Pardon me for being utterly, utterly skeptical about the latest planned renaissance and revival of Ford Motor Co.'s underperforming luxury brand – especially in Canada. I've seen this Lincoln movie before.
I'm not referring to the Spielberg hit, either. No, Lincoln the car brand, as you might have heard, apparently is getting the attention a potential profit-spinning machine deserves. This includes a spanking new design studio all its own, one The Detroit News reports is "dedicated solely to Lincoln and integrating engineering and other disciplines in one open plan, loft-like space."
Raj Nair, the new head of global product development at Ford, says this new facility brings Lincoln-dedicated designers and engineers together in one physical space. There, they can act with lightning speed to create premium cars for today's upscale buyers.
As J Mays, Ford's global design chief, told The News, the idea here is to make sure Lincolns are not merely Ford's with fancy top hats. As he put it, "Style is not just poured over the top of engineering." Ford brand engineering, to be exact.
Of course, Lincoln tried this gambit back in the late 1990s and it was a disaster. Back when former Ford of Canada president Mark Hutchins was running the Lincoln brand, Ford grandly announced plans to move the entire Lincoln operation to Irvine, California, where it would be located with Ford's other then-premium brands – Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and so on.
I remember visiting the new Lincoln headquarters, hoping to talk to Hutchins and see something magical in action. Alas, Hutchins, I was told, spent most of his time at Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. It was clear than that Ford was not really serious about giving Lincoln the space to be independent and innovative. Eventually, Lincoln closed its L.A. shop and quietly pulled Lincoln back into the close orbit of the mother ship in Michigan. More disaster ensued.
Today, we're also being told that the 2013 MKZ mid-size sedan soon to roll into dealerships is more than a Ford Fusion with a luscious body, more features and an "oh, wow" cabin. The News, Automotive News and others are also reporting that Lincoln has plans to sell a "very attractive" small crossover wagon in the near future, too. Lincoln desperately needs such a rig. It will surely ride on the 2013 Ford Escape platform, also shared with the Ford Kuga in Europe, so the obvious question is this: How will Ford make this Lincoln crossover a unique and compelling little wagon?
Jim Farley, Ford's head of global marketing and also the new global head of an ambitious Lincoln, talks about the brand's new models being aimed at curious Americans who are chasing the "next thing."
"We are not going to make a big box with a cappuccino machine," Farley told The News, adding that "our ambition is to produce something very personal, because emerging customers are more reflective and interested in authenticity, rather than showing off how much they have."
Yes, yes, and just a few years ago Peter Horbury, then the head of North American design at Ford and Lincoln, was telling all and sundry that the next big thing in premium products was going to be small – as in fingerling cellphones and ultra-thin computers. Lincoln would be all about small, sleek and high-tech machines.
Okay, so what's Lincoln's best-selling model in Canada today? The MKX crossover, made in Canada and sharing its platform with the Ford Edge, is anything but small, though the MyLincoln Touch gizmo is quite slick. The point is, Lincoln has already made the promise Farley is now dishing – the "small is the next big thing" pitch.
And Farley was telling this story at a Lincoln dealer meeting in Las Vegas this month, too. Some 1,000 dealers were there to hear him and Ford's other honchos lay out the future of Lincoln in optimistic detail. Automotive News reports that the dealers heard all about the newly christened "Lincoln Motor Co." and how it will be a separate unit with new management and a clear mission.
Lincoln now has its own head of global marketing, separate from the Ford brand side of things. Well, sort of. For instance, David Mondragon, the former Ford of Canada president, remains general marketing manager of Ford and Lincoln and he apparently reports on both the Ford and Lincoln sides of things.
Finally, the Canadian-only story. Here's the big problem: Lincoln does not have a separate dealership network in Canada. Lexus of Toyota does. Audi of Volkswagen does. Infiniti of Nissan does. Acura of Honda does. And BMW, Mercedes-Benz and even Porsche have independent retailers who give premium buyers a dedicated premium experience, top to bottom. But if you want to buy a fancy new Lincoln, you'll do so in a showroom where just across the way is a Ford Fiesta subcompact and a hulking F-Series pickup, among other Ford models. (General Motors' Cadillac has the same problem in Canada, by the way.)
I believe Ford is sincere in its hopes and dreams for Lincoln, but I remain unconvinced that Ford has the right plan and the proper commitment needed to turn Lincoln into a full-scale luxury brand.