In a nod to the brand's glory days, a 1928 Lincoln L collapsible cabriolet on display this week at Pebble Beach, Calif.

Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE
BRADFORD WERNLE

Lincoln shows trim levels, no new vehicles

Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News.
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- As a featured marque honored for its custom coachwork, Lincoln threw a grand party here at the swank Pebble Beach Beach and Tennis Club Thursday. Ford's luxury brand, which has fallen on hard times in recent years, wants to resume its onetime place in the upper tiers of the auto world, and there's no better place to start than Pebble Beach, the annual Woodstock of the high end auto world.

Among the attendees was Edsel Ford II, the grandson of Edsel Ford, who is considered the spiritual forefather of the modern Lincoln. Ford strolled the grounds with legendary race car driver Jackie Stewart.

There's as much of a story in what Lincoln didn't show here as what it did. Many had hoped Lincoln might bring a new vehicle here -- say, the production version of the MKC compact luxury crossover, which debuted as a concept in Detroit this year. Or perhaps a concept vision of a large flagship sedan. But Lincoln is determined not to be rushed in its ongoing brand reinvention.

Instead of a new vehicle, Lincoln presented a new series of high end trim levels called Black Label that won't be available until near the end of 2014. Four cars decked out in the various themes were on display here including three MKZs and the MKC Concept, shown in Detroit and repainted in Chroma Flame (translation: red).

Jim Farley, Ford's global marketing chief and the primary architect of Lincoln's brand reinvention, said Lincoln wants to carve out a new vision of luxury that's not elitist. That means a customer can order a Black Label vehicle in any trim level with any powertrain. Call it democratic luxury.

"Our vision to make this available to as many people as possible."

Farley says Black Label will offer customers a more accessible, affordable alternative to competitors' personalization series like Mercedes-Benz Designo and BMW Individual, which sometimes require customers to order a top-line vehicle just to get the deluxe treatment.

Vision of a brand's future: Lincoln MKZ Black Label with chocolate-inspired Indulgence themed interior. The first Black Label Lincoln's will go on sale in late 2014.

Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE

Black Label is very much a work in progress, and the company doesn't have details on prices. Farley estimates it could cost in the "thousands." Ford hasn't worked out what kind of commitment dealers will have to make to sell Black Label, but there's a special Black Label subcommittee to the National Dealer Council studying that.

Farley said Black Label will be all about "A suite of ownership privileges you get to enjoy all the time, not just a cappuccino machine and a free car wash."

He insists Lincoln isn't going to rush it.

"We will launch very carefully, very slowly with the right dealers who make the right commitment who have the right trained people. I know we all want instant gratification. For us to do this right, we have to take our time on the execution."

There's another unspoken reason Lincoln is taking its time: China. The Lincoln brand is launching there next year. A coterie of Chinese dealers and journalists crossed the Pacific to attend the festivities here.

Without China, it's hard to say whether the slow-selling Lincoln brand would survive, but with the world's largest luxury market on the horizon, Lincoln has the scale to spend money on product development.

And Chinese customers love the kind of sumptuous leather-appointed interiors Lincoln is showing with Black Label, which may go by a different name in China.

American dealers hope the Chinese market will give Lincoln the incentive to give them what many want most: a large flagship sedan that would restore the grandeur that Edsel Ford brought to the brand.

People at the party didn't have to go far to see that. Parked on the dock by the lapping waters of Carmel Bay were a series of gorgeous vintage Lincolns, such as a 1928 Lincoln L, motorcar enough to make an American or Chinese customer happy.

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.

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