Ford replaces Lincoln chief designer Wolff with luxury veteran

Max Wolff, hired from General Motors four years ago, remains at Lincoln, in charge of exterior design of the brand's models.

UPDATED: 4/11/14 9:07 am ET

DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln brand, undergoing a $1 billion overhaul, will move forward with a new design director at the helm after quietly replacing Max Wolff.

Wolff, hired from General Motors four years ago, remains at Lincoln, in charge of exterior design of the brand’s models, said Stephane Cesareo, a company spokesman. David Woodhouse, who joined Ford in 1999 from GM to head Ford’s former European luxury lines, is his successor.

The change was apparently made in December, according to Woodhouse’s LinkedIn profile. Ford didn’t announce the reshuffle, though the company heralded Wolff’s hiring from GM’s Cadillac luxury line in December 2010.

In a statement at the time, Ford cited Wolff for bringing a “fresh perspective that will challenge us internally and take Lincoln to new levels of prestige.”

Ford made the move because more design resources were needed to handle the rapid redesign of Lincoln’s product line, which includes four new models in four years, Cesareo said after a briefing on Lincoln’s growth plans. Ford didn’t announce the move because the automaker no longer issues a press release for job promotions below the vice president level, Cesareo said.

“Much like we’ve expanded our global marketing team, design needs that too,” said Sam Locricchio, another Lincoln spokesman. “More bodies and more resources dedicated solely to Lincoln is always the goal to get the brand where it needs to be.”

Mulally’s goal

Ford CEO Alan Mulally is trying to revive Lincoln to get a larger slice of the lucrative luxury car market. Lincoln’s annual U.S. sales last year had fallen by 65 percent since peaking in 1990 at 231,660.

“This is a sign that what they’re doing isn’t working,” said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and former product planner at Ford. “If they’re trying to compete with Mercedes and BMW, they’re not in the same galaxy. Lincoln doesn’t have a memorable and distinctive design signature yet.”

As chief designer of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, Woodhouse previously oversaw the styling of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover and Volvo, the luxury brands Mulally sold after he arrive at Ford in 2006 from Boeing Co.

Woodhouse was previously director of Lincoln strategy from July to December 2013 and he ran Ford’s advanced design studio in California from 2004 to 2009. He was assistant chief designer at GM in 1998 and 1999.

Woodhouse previously oversaw the styling of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover and Volvo, the luxury brands Ford sold after Alan Mulally became CEO in 2006.

MKZ production

Immediately after arriving in 2010, Wolff reworked the design of the MKZ sedan, the first car to sport Lincoln’s new look, which features an expansive chrome grille inspired by an eagle’s outstretched wings. Production problems at the Mexican plant that built the MKZ stalled the introduction of Lincoln’s comeback car early last year, sending the brand’s sales plunging to the lowest level in more than 30 years.

Now the MKZ is selling well and has helped to drive up the Lincoln brand’s U.S. sales 36 percent this year, according to researcher Autodata Corp.

“We just completed a good first quarter, a bit above our expectations,” Matt VanDyke, director of Global Lincoln, told reporters at a briefing in Dearborn Thursday. “We have good momentum here in the U.S.”

By mid-year, Lincoln will introduce the MKC, a small SUV, and a redesigned version of its Navigator large SUV is coming in the year’s second half, VanDyke said. Lincoln also will begin selling cars in China this year and is establishing a dealer network there.

Wolff, a highly regarded designer originally from Australia, may have encountered resistance to his efforts to further differentiate Lincoln cars from the Ford models upon which they are based, Wolkonowicz said. Mulally’s “One Ford” strategy seeks to reduce costs and increase profits by using common parts and mechanical foundations for models worldwide.

“Max Wolff is an incredibly talented guy,” said Wolkonowicz, who is based in Boston. “But they don’t want to violate One Ford because One Ford saved that company.”



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