Lincoln revives Continental name in image overhaul

30 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

AP PHOTOS: As the Lincoln Continental returns; a look back.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote) will resurrect the Lincoln Continental as its top-of-the line luxury sedan, betting the classic name will help rebuild the brand’s image in the United States and China. 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.

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 feature many of the Continental’s future rivals, including the Cadillac CT6 sedan from General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote), a new Jaguar XF sedan from Jaguar Land Rover and a bevy of super-premium models from Daimler AG’s (DAIGn.DE: Quote) Mercedes Benz. While earmarked for sale in the U.S. and other markets, the sedans take specific aim at the growing collection of Chinese buyers snapping up Audi A8s, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-class. Over the next six decades, the Continental was the flagship for the Lincoln brand, earning fame in the movies and as the limousine in which President John F.

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.

With a body made with about a dozen materials, including aluminum, the vehicle hits dealerships late this year with a goal of raising the profile of a brand often lauded for its cars but criticized for its marketing. 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.

After more than a decade of toying with alphabetical names like LS and MKS to be more like its foreign rivals, Ford’s 98-year-old Lincoln brand is embracing its heritage. 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. 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.

Though their luxury strategies have diverged in recent decades, GM and Ford both have committed billions to sprucing up their luxury brands because the growing luxury business—representing about 10% of the world’s auto sales—delivers half of industry profit. The bulk of Detroit’s investments will be made with an eye on growing in the world’s largest market—China, and this means they will develop cars that peg design, engineering and performance above profit margins. Resurrecting it sets higher expectations, both within the company and outside of it. “When we get a chance to work on an iconic nameplate like that, it’s a mixture of pride and a mixture of fear, because when you put that name out there, it’s got to deliver,” Fields told The Associated Press in a recent interview. 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.

Fields said China will probably be Lincoln’s biggest market by 2020, a date by which he hopes to sell 300,000 Lincolns annually throughout the world, tripling today’s volumes. By restoring the Continental name, Ford hopes to recapture the glory of the 1961 Continental that became known as the “Kennedy Lincoln.” The Continental he was riding in when he was assassinated is on permanent display at the Henry Ford museum near the automaker’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.

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. Cadillac and Lincoln were once the envy of the global premium-car business, but fell behind after years of underinvestment and internal competition with other brands. 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. Germans are the dominant players in the market, selling a combined 1.8 million vehicles in China last year and snatching a 72% market share, according to IHS Automotive. 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.

The heart of the Chinese luxury market is the big car—highly profitable sedans where owners prefer being chauffeured rather than sitting behind the wheel—and Germany owns this market. 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. Because capital is limited, Mr. de Nysschen said auto makers need to build one flagship for all markets, and that means back seats will be bigger and features will appeal to Chinese tastes.

The concept’s proportions — low and grounded, with a long hood and short, sloping trunk — are slightly reminiscent of the Lincoln Continentals from the 1960s and 70s. 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.” Over a recent lunch, Ford’s CEO said there were more economical ways to develop a car, but those methods wouldn’t stretch Lincoln and would stop short of the “repositioning” he seeks to pull off. “Maybe the financials aren’t as attractive but this will really move the brand forward in making an investment in where we want to take the brand over time,” he said.

The Continental switched to a front-wheel-drive sedan in the 1980s, but many of its current competitors — the Infiniti Q70, Mercedes Benz S-Class and Lexus LS — are rear-wheel drive.

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