the sport-ute wave has yet to crest (unlike the mini-van which is now in an inevitable sales decline), Navigator promises to be a short-term cash cow for Lincoln while it figures out what to do next.
The demographics for Lincoln cars are not good. The age of the average buyer is post-retirement and going up rather than down. Prior to Navigator, the Town Car was a dependable revenue generator. This was a result more of accident than design. In the 1980's, when everyone else (read "GM") was going to front-wheel drive and smaller wheelbases, Ford bet the farm on the Taurus. There was simply no money left for a new Town Car which left Ford stuck with a large, rear wheel drive sedan. By dumb luck, this was exactly what the market wanted. Real gas prices were way down and buyers were tired of econo-box models. The Town Car became and remains to this day a dependable, if uninspiring, seller to both fleet and individual sales.
The current problem with the Town Car is the demographics of individual buyers. With a younger generation not seeing the benefits of the product, can the car continue to make it by increasing reliance on fleet sales? The 1998 restyle of the Town Car does not go far enough in this writer's opinion to excite interest outside of the current, declining ownership pool. From the press photos, the car looks more and more like a Crown Victoria or Grand Marquis. Definitely not the direction to go. A dramatic departure from the past by wholesale adoption of the Sentinel platform could have shaken the market in the same way that the 1961 Lincoln Continental was a break from everything that came before it. The styling reflected in both the Sentinel and Mercury's MC2 concept cars shouts a certain boldness and courage that otherwise has been sadly lacking in Lincoln car design (and nonexistent in Mercury's).
The current Continental is an example of a well-engineered car that is going nowhere fast with a completely uninspiring design. Rumors of the platform's demise (a la Thunderbird) are a pathetic commentary on the inability of Lincoln to come up with a product that excites a younger market of potential buyers. The result is a car that went from being luxury priced and equipped when introduced to the current model that is near-luxury priced and decontented. Not a good sign.
Ford's enormous investment in Jaguar looks like it's about to pay off, although it might be like the reunification of Germany and take 100 years to do so. In any event, the current designs out of Coventry are turning heads in the right way. The buzz that there's a Jaguar platform in Lincoln's future may be the best than can be hoped for.
The Mark VIII may have been too little, too soon for another favorable trend. The Baby Boomers are becoming empty-nesters. The mini-vans are no longer necessary for carpooling kids to soccer games. Furthermore, the mini-vans, despite their enormous utility, now convey an image that is starting to wear out its welcome. Soccer moms (including ex-soccer moms) don't want people to think of them as soccer moms. Therefore, the spectacular success of the sport-utes (and opportunity for Navigator). But ex-soccer moms are only half of the equation. Ex-soccer dads are likewise leading a trend back to personal, luxury sports coupes as demonstrated by the recent proliferation of Z-3's, SLK's, XK-8's, etc. The V-12 powered Lincoln L2 roadster concept car from a few years ago would have been a terrific contender in this burgeoning market. The Mark VIII had the power and performance but its looks didn't hit enough people's hot buttons. The only thing it needed in this writer's opinion to make it take off is a top that does the same. A convertible Mark VIII would be dramatic and put it as the only domestic contender in what's bound to be a very lucrative market segment. Do the number crunchers at Ford have the moxie to OK taking the top off the Mark VIII? Or a Mark IX? Probably not, but in all fairness, it may be too late in the model life cycle to do so, although SAAB and Volvo seem to get away with turning out the same cars year after year. (Oh, I guess that was before GM and Ford took over.)
In conclusion, it's easy to be a sideline quarterback. It's quite another matter to be in the game making real-time decisions with real-dollar consequences. Nevertheless, it seems fairly safe to say that about the only thing we know for certain about Lincoln's future is that more of the same spells doom in the long run.
Editor's comment - Kris showed a great deal of foresight when he wrote this article in 1997.
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