Ford Motor opens Lincoln's design doors to show backing for the brand
DETROIT -- When Lincoln threw open the doors to its new design studio Thursday afternoon, invited guests walked in and immediately saw two cars shrouded by protective covers.
Lincoln was just teasing. The covers never came off the vehicles, which appeared to be the next generation MKS large sedan and a compact crossover, two of four new Lincolns the brand is promising in the next four years.
The vehicles were there for a reason -- and not just as a tease.
"This is the first dedicated (design) space for Lincoln since the '70s," said Raj Nair, Ford product development chief.
Back then, Lincoln was a major force in the U.S. luxury-automobile world. In the more recent past, critics have charged Lincolns were merely tarted-up versions of Ford brand offerings. Now the Lincoln team wants the world to believe things are different and that the brand's future offerings will appeal to a new generation of luxury customers.
Lincoln's hospitality was unusual. Carmakers usually don't invite outsiders into their design studios, the secret inner sanctums where future vehicles evolve from clay into steel. But Ford Motor Co. management was determined to show doubters that it is serious about reviving its moribund luxury brand.
"From a management standpoint, you could say it is a pretty daunting task, but we faced the same daunting task five to six years ago with Ford," said Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas and the man many believe will succeed Alan Mulally as Ford CEO.
Fields said Ford would bring the same dedication and spirit to reviving Lincoln that the company previously brought to reviving the Ford brand. "To bring Lincoln back to a truly premier luxury brand doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't happen over a couple years' time. It happens over years and years," he said.
Lincoln now has 150 designers and design support staff working at the studio, located in Studio E of Ford's sprawling product development center in Dearborn, Mich.
J Mays, Ford chief designer, said the staffers are dedicated solely to Lincoln and will not work on Ford-brand vehicles.
During a tour of the studio, Lincoln designers showed one of the clay models used in the development of the 2013 MKZ. That car, due to go on sale in November, is the first of a generation of new Lincolns. A new compact crossover, possibly called the MKC, is due to follow for the 2014 model year along with a redesigned MKS sedan.
Fields knows there are some who still doubt Ford's commitment to Lincoln. He sought to those fears to rest by showing off the new studio -- a visible, concrete sign of the company's willingness to devote significant resources to the brand's revival.
Executives at the event gave updates on other aspects of Lincoln's journey.
Jim Farley, Ford's global marketing, sales and service chief, said 80 percent of U.S. Lincoln dealers have now committed to a clear separation of their Lincoln facilities from Ford. That number is up from the 50 percent Lincoln announced last spring at the New York auto show. Said Farley: "We're going to ask them to provide a differentiated experience, not a Taj Mahal."
The consolidation of Lincoln dealerships has been dramatic in some cities, Farley said. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, there is now one Lincoln dealer. That's down from seven before the consolidation began in mid-2010, about the time that Ford said it would drop the Mercury brand at the end of 2010. As of Oct. 1, Lincoln had 957 dealers nationwide. But the brand is concentrating its rejuvenation efforts in the top 130 luxury markets, where it is most active in consolidating the network. Earlier this year, Lincoln said it had exceeded its goal of reducing the dealership count in those top 130 luxury markets to fewer than 325 from 500.
Farley said Lincoln is interviewing prospective dealers for its retail network in China, the world's largest car market. In September, Lincoln said it would begin selling in China in 2014. Lincoln designers are working on a version of the MKZ for China. Selling in China could dramatically raise the brand's volume, bolstering the business case for pouring money and engineering time into developing Lincoln-exclusive vehicles.
"We really understand that a luxury brand is essential for us to be a global and successful enterprise," Fields said. "There's not a single full-line successful global line maker that does not have a successful vibrant and relevant luxury brand."
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