As Lincoln marks 100 years at Ford, challenges, opportunities loom in brand's 2nd century

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

An "epoch in Detroit's industrial history," as The New York Times put it at the time, was written 100 years ago on Friday when Ford Motor Co. bought Lincoln Motor Co. for $8 million.

The sale, the Times reported in a February 1922 article, came together after automotive entrepreneur and engineer Henry Leland, who founded the company with his son in 1917, appealed to his friend Henry Ford to buy Lincoln out of receivership. Ford was urged to go through with it by his wife, Clara, who thought it would be "a pity that all Detroit should stand aloof and see the Lincoln Company wrecked."

The Lincoln division, first under the leadership of Henry and Clara's son, Edsel, would go on to produce some of the country's most iconic luxury cars, including the Zephyr and various iterations of the Continental. In the late 1990s, Lincoln became the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. for the first time, and in 2014 positioned itself for the success it's now seeing in China when it debuted in the world's largest auto market.

Henry and Clara Ford stand beside a Lincoln car in 1922.

But Lincoln has struggled to remain relevant in its home market, where today it's more of a niche brand that is consistently surpassed in sales by Tesla and such foreign luxury brands as BMW and Toyota's Lexus. 

"Lincoln and [General Motors Co.'s luxury brand] Cadillac have had a roller-coaster history in terms of sales. Both have gone through periods of soul-searching and re-invention. Neither has made it into the top ranks of luxury with the likes of Lexus, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive.

Still, the brand's leaders say they expect growth in the coming years. Lincoln recently unveiled aspects of its approach to electrification and digital connectivity that complements Ford's turnaround strategy. The brand has said it will field a fully electrified lineup by 2030, with further details expected later this year as it kicks off a yearlong series of global events to mark its 100th anniversary with Ford.

"With classic style, form and function that became the hallmark of the brand, there’s something very special about Lincoln,” Ford CEO Jim Farley, who previously headed up Lincoln, said in a statement. “And as we move toward an electric future with connected technologies and always-on experiences, I am so excited to see where the brand will go in China and North America as it begins its second century.”

The Lelands and Fords pose for a photo during the purchase of Lincoln in 1922.

'I want to make the best'

Edsel Ford became the president of Lincoln shortly after Ford purchased the company on Feb. 4, 1922. He served in that role until his death in 1943.

"Father made the most popular cars in the world; I want to make the best," he reportedly said of his vision for the brand.

He established a design department for Ford and Lincoln, and tapped Eugene "Bob" Gregorie to lead it. Some of Gregorie's best-known designs, according to a biography provided by Ford, included the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr — the brand's first mid-priced vehicle — and the Lincoln Continental, which was introduced in 1939 and helped launch the personal luxury car segment in the U.S. The Continental series spanned ten generations before Lincoln ended production of the nameplate in 2020 amid a shift toward SUVs.

1936 Lincoln Zephyr

Also instrumental to Lincoln's legacy was Edsel Ford's youngest son William Clay Ford Sr., who revived the Lincoln Continental nameplate in his father's honor. The prototype of the Mark II — which would go on to become another classic design — was revealed the day before Christmas in 1954 and William Clay Ford Sr. reportedly drove it to his parents' house on Christmas Day to show it to his mother.

The brand hit numerous other milestones in the ensuing decades, making the first presidential limousine, launching the Lincoln Navigator SUV in 1997, introducing its first hybrid electric vehicle (the MKZ Hybrid) in 2010, and last year introducing its first locally-produced sedan for the China market, the all-new Lincoln Zephyr.

1956 Contiental Mark II

In recent years, however, Lincoln has struggled to maintain its footing in the competitive luxury vehicle market in the U.S., eclipsed by more popular foreign brands.

Recent Kelley Blue Book data indicate that Lincoln ranked 9th among 20 luxury brands in terms of shopping consideration, according to Cox Automotive's Krebs. Only 8% of luxury shoppers consider a Lincoln, compared to 20% for BMW and Lexus. 

Lincoln "occasionally wins some kudos for ride comfort and interior layout," she noted, and it is "on point by shifting to all luxury SUVs as 70% of all luxury shoppers consider an SUV, not a car."

And although it is not a sales leader in the U.S., Ivan Drury, senior manager of insights at car-shopping website Inc., noted that the brand has made some in-roads since the launch of Navigator, in recent years earning more brand loyalty and seeing its average transaction prices grow at a rate that outpaces its competitors. Lincoln's ATP increased to just under $62,000 in 2021 from roughly $45,000 in 2015.

“It’s kind of nice that when we’re hitting that century mark for them, the brand actually has evolved," said Drury. "Because if it had continued on in its older form, then it probably wouldn’t be celebrating its 100 years of success and being a brand.”

1998 Lincoln Navigator

Still, the brand's recent sales results in the U.S. underscore the challenges it faces: sales fell 32% in the fourth quarter, for a 0.6% market share. 

"It appears, based on our data, it wasn’t an inventory issue," said Krebs. "For the year, Lincoln sold 86,929 vehicles, down 17%. By comparison, Tesla took the sales crown, selling more than 352,000 vehicles for the year for a 1.6% market share."

Looking forward

Despite its challenges in its home market and the impacts of a global semiconductor shortage that impacted auto production worldwide last year, Lincoln had its best global sales year in 21 years, Lincoln President Joy Falotico told The Detroit News. 

China, a market where Ford historically has struggled to gain traction, in particular has been a bright spot for the brand, underpinning some of the automaker's recent progress there.

Ford's sales in Greater China ticked up 3.7% year-over-year in 2021, with Lincoln accounting for roughly 91,000 sales out of about 624,000 total. Lincoln's China sales, up nearly 50% over 2020, hit an all-time high and surpassed sales in the U.S.

"It’s really important to have that scale coming from the China market, and that’s why we’re really excited to see them coming online with that kind of sales volume," said Falotico. "With more scale, we can look at more product and experiences. But also, China is very technologically advanced, and we’re excited to really be able to lean into some of the new technologies that are embedded over there, to support our product lineup.”

1941 Lincoln Continental

And Lincoln will play a role in Ford's turnaround strategy, detailed last May, that aims to leverage electrification, commercial vehicles and connected vehicle services to generate new, recurring revenue streams. Lincoln said in June that it aims to field a fully electrified lineup by 2030, with at least four new battery-electric vehicles planned, including one slated to be revealed later this year.

With electrification comes both challenges and opportunities. Luxury vehicles make up an outsize portion of EV sales overall, but it's an increasingly crowded field, with stiff competition from everyone from EV heavyweight Tesla to hometown rival Cadillac, which is slated to launch its first all-electric vehicle, the Lyriq SUV, this year. 

Here, Drury said, Lincoln's iconic status and strength in the SUV space could give it an advantage: “If they can blend heritage and the future, then they’ll have something that stands out. ... It’s a huge opportunity for Ford and Lincoln to position them differently from the crowd.”

1988 Lincoln Town Car Cartier Edition

And in line with Ford's focus on revenue-generating services enabled by digital connectivity, Falotico said Lincoln remains focused on creating "effortless experiences" for customers: “The product is obviously very important, but equally important is the experiences that clients can have in the vehicles with all this technology.”

One of the latest examples is the launch of Lincoln's hands-free driving system on the redesigned 2022 Navigator. Lincoln also is working to modernize the retail experience for customers, and is expanding on offerings such as pickup and delivery and a recently-launched virtual showcase feature.

“Certainly, near term, we do see ourselves more as a niche brand, and really with a unique brand DNA," said Falotico. "So we define our success by the fact that we are staying on brand and continuing to deliver brand momentum."

She pointed to positive signs — for example, Ford reported Wednesday that Lincoln saw record new vehicle orders over the last five months, with more than 3,100 new retail vehicle orders placed in January alone.

"We expect to grow both in China and in the U.S. over the next several years," said Falotico. "That’ll be part of the proof points of our brand momentum.”

Twitter: @JGrzelewski