I am quite certain you recall the brilliance of the now-departed Lincoln MKC, and who could forget the MKX, the MKT and the MKXYZ.
Okay, that last one never existed.
But in recent years, Ford Motor’s ever-aspiring premium brand of warmed-over Fords included small, medium and large SUVs (sport-utility vehicles) – the MKC, MKX and the three-row MKT. You might have expected to find an MKZ at the top of the SUV heap. But no. The pinnacle of Lincoln was the long-running Navigator, a humongous rig that in its best years was the darling of Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z and airport-driven businessmen everywhere.
Navigator sales topped 40,000 a year in the late 1990s, prompting one very senior Ford boss to tell me that the Navigator pays for everything lese at Lincoln – and also at the then-Mercury brand, and other premium brands once owned by Ford, including Jaguar and Volvo.
Alas, success was fleeting. Even the Navigator hit a rough patch, one that sent it skidding to near-oblivion. From 2009 to 2017, sales of the long-neglected Navigator hovered around 10,000 or less a year. The luxury behemoth had grown stale and competitors from BMW to Mercedes-Benz to Audi jumped in with more interesting alternatives, none of which based on a pickup truck.
Look, Lincoln has been wandering in the wilderness for decades. Even as recently as 2016, Ford…er, Lincoln had pinned its hope on a Lincoln revival based on the stunningly derivative Continental sedan at a time when the entire luxury car market was in the midst of a wholesale shift to trucks – SUVs, that is.
The mess at Lincoln began percolating at least as far back as the late 1990s, when by luck or just good timing Ford/Lincoln birthed the cash-cow Navigator and grew lazy with success. Former Ford of Canada president Mark Hutchins was running the Lincoln brand then. He and his bosses at Ford had transformational plans for Lincoln, starting with a grandly announced move of the entire Lincoln operation to that hub of automotive action, Irvine, California. There, Lincoln would be co-located with Ford’s other then-premium brands – Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and so on. You might recall something called the Premium Automotive Group, or PAG. It’s dead now, but back then it was a big, money-losing deal.
To be fair, the idea seemed brave and promising at the time, so I pursued the story in late 1999. The game was up for me by the time I had made my first visit to Irvine to talk to Hutchins about Lincoln. He wasn’t in, I was told. In fact, he spent most of his time at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. Eventually, Lincoln moved back to Dearborn. Experiment over, lost executive travel time eliminated. That shemozzle cost cost shareholders tens of millions.
Or how about 2012. Ford had learned from the Irvine debacle, we were told. Raj Nair, the then-new head of global product development at Ford, said Lincoln would get its own product development facility, one that would bring Lincoln-dedicated designers and engineers together in one physical space, as had been the plan more than a decade ago for Irvine. Nair said this would allow the development people to work at lightning speed to create premium cars for today’s upscale buyers. (Nair was later fired for “inappropriate behaviour,” but this did not appear to be related to the mess at Lincoln in product invention.)
In 2012, J Mays, Ford’s global design chief, went on to assure all of us that Lincolns going forward would not merely be Fords with fancy top hats. As he put it, “Style is not just poured over the top of engineering.” Ford brand engineering, to be precise. That sounded promising.
So did what we heard in 2013. Ford/Lincoln officials told the world that the new MKZ midsize sedan would win praise as more than a Ford Fusion with a luscious body, more features and an “oh, wow” cabin.
At about this time, a fellow named Jim Farley, then Ford’s head of global marketing and also global head of Lincoln, was talking about the brand’s new models being aimed at curious Americans who are chasing the “next thing.”
“We are not going to make a big box with a cappuccino machine,” Farley said, adding that “our ambition (with Lincoln) is to produce something very personal, because emerging customers are more reflective and interested in authenticity, rather than showing off how much they have.”
Well, some version of the MKZ is still around, as is the Continental. But the most recent “future” of Lincoln is underpinned entirely by SUVs – the Corsair, Nautilus, Aviator and, yes, the Navigator. The latest reverse-course-and-forward-we go at Lincoln was put in place two years ago, in 2018, when then-new CEO Jim Hackett led the move to make Lincoln mostly an all-in SUV luxury brand.
According to Bloomberg, well-respected Forecaster LMC Automotive predicted in 2018 that Lincoln’s cars would account for less than 10 per cent of sales within a few years. The once-promising Continental and Lincoln’s other slow selling sedan, the MKZ, might very well be gone by next year or sooner, in fact.
Oh, and that Farley character is still pushing a Lincoln story of some sort. Now he’s Ford’s president of global markets, but he’s still singing from a familiar song book. He told Bloomberg that Lincoln gets the most customer “traction” with SUVs. The launch of the Aviator and Corsair will teach Ford and Lincoln even more about where to take Lincoln in the future.
In a 2018 interview, Farley told Bloomberg that Lincoln is finally getting its swagger back. If the latest plan works, “moneyed millennials” will form the backbone of Lincoln buyers and that means there is, indeed, a future for Lincoln.
“You’re going to see a more opinionated Lincoln,” Farley told Bloomberg. “It’s just a confidence we feel that we have found our place.”
I’ve just begun testing the latest Lincoln SUV, the smallish Corsair and successor to the easily-forgotten MKC. It drives quite well, but what stands out most is a long, long roster of details and electronic do-dads – delightfully comfortable seats, easily accessible voice controls, smartphone-compatible ignition key, and so on. More detail to come on all of this in a future road test.
But lest anyone get carried away with the 2020 chapter of the reinvention of Lincoln, let me take you back to my interview with that same Jim Farley in the winter of 2012. Farley had asked his minions to button-hole me for an interview after I had publicly criticized Ford for botching Lincoln’s revival. Again and again and again.
“You’re smart to look at the reinvention of a brand like Lincoln with skepticism and respect,” Farley told me. “I understand exactly what you’re saying. Trust me. The real proof point of Lincoln will be the execution of the product.”
It’s been almost a decade since Farley challenged me to trust him and the then-promised Lincoln revival based on marvelous new products. Need I say more?