Howes: Lincoln’s latest reboot signals smaller ambition

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Nearly 20 years removed from its perch as America’s top luxury brand, Lincoln Motor Co. remains in search of itself.

Take this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show, where Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln wizards unveiled yet another model-naming scheme. It ditches the alpha-numeric nomenclature popularized by Germany’s Big Three in favor of such post-war favorites as Continental and, ahem, (the Jules Verne-inspired?) Nautilus.

That should move the metal. This back-to-the-future move has the early 2000s written all over it — recall the luxo-SUV named Navigator, the Explorer-based Aviator, the mid-sized Zephyr and the F-Series-derived Blackwood pickup that answered a question almost no one was asking.

“Many of you still don’t know where Lincoln is headed,” Ford’s then-design chief, J Mays, said in 2004. Many still don’t.

Back in the Premier Automotive Group days, when BMW wunderkind Wolfgang Reitzle held all the keys to Ford’s stocked luxury stable of Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, Lincoln would be the American luxury brand that would use scale and engineering cred to beat the Germans at their own game.

The Blue Oval would bet $2 billion to develop a world-class architecture that would underpin three vehicles the Bavarians would envy. But Lincoln only got $670 million for a refresh before the Ford’s North American business imploded, capital grew scarce, the grand plan for Lincoln fizzled and Reitzle left.

“Clearly we’ve learned from the past,” Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s then-global product development chief, said in 2012. “The MKZ is the start of a journey for Lincoln. That means vehicles that are totally different from Ford vehicles. They’re unique, and they’re uniquely Lincoln.”

Three years on, that and the claim of learning from the past are debatable. But this is well-nigh certain: Lincoln looks increasingly like a brand competing mostly with itself. It’s effectively conceding market territory defined by BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz and benchmarked by General Motors Co.’s Cadillac and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus.

Maybe one of the new models in the pipeline should be called Surrender. Lincoln is not chasing the Germans, or GM, for luxury cred and customers because the prospect is insanely expensive. And because the rules of the club are set by the teutonic Big Three dominating it.

Even as GM pumps billions into Cadillac, relocates its headquarters to New York’s trendy SoHo and touts lap times around Germany’s famed Nürburgring track, Lincoln is betting its next (and last?) bid for revival on cushier tastes in its native United States and the Chinese penchant for sitting in the back while a chauffeur drives.

It’s a strategy, of course. It’s chasing market size and playing where others aren’t instead of fighting a decades-long uphill battle Lincoln stands no chance of winning. U.S. sales figures make the point: Through October, according to Autodata Corp., Lincoln is the No. 8 luxury brand in the market.

Thirteen years ago, it ranked seventh. That’s a brand in reverse, the once-proud ferry of American presidents and movie stars reduced to an also-ran in its own country. It’s also why skepticism about the latest iteration is warranted, because we’ve seen this movie before and the ending generally turns out the same.

“You’re smart to look at the reinvention of a brand like Lincoln with skepticism and respect,” Jim Farley, now Ford’s president of global markets, told The Detroit News in an interview nearly five years ago. “I understand exactly what you’re saying. Trust me. The real proof point of Lincoln will be the execution of the product.”

He was right then, and he would be right now. Except that Detroit’s past generation or so of luxury pretension is littered with over-promising and under-delivering, with cynical attempts to buy credibility through half-hearted entries in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, with pledges to go global that never materialize.

It took GM nearly 20 years to fulfill its promise — famously issued at the 1997 Frankfurt International Auto Show — to deliver credible German-fighter vehicles to consumers, albeit not the Europeans it envisioned at the time.

It took Ford’s superstar CEO, Alan Mulally, only a few years to unwind a Premier Automotive Group by selling Volvo to the Chinese, Jaguar and Land Rover to the Indians, Aston to private equity sharpies. And Lincoln? It moved mostly sideways as Mulally, the great simplifier, mulled its possible extinction.

Now Lincoln’s trying again, persuaded the segment ceded willingly by its would-be rivals will prove fertile for a brand that’s spent pretty much the past generation in neutral. It’d better, or this act may be Lincoln’s last.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.