WRITER: Nicolas Shammas
After hiring a new chief executive and more recently, launching a new halo model that resurrects the historic Continental nameplate, the Lincoln Motor Company, Ford’s luxury division, seems to be finding its way once again after decades of being lost in the automotive wilderness.
Once upon a time – not all that long ago – Ford was the proud owner of a stable of luxury brands. Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo all fell under its umbrella, which might lead you to assume that life was hunky-dory. But it wasn’t. In fact, things were terrible and in 2006, the company brought in a new CEO, Alan Mulally, who they hoped would be capable of solving their significant problems including prohibitively high cost structures, mounting losses, the distractions of numerous acquisitions, on-going union and pension cost issues as well as the considerable challenges posed by both pricier competitors (such as Volkswagen Group) and lower-cost rivals (like Hyundai.)
Although Mulally had little knowledge of the automobile industry at the time, his strongest asset lay in a sterling record of turning around dysfunctional companies (the rescue of Boeing being the most important feather in his cap). And for Ford, he devised a plan – One Ford – that called for concentrating on their core brand only, getting all of their global operations on the same page and wringing efficiency and economies of scale out of this new system.
Once the board approved his scheme, his first order of business was to sell off of all the European luxury brands and shut down Mercury. Sweeping changes then followed within the organisation, from the top down to the factory floor – Mulally even went so far as to bet the house on what he would later describe as his big home-improvement loan (totalling 23 billion USD), for which he leveraged every one of the company’s major assets, all the way down to the iconic Ford blue oval logo. Fortunately, it worked and within three years he hadn’t just succeeded in turning Ford from a haemorrhaging firm into the most profitable automaker in the world, he had made it strong enough to withstand an industry meltdown (triggered by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression), which (it’s worth remembering) forced General Motors and Chrysler into US government-backed bankruptcies.
Looking back upon Mulally’s legacy, it’s clear that America’s once-again best-selling carmaker owes him a huge debt of gratitude but despite all his tremendous achievements he stepped down in 2014 with one conspicuous blotch in his copybook, and that was Lincoln.
His initial aim for Lincoln was for it to play a similar role as Audi does for Volkswagen, albeit with less of a focus on performance. But things never panned out this way and sales fell by as much as 65 per cent from a 1990 peak. Furthermore, despite a fair amount of investment (though nowhere near as much as General Motors has ploughed into Cadillac) and a number of concerted attempts at reviving the brand, Lincoln’s viability has never really been ensured.
Recently however, things have been improving. Ford’s new CEO, Mark Fields, explicitly stated that it was his intention to go after market share in the lucrative luxury segment, (which now represents around 12 per cent of sales in the US and around 6 per cent in China, yet generates a third of the industry’s profits) and it was telling that his first personnel move after taking the reins in 2014 was to replace Jim Farley (the former Lexus executive who remains the company’s global marketing chief) with Kumar Galhotra as the president of Lincoln. Apparently, Ford had realised it was going to take a product man at the helm and their choice was a 25-year company veteran who had most recently reached the position of vice president of engineering. To us, and many others, it demonstrated they were finally serious about setting Lincoln on solid ground.
“Today, Lincoln’s key markets are the US, China, the Middle East and Mexico. We sold 100,000 cars in 2014,” said Galhotra during a private discussion with Bespoke at the opening of the Dubai International Motor Show, “and we expect to ramp that up to 300,000 sales within five years.” Clearly he’s not lacking in ambition but how is he going to achieve this, we asked. His answer was that it would not be via growth in new markets (for they have no immediate plans to crack Europe or enter Japan). Instead, Galhotra talked about expansion within existing regions, especially the Middle East and of course China, where they have gone from 11 dealerships to 25 in just a year and where they also soon expect sales to eclipse those of their biggest market, the US. Interestingly, he also mentioned targeting a younger, more affluent and better-educated consumer base, and the way they’ll do this apparently will be by using a holistic approach.
“What we are going for is quiet luxury,” says Galhotra, explaining the marque’s decision to concentrate on pampering over performance. “Quiet luxury won’t just define the cars but the website, the customer relations centres, even the screen interface in Lincolns, which will have just the right amount of information. What we are offering is a qualitative experience in every aspect of your interaction with Lincoln, all the way down to how you open the doors to our cars.” Surprisingly for a product man, Galhotra spent much of his time discussing the ownership experience and levels of customer service but this may be because he had brought the Continental Concept with him to Dubai and he probably figured the car could do the talking for him.
The Continental is incredibly important to the brand for it introduces a number of elements that’ll filter down to other models, from the bolder and more dynamic design language to details like the mesh grille and chromed headlights. It’s definitely fine-looking but if we are going to be fair, we should also say that it’s a little derivative: from the side it’s got flavours of the Bentley Flying Spur, the shape of the headlights reminded us of the new Chrysler 300 and the grille is a little Jaguar-ish. Then again, those are some pretty solid starting points and if they can actually pull off a 50,000 USD Lincoln Flying Spur, then good for them. Let’s also not forget that the very first Lexus, the LS, was also accused of being a pastiche but that didn’t hamper sales one iota.
Move beyond the exterior and make your way inside this car and you’ll understand what all that talk of quiet luxury is about. It’s clear that a lot of work has been spent here because it’s impressive to say the least. Ignoring the superficial showcar details like the rear-hinged doors, the deep pile shearling wool carpeting, the champagne chiller, the silky headlining, perhaps even the gorgeous picnic tables that extend out below built-in tablets and definitely the twin briefcases integrated into the seatbacks and you’ll find brilliant interior architecture, copious amounts of space and phenomenal 30-way adjustable seats that have 50 patents.
Since our meeting in Dubai, Lincoln went and unveiled the final production version of the Lincoln Continental (with first-order deliveries due to begin in the autumn) and thankfully, it has stayed very close to the concept. We have also been informed that the range-topper will have a decent amount of oomph thanks to 400 horsepower derived from an all-wheel drive twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6. Capturing the charm of a long-lost elegance, the Continental bodes well for Ford’s aspirations and it may just help re-establish Lincoln as a world-class luxury brand. At the very least, the upper-middle segment of the automotive market (which is the most profitable sector of the car business) will have a compelling new proposition. Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5-series and Lexus GS: you have been warned.