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Lincoln Tries to Save Itself in Face of 5 Year Sales Low


Moderator In Memoriam
Elite In Memoriam
July 18, 1999
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City, State
Annapolis, MD
Year, Model & Trim Level
'97 Limited
NEW YORK -- It's been this kind of millennium for Lincoln.
After designers completed the new Navigator sport-utility, an outdoor photo session took a Stephen King-esque turn when the grass around the SUV caught fire.
A poltergeist? Not exactly. Turns out the Navigator's convex chrome wheel covers were magnifying the sun's rays. Chagrined executives shook their heads and ordered a redesign.
Problem solved. But what about Lincoln's real problems?
Ford Motor Co.'s American luxury brand has been beset with receding sales, executive turnover, multiple strategy shifts and losses approaching $1 billion last year.
Lincoln was the best-selling luxury car brand in the United States a few years ago. Now it not only trails Mercedes, Lexus and BMW, but also Cadillac, its crosstown rival that is spending $4 billion on an ambitious new model lineup.
"Cadillac has the bit in its mouth and it's charging," said Jim Hossack, a consultant with AutoPacific, a California-based market research firm. "Lincoln can turn it around, too, but it won't be easy."
Despite the turmoil, Lincoln executives believe they have sown the seeds for a brighter future. Engineers have been quietly toiling away on four new or revamped cars and SUVs debuting this year. It's the most ambitious product blitz in the marque's 82-year history.
The redesigned Navigator, a $55,000 luxury SUV, and a refreshed version of the venerable Town Car sedan are on sale. A new SUV called the Aviator, based on the Ford Explorer, hits showrooms in early October, while a redesigned LS sedan comes near year-end.
Lincoln's future is riding on the success of the new entrees. Ford executives in Dearborn are in the process of deciding whether to fund a major product overhaul for Lincoln by 2005-06. And money is tight at Ford, where 2001 losses reached $5.45 billion.
As part of the review, Lincoln officials this week made pitches for future product funding to Ford President Nicholas Scheele and other top executives.
"It's a lot easier to go to (Ford CEO) Bill Ford and ask for a couple billion dollars for future products if you're doing well," one Lincoln official said.
Early response to the new products has been positive, particularly for the Navigator, whose finely appointed cabin is considered by many the best interior Detroit has produced in years.
But Lincoln has dug itself a deep hole. Through July, the brand's sales are down 14.5 percent compared with 2001. And competition for well-heeled buyers is only becoming more intense. Foreign rivals such as Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti are flooding every niche of the luxury U.S. car market.
Dealers are cautiously optimistic that Lincoln can compete with the world's best.
"We are getting much closer," said Bill Demmer, who runs Jack Demmer Lincoln Mercury in Dearborn. "The Navigator is a great product. I have been selling them like popcorn."
Leading the effort is new Lincoln President Darryl Hazel, a taciturn "Ford lifer" with a no-nonsense approach to selling cars.
"For quite a while, people have been talking about what the future of Lincoln might be," Hazel said during an event in New York this week to show off the 2003 LS sedan.
"We need to concentrate on the present. It's irresponsible not to put all your effort into improving your performance today."
A month into his new job, Hazel has yet to even tour the Lincoln product studios, where chief designer Gerry McGovern has been working on a modern new look for the brand. Until Lincoln improves its performance, he said, there's no point waxing about what the brand could become.
A native New Yorker who started his career as a clerk at a Lincoln Mercury office, Hazel was plucked to run Lincoln after serving as Ford's vice president in charge of customer service.
"This came as somewhat of a surprise," Hazel said. "I did not ask nor did I anticipate that this opportunity would come, but I am glad I'm here."
Hazel replaced Brian Kelley, who resigned in July after a tumultuous 10 months as Lincoln's president. Kelley left shortly after Ford pulled Lincoln out of the Premier Automotive Group, a collection of global luxury brands that includes Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover. Lincoln is now part of Ford's North American operations again.
"They are bringing stability back to their organization," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "This is a tough time for Lincoln and they need everybody playing the same game."
Lincoln has been working hard to improve quality levels and improve customer service. Executives quickly axed two lagging models in Lincoln's lineup -- the Continental sedan and Blackwood SUV/pickup.
In revamping the LS sedan, engineers targeted the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, two of the world's most refined sports sedans.
Besides boosting the car's horsepower, designers made subtle changes such as using real walnut wood on the interior instead of plastic made to look like wood. That's the kind of detail Lincoln has overlooked in the past but customers spotted.
It's not uncommon these days for a Lincoln engineer to call an owner personally to discuss a problem, said Brian Gowing, who founded a Lincoln LS enthusiast club three years ago that now has 1,000 members. "You get the feeling they really care about what's happening to their product now. Morale has improved."
Even if Lincoln's cars and SUVs improve, polishing its murky image could be tough. While BMW is known as the "The Ultimate Driving Machine" and Lexus is renowned for impeccable quality, Lincoln is a brand without a strong identity.
Lincoln makes the giant Navigator, driven by celebrities and athletes, and the Town Car, the choice of limousine drivers. The vehicles are polar opposites in terms of image, even though Lincoln is trying to imbue all its models with similar drive dynamics.
"People don't just say, I drive a Lincoln,'" said Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners, a marketing strategy firm. "They say, I drive a Navigator or an LS' because Lincoln doesn't really stand for anything. It's really hard to sell against a Lexus or a Mercedes, which offer so much status."
Earlier this year, Lincoln scraped its tag line "American Luxury," precisely because it didn't promote a clear brand image. Its commercials now close with a voice-over: "There are those who travel. And those who travel well."
It's a catchy phrase. Now Ford must convince buyers that traveling well requires purchasing a Lincoln.


Whats everyone think about the future of Lincoln?

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Moderator Emeritus
November 14, 2000
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City, State
Glade Hill, Virginia
Year, Model & Trim Level
'97 XLT & '06 Limited
Originally posted by Stephen
Whats everyone think about the future of Lincoln?
They're not going away anytime soon.


Owns 10,000 Marbles
Elite Explorer
Moderator Emeritus
October 12, 1999
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City, State
Year, Model & Trim Level
'08 Sport Trac Adrenalin
... I don't :) I think Taurus...