Ford's Lincoln division is now known as the Lincoln Motor Company. The naming is part of a planned rebirth of the famous marque, which has been in an intensive care unit for a number of years and nearly disappeared when there was doubt as to whether Mercury or Lincoln should be dropped. Now Ford plans to use Lincoln's lengthy background as a marketing tool in TV advertising and at auto shows, a technique questioned by some automobile journalists who believe prospective customers have little interest in the past.
I disagree. I believe that a brand's DNA matters. Just look at Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar as prime examples of keeping the past alive. Each has a unique image that goes back eighty years or more. Think of Mercedes and you think quality. Think of BMW and you think performance. Think of Jaguar and you think style. Think of Lincoln and... well, not much recently but a look through the decades reveals a parade of beautiful luxury automobiles with a history to match.
This alone will not revive the patient. It's a great launch tool but after the initial campaign it needs to be scaled back. Not dropped entirely, just subtley integrated into print and TV advertising as a permanent reminder of where Lincoln came from. I'm assuming, of course, that the Lincoln Motor Company is going to build products to match. Not Fords with a different face (and please, no gargantuan crossovers) but cars that are distinctive and stand apart from the competition.
Oddly, both Lincoln and Cadillac were created by the same man, Henry M. Leland. After being associated with both Ford and Oldsmobile he introduced his first car, the Cadillac, in 1903. In 1909 Cadillac was integrated into the General Motors group under the direction of W.C. Durant, but the two men didn't get along and in 1917 Leland resigned. By 1921 he was back in the auto business with the Lincoln Motor Company, manufacturing a luxury car powered by an advanced L-head V-8. In little more than a year that company was in financial difficulties and was acquired by Henry Ford. Leland and his son Wilfred resigned a few months later.
Those early Lincolns soon developed a reputation for quality but a few years passed before the name was matched by styling that might be considered distinctive. Like all great classic cars of the era, Lincolns could be purchased as a running chassis to which custom bodies could be fitted and in 1933 the marque was fitted with a V-12 engine which in various stages of tune would power all Lincolns until 1949, when it was replaced by a 339 cubic-inch V-8.
If you were making prestige cars in the depression years the odds of survival were low, indeed, and Lincoln might have gone under if the division had not had the foresight to launch the smaller, popular-priced Zephyr. This very advanced car included unit construction, synchromesh transmission, headlights faired into the fenders, "streamlined" art deco styling, and an alligator-type hood hinged at the cowl. The engine was a 267 c.i. V-12 giving 110 hp. Typically, Henry Ford insisted on staying with his antiquated transverse suspension. Mechanical brakes finally arrived in 1939. A column shift followed in 1940.
The most famous Lincoln of all and certainly one of the most striking is Edsel Ford's Continental. Originally a one-off for Edsel's personal use after a trip to Europe (hence the name) it incorporated many of his own design ideas. The car was just too good not to be developed for production and consequently became Lincoln's standard bearer, a styling standout for many years.
Even in 1956 the Continental Mark II maintained a purity of line and sporting architecture, along with its European inspiration, a total contrast to the gaudy tri-toned, overchromed vehicles being offered by Ford and other American manufacturers. Some might say that it was the last "real" Continental, for the name was later applied to 4-door sedans and convertibles and for a lengthy period after 1961 all Lincolns were named Continental.
In 1961 Lincoln offered a 4-door convertible, the only American car of that type since the Kaiser Manhattan (Mercedes also built a 300 4-door convertible) and the last ever... in 1967. Both it and the 4-door sedan featured so-called "suicide doors" which alone made them stand apart in the market. Designed by Elwood Engel, the big Lincolns were arguably the last to be truly distinctive.
Downsizing in the 1970s probably had more to do with Lincoln's slide to near-obscurity than anything in modern times, as it began to share platforms with other Ford products and suffered styling to match. The Versailles, a gussied up Granada, is one unpleasant example. Rear-wheel-drive Town Cars later became a staple in fleet service, profitable but not an image suitable for a prestige luxury sedan.
Probably the last truly distinctive Lincoln was the Mark VIII series of 1993-98, an elegant Grand Touring coupe that featured 4-wheel independent suspension and a 4.6 liter dohc, 32-valve V-8 delivering 290 hp in its final year, with an advertised 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds. Since then it's been all downhill.
Nevertheless I believe Lincoln can make a comeback, not with a "retro" car but one that recognises what made it great in the first place, the ultimate American luxury car. As I write this the Detroit Auto Show is a week away and it wouldn't surprise me if Lincoln arrives with a sensational concept car amid a display that emphasises its heritage. Let's hope they get it right.
[Photo 1930 Model L: Russo & Steele]