You probably haven't given much thought to Ford's Lincoln premium brand in at least a decade and you're not alone.
While Ford was busy rebuilding the cars and trucks of the Blue Oval -the Ford Focus compact and the Ford F-Series pickup to name two of the most important - Lincoln was, metaphorically, pushed to the far corner of Ford's product creation garage.
For years and years and years, Lincoln has been tucked away behind never-used power tools, empty cardboard boxes and some dusty Christmas wrapping from a time when Lincoln could celebrate its status as America's No. 1 premium brand. That was back in the early 1990s, when total annual Lincoln sales inched towards nearly a quarter-million.
By the late 1990s, Lincoln had begun a steady slide and last year sales in the United States and Canada combined came in at less than 100,000. That's just a little more than half the number of Cadillacs sold in 2010 and slightly more than a third the number of Lexus models.
Moreover, 2011 is shaping up to be worse. Heck, as Automotive News points out, the last U.S. president to ride in a Lincoln limousine was George Bush - not the younger one, Dubya, but his daddy, the guy who lost to Bill Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush.
For more than a year now, the brass at Ford have been promising to "fix" Lincoln. They better. Among premium brands, Lincoln is an also-ran. The cars and light trucks aren't bad; they're just not different enough from the Fords on which they are based.
In fact, the basics are pretty good at Lincoln. The latest long-term Vehicle Dependability Study from J.D. Power and Associates ranks the Lincoln brand No. 1 overall, ahead of Lexus, Jaguar, Porsche and Toyota in the top five and all the rest, too. True, J.D. Power's latest Initial Quality Study saw Lincoln plunge to No. 17 from No. 8 in 2010, but that was mostly due to one issue: the MyLincoln Touch gizmo controls which apparently are difficult for a number of buyers to decipher. Lincolns score well in crash tests, meanwhile, and they are well-equipped for the price.
Pricing. Ah, now there's an issue for Lincoln. Ford should be realizing a pricing premiums on every Lincoln sold. Instead, Lincoln has become a discounted brand. Not only is Lincoln part of the Ford/Lincoln Employee Pricing event in Canada right now, buyers will find additional discounts, such as the $2,500 factory-to-dealer rebate on the MKS sedan and MKT crossover - with the MKT coming with an additional $1,000 rebate for existing Costco owners.
This sort of thing simply cannot continue and Ford's leadership swears it won't. For the past few months, Ford's bosses have been connecting the dots around Lincoln's future, hinting at new products and being specific at least about the number of new models coming. Okay, then, here's what we know about the future of Ford Motor's limping Lincoln brand.
"The strategy isn't just new products, but full differentiation from the Ford brand in not only design but in technology," Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice-president of global product development, reportedly told a group of auto analysts at January's Detroit auto show.
Translation: Ford will take a page out of say, Audi. What works for Audi? Sleek designs, brilliant interiors, novel technology and above all, economy of scale.
On the latter, Audi shares basic engineering and platform technology with other vehicles in the sprawling Volkswagen Group. This allows Audi to spend money where buyers can see it, feel it, touch it and drive it. And sell nearly as many vehicles as Bavarian rival BMW with half the employees.
Ford plans to share global platforms between Ford and Lincoln brand vehicles, but make the so-called "top hats" very different. No easy task, this. At the New York auto show last spring, the head of design for Ford in the Americas, Moray Callum, suggested Ford might need to spend more money on future Lincolns than previously expected within the company - primarily because Ford has been taking the Ford brand up-market with slick designs and crafty technologies.
"We are trying to give Ford the perception of premium-ness," he told Automotive News. "That gives us an increased challenge with Lincoln." He added, "We'll have a much more dedicated Lincoln design language. We're treating Lincoln as a whole different brand much more so than we did in the past."
Kuzak, Ford's head of product development, told me in New York, "We have a strategy to refine and enhance the Ford products. That delivers better revenue for us. Lincoln will have a totally different DNA. It won't be a Ford. It'll be a Lincoln."
By this November, Ford bosses suggest we will see concrete evidence of Lincoln's future at the Los Angeles auto show. But November, 2011, is more than a year since Ford announced a plan to launch seven "new or significantly improved" Lincoln products by 2014.
What's coming first? The Wall Street Journal reports that Ford will unwrap redesigned versions of its MKS sedan and MKT sport-utility vehicle. A sleeker MKS will have self-tuning suspension and steering, and the latest version of the MyLincoln Touch hands-free controls and entertainment system, too. The Journal also suggests that additional head-turning technologies will include retractable, all-glass roofs and computerized sound-reduction technology.
"Lincoln will give [customers]opportunities to tell a story about what is unique in their vehicle," Kuzak told the Journal. "You think of BMW as engaging to drive; you can think of Lexus as refined. Bring them together and it is a new experience no customer has ever had."
Ford officials suggest the updated MKS and MKT will hit showrooms in the first half of 2012. A new MKZ is coming late in 2012. Four more new Lincolns will come in the 2013 to 2014 time frame, though none is expected to be a pure rear-drive sedan along the lines of the outgoing Lincoln Town Car.
If Ford is successful, there is a chance the company will take the Lincoln brand global. But don't look for this to happen in the near term. As The Detroit News has reported, Ford CEO Alan Mulally wants Lincoln to conquer its home market before going abroad.
"Our focus right now is in the United States because we have a lot of brand equity," Mulally said. "And we didn't tarnish the brand. We just didn't invest in it."
But if Ford fails to nail the reinvention of Lincoln, it could be curtains for the 96-year-old brand. Veteran Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes worries that Ford's plan to make Lincoln a technology-heavy brand is risky, given the bulk of Lincoln buyers today are older and not tech-savvy in the least.
This approach "risks alienating loyal (Lincoln) customers who struggle to use a touch screen to tweak the AC fan speed. Or who get irritated by the fact they've accidentally hit the nearby emergency flasher switch for the umpteenth time."
The point is, Lincoln's future success is by no means assured. We need to see the new models. Until then, the Lincoln lineup is an array of discounted though dependable models based on existing Fords - but with different styling and some unique technologies, though not so many and not so rich as to make Lincolns stand out dramatically from the pack.
It's time for Ford to invest in Lincoln, or simply kill it like Ford did Mercury.
The new Town Car
The aging Lincoln Town Car is going away in just a few months, to be replaced next year by a limousine version of the Lincoln MKT crossover.
The coming MKT Town Car will be offered to coach builders with two versions of the same basic chassis: standard MKT in front-wheel- or all-wheel drive and the limo package with its upgraded MKT chassis, transmission and suspension and standard all-wheel drive.
In terms of a practical livery car, the MKT is a brilliant solution, though some premium customers might be worried their limo looks like a van, not an expensive car. The new limo's technology may make believers out of the limousine industry: all MKT Town Cars will include Sync technology, rear and blind-spot cameras and reconfigured interiors to allow for more passenger room, Lincoln has said.
The coming MKT Town Car is expected to be produced at Ford's Oakville, Ont., assembly plant, alongside standard versions of the crossover. Production will start in the spring of 2012.