Why Lincoln’s “Brand Re-Invention” Won’t Help Lincoln, But a Halo Car Would
The above photograph looks like it could be from the LA Auto Show circa 1950, if they had iPhones with Instagram capability. But it’s not. Ladies (all 2 of you) and gentlemen, this is the single saddest display I saw at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show. Lincoln, in an effort to remind us that at some point many, many years ago, they did indeed make good cars, brought out damn near every good car they’ve ever built; cars powered by V12 engines, suicide-door Continental convertibles, and my personal favorite, the Series II Continental from 1958. This car cost as much as a Rolls-Royce when new and looks twice as good as any contemporary Roller sixty years later. Where’s Lincoln’s new cars? Hiding in a small room, way in the back (in that yellow box in the photograph).
Imagine, today, rather than these relics of a time when Americans were the envy of the automotive world, Lincoln had on a rotating display a production version of the “Series X Continental.” It would be bold, powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine, and handmade with the most expensive Connolly leather and suedes lining the Gulfstream-esque interior. It would have millions of possible paint and trim combinations, ranging from subtle to “Dubai.” Lincoln would say that it costs $400,000, roughly the price of a new Rolls Royce Phantom, and it would be worth it. I hope the people at Lincoln know how proud of my country such a car would make me; like the pride I have when Ford GT’s with stock aerodynamics go nearly 260 MPH in the mile without catching air while making over 1,500 Horsepower using stock internals.
This goes back to last week’s review of the Cadillac XTS, where I expressed my disappointment that Cadillac doesn’t actively try to make a better product than European auto makers, not just in terms of data points like legroom and maximum cornering G’s, but also in the tactile, sensory department, where American brands continue to fall short.
Cadillac and Lincoln both find themselves in the same boat now, with showrooms full of bland styling, average-quality cars, which stack up to the Europeans on paper but don’t quite cut it when butts hit the seats. This is not to say either company is building poor-quality cars; as both Lincoln and Cadillac have lineups with luxury touches, loads of available technology, improved fuel economy, and acceptable reliability ratings. But neither company produces a car deserving of the envy of the rest of the world. Neither company produces a car that someone who can afford a Rolls Royce, or a Mercedes, or a BMW, would want to buy. And that’s because neither company is doing what they should be doing to capitalize on their brand heritage: they should be using that heritage to build top-quality cars and sell them at top-quality prices.
Today, Ford announced the re-branding of Lincoln. Henceforth, it shall be referred to as “Lincoln Motor Company,” which sounds as silly to say out loud as it does to read it on paper. Approximately no one, save for the PR flacks at press launches I’m not invited to, will ever refer to it aloud as “Lincoln Motor Company.” To everyone else, it’s still just Lincoln. And just like all those prospective customers will probably be smart enough to realize the name change means, mostly, nothing, the cars themselves will still be dressed-up Fords, more expensive-yet les appealing than the Fords on which they are based.
Take the MKT (That’s the station wagon one, since most of you have no idea what the actual letters mean). Tom and I did 1,500 miles in one in three days. It was a phenomenal car, actually, and made a great road trip vehicle. The problem is that the Ford Flex, which offers nearly every available feature the MKT does, is better looking, cheaper, and for all intents and purposes, the same car. Same goes for the Fusion/MKZ and Edge/MKX.
I really want, more than anything, to be proud of the American auto industry. And in some cases, I am. The performance division of General Motors and Ford are jam packed with brilliant engineers who can completely transform the dismal Camaro SS into the incredible ZL1, or the Focus into a world-beating hot hatchback. They can make a Mustang better to drive on a race track than an M3, and will sell you a 556 horsepower station wagon with a stick shift, something Audi and Mercedes haven’t been willing to do, ever.
But those are specialty cars, with specialty purposes. They are the exceptions to the rule. And though those cars may be absolutely wonderful to drive, none of them leads the league in style, interior design, or technology, (except maybe the Focus, but even that’s only a $28,000 car).
Lincoln needs a halo car: a car that may sell in small volumes, but that is exorbitantly expensive, and worth it. It needs to be styled with reckless abandon for what most people will buy, but that rappers, actors, Shieks, and celebrities must have it. It must be ridiculously overpowered. It must be ridiculously over-appointed with new features that aren’t available on any Ford. It must be the kind of car that makes you feel like the people who designed the MKS actually care about bringing the brand’s history into the 21′st century, rather than basically selling option packages on Fords and hiding them behind walls at the LA Auto Show, hoping the cars from when Lincoln built world-beating products will keep their attention long enough not to realize there’s a dressed up Ford Fusion in a small room in back.