Ford may spend $1 billion in yet another extreme makeover for Lincoln, with a flurry of new, tech-laden models aimed for Lexus, Cadillac and BMW. Ford should save its pennies and just kill Lincoln.
Ford has told dealers it will spend $1 billion through 2014 on pumping Lincoln with seven new or "refreshed" models arriving through 2015 chock full o' technology. It's also asking dealers to cough up $1 million apiece for showroom upgrades. It sounds like a big deal and a lot of money. It's not nearly enough.
To get behind the velvet rope into the VIP section of luxury automaking, Ford would need to spend a minimum of $3 billion on Lincoln. Ford has a track record for managing luxury automakers that can only be called Edsel-ish. And without buyers outside the United States, the argument for Lincoln's survival falls apart.
Lincoln has been struggling for years, throwing off concept after concept searching for an identity, and hasn't been hale since the late 1990s when Ford couldn't build enough Navigator SUVs even with a plant running 24 hours a day. After the "Premier Automotive Group" debacle, where Lincoln was paired with Volvo, Jaguar and crazed German management, Ford has see-sawed between overspending on Lincolns that never took off (the original Aviator, which had more than 300 changes from the Ford Explorer, most invisible) and spending as little as possible, giving Lincolns nothing to separate them from the Ford models usually in the same showroom for $10,000 less.
I didn't set out to write Lincoln's obit. Talking with some of my Twitter followers earlier this week set me thinking about what a good Lincoln lineup would look like, especially with the confusing MK-whosiwhatsit model names trashed. Start with a Lincoln Zephyr that would be a rear-wheel-drive competitor to the CTS, maybe off an upgraded Mustang platform (sans solid axle). Bring the Australian Ford Falcon over as the Lincoln Continental, along with one of Ford's secret weapons — the Australian supercharged "Miami" V8 with 449 hp, which may be Ford's best V8 worldwide.
Tart up the rest of the lineup so there's less familial resemblance to the Fords they're derived from, especially under the hood. And give Lincoln one model that's unique — say a production version of the Concept C that revives the Cosmopolitan name. There, easy-peasy.
Except it won't work, because Ford's not capable of making it so.
The real problem is that the luxury car business requires taking huge risks, and Ford is the most conservative, risk-averse automaker in the world. GM jump-started Cadillac by betting $4 billion in the late 1990s that it could make aging Baby Boomers give it one more chance with all-new cars from an all-new factory. Toyota and Nissan wagered similar amounts launching Lexus and Infiniti, businesses that are still a work in progress.
Ford's corporate culture doesn't like risk; it rewards finding sure things and maximizing profits, especially by selling as many copies of a model as possible, just like Henry Ford intended. That's why most Ford models in the United States and Europe now have high-end "Titanium" editions with Lexus-level pricetags; the Ford Flex Titanium I tested a couple months ago carried a sticker price of $49,990. I'd bet that the richest customers Ford has in the United States look down at Lincolns — and every other vehicle, because they're ensconced behind the wheels of $64,000 F-450 Super Duty King Ranch pickups.
And so the Ford plan will likely involve giving Lincolns more visual differences and tech gadgets while leaving them kissing mechanical cousins to Ford models. Real luxury buyers want world-class performance, which still requires rear-wheel-drive, as Acura has found out. And the tech push so far has only addled Lincoln and Ford buyers, giving Ford a black eye on key quality surveys.
The bean-counters that log-rolled Lincoln following the Navigator's heyday won such an utter victory that Lincoln is now too small to succeed. Even if one of the last-ditch Lincolns were to catch on, the rest of Ford would see it as a missed opportunity. If it's such a good Lincoln in America, wouldn't it be even better as a Ford in Europe, China and the rest of the world? And if so, why does it need to be a Lincoln at all?
After Plymouth, after Oldsmobile, after Saturn, after Pontiac and a dozen other once mighty names lost to history, we know how the play ends for Lincoln. Do this storied brand a favor and euthanize it now.