Ford revives the Lincoln Continental, aims at US and China

30 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Ford revives the Lincoln Continental, aims at U.S. and China.

No comeback for the trademark fins or the rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’ of the 1960s, but Ford thinks the name recognition alone will be enough to make it a hit. The first Lincoln Continental , designed on a whim for Edsel Ford’s vacation in 1939, is regarded as one of pre-World War II’s most beautiful and elegant cars.(Bloomberg) — Ford Motor Co.’s lagging Lincoln line, searching for a return to relevance, is dusting off the old Continental model name that had its heyday in the Mad Men era and was favored by President John F. Ford Motor Co F -0.19% is resurrecting the Lincoln Continental as its top-of-the line luxury sedan, betting that the classic name will help rebuild the brand’s image in the United States and China. Ford’s Lincoln will unveil a prototype of the future Continental sedan on Monday ahead of the April 3-12 New York auto show, which will also feature many of the Continental’s future rivals, including the Cadillac CT6 sedan from General Motors Co GM -0.11% , a new Jaguar XF sedan from Jaguar Land Rover and a bevy of super-premium models from Daimler AG’s DDAIY 0.02% Mercedes Benz.

Lincoln will present a new Continental sedan at the New York International Auto Show this week as another new direction for a brand that’s been seeking redemption for decades. The Continental concept features a “new face,” with a rectangular chrome grille replacing one that evoked eagle’s wings and alienated some buyers, said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas. By the time the nameplate was discontinued in 2002, the Continental was a shadow of its former self and had lost its much of its cache amid a flood of European and Japanese luxury car competitors.

Loaded with thoughtful technology and lush materials, the prototype emphasizes rear seat comfort and amenities — an indication that the new Continental was designed especially for wealthy Chinese customers, who like to be driven. Ford executives say they were surprised to learn that the Continental name also had legs in the U.S., where grandly-proportioned Continentals from the 1960s had prominent cameo roles in movies such as the popular “Matrix” science fiction series. Features like a fully reclining rear seat and a sunroof that automatically dims with the touch of a button leave rear-seat passengers in command, though drivers aren’t forgotten, either: the front seat is split to support each thigh independently, while massage functions and an “auto-hold” button for stop-and-go traffic aim to ease motorists’ tensions behind the wheel. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac will also unveil a flagship sedan, the CT6, while Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus line will introduce a new version of its top-selling RX sport utility vehicle. What clinched it, said Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields, was that early designs for the next large Lincoln sedan “weren’t as good as we wanted them to be.” About 18 months ago, Fields said he and other senior executives decided to call the car the Continental based on the positive research. “Immediately, people’s eyes lit up,” Fields said.

Though labeled merely a “concept” for a new full-size Lincoln sedan, officials say the show car on display is a strong indication of the real thing: a replacement for the current MKS sedan will debut next year. But without worthy offerings to match those offered by Lexus , Mercedes and BMW, Lincoln largely missed out on the explosion of worldwide demand for luxury vehicles. They said, ‘OK, now we have our North Star on this.’” From then, the designs became bolder and evoked the gilded chariots of Hollywood’s golden age, when Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor cruised in Lincolns.

Those images still resonate in China, even though Ford hadn’t ever officially sold the line there before now, Fields said. “Our initial research in China was kind of stunning,” Fields said. “They knew Lincoln as a car brand because they remembered newsreels of presidents and movie stars riding in them.” That helps explain why Lincoln is off to a fast start in China since sales began late last year. By then, the automaker hopes to be selling 300,000 Lincolns a year. “Lincoln is a core element of delivering on our target of profitable growth for all,” Fields said in an interview with FORBES. “It’s also understanding we’re on a journey – that’s code for ‘it’s going to take some time.’ But that’s how you build great luxury brands.

You need a good dose of both.” Not only does the automaker want to keep customers in the family when they are ready to step up to a luxury car, it also wants to take advantage of growth in China, soon to be the largest luxury car market in the world. And the profit margins are heavenly: luxury car sales account for about one-third of the industry’s overall profits, Fields said. “We have this great benefit of Lincoln’s heritage,” he said. “For me, heritage is history with a future. Every vehicle we come out with on Lincoln has to give us a step forward.” When he saw early drawings for the replacement of the MKS two years ago, Fields wasn’t satisfied. “Quite honestly, the first couple of times we saw some designs around this, we were like, it’s nice but it’s not that next step,” Fields recalled.

Here’s a brand, an iconic nameplate that has a heritage, and we now have a baseline to build off.” “The emotion that came with it – the North Star — now we know what it is we’re designing – completely changed everything immediately,” agreed Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra, who at the time was in charge of engineering for all Ford and Lincoln vehicles. That is replaced by a gaping grille bisected by a lighted Lincoln logo. “The MK is continuing to gain familiarity,” Fields said. “But when we have these iconic nameplates, I’m not going to toss them to the side. And the company is committed to sweating the details to get it right. “We benchmarked a lot of our competitors over 10, 20, 30 years and there’s a progression of substantial investment that you need to make which lags financial success,” Fields explained. “It doesn’t mean there’s an open checkbook but we have to be cognizant of how we’re building this….In terms of the buy-in, the internal profitability targets we’ve set over time, that clarifies things wonderfully,” he said. “You have to spend that time upfront.”

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