UPDATED: 4/20/14 1:40 pm ET -- replaced photograph
Editor's note: Update deletes a photo of a different Lincoln taken from the show floor.
Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln, rooted as an American brand by its name and presidential limousines, took a step toward becoming global today by unveiling a car in China.
The MKX Concept mid-sized crossover displayed at the Beijing auto show is the first Lincoln revealed outside the United States, the company said in a statement. Opinions from Chinese and U.S. consumers were tapped to help shape its design.
“Lincoln in China has our full attention in product development,” said Matt VanDyke, director of global Lincoln.
“We’re not developing products for the U.S. and seeing if they work there,” he said. “We are developing out of our global design studio products that we clinic and research in Huangzhou and Beijing and Shanghai and Pasadena, not the other way around.”
The debut of the MKX Concept is part of a flurry of activities accompanying the launch of the brand in China. Lincoln will begin this fall with eight dealerships in seven cities. They will initially sell just two models: the MKZ mid-sized sedan and MKC compact crossover exported from North America.
The brand plans to grow to a network of 60 dealerships in 50 Chinese cities by the end of 2016.
Still, that network will be tiny compared with those of the German brands that dominate the Chinese luxury market. Audi, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have more than 1,100 stores in the country combined, according to figures from JATO Dynamics. The leader, Audi, expects to top a half-million sales this year.
"The German brands set the benchmarks,” said Ashwin Chotai, managing director of London-based Intelligence Automotive Asia. “Lincoln needs to establish and communicate what the brand stands for in China."
Lincoln has not said when a production version of the MKX will be available. Automotive News forecasts it will arrive in the first half of 2015.
The MKX Concept, which features the latest iteration of Lincoln’s split-wing grille with integrated LED headlamps and full-length LED taillights, drew inspiration from airplanes and motorcycles.
It features a “sloping teardrop roofline” with integrated roof racks. There’s a panoramic glass roof that slopes to a floating spoiler in the rear.
“It’s a very emotional, athletic design,” said Andrea Di Buduo, exterior design manager.
The crossover shown in Beijing is an exterior design study only, with no interior or powertrain.
David Sullivan, an analyst for AutoPacific, said he’s puzzled by Lincoln’s decision to showcase only a portion of the vehicle at its first Chinese show.
The interior “is the most important thing in China. Chinese people are very picky about materials and fit and finish,” he said before today’s event. “First impressions are everything, and when you introduce a concept that doesn’t have an interior -- it’s a risky move.”
Lincoln spokesman Stephane Cesareo said: "For Lincoln it was important to provide the design direction of the next product to come. This vehicle is aiming for that. It is the reinforcement of the commitment to launch the brand in China."
The first MKX made its debut in late 2006 as a 2007 model. It shares a platform with the Ford Edge, as will the upcoming edition. It is built in Ford's Oakville, Ontario, plant and is the brand’s second-best selling nameplate, behind the MKZ sedan.
As U.S. sales have fallen to less than half their 1990 U.S. peak of 231,660, Lincoln has remained almost exclusively a U.S. brand.
Show of support
In 2012, after shedding European brands including Jaguar and Volvo, Ford reinforced its commitment to its remaining luxury marque by rebranding it The Lincoln Motor Company. Lincoln got its own design and product development functions in the process.
The ties had been formed 90 years earlier. In 1922, Henry Ford bought the company from Henry Leland, who had named it after the president who was in office when he was born.
A generation later, architect Frank Lloyd Wright would call the 1940 Lincoln Continental "the most beautiful car ever designed." Modified Lincolns have been the rides of presidents ranging from Calvin Coolidge to George H.W. Bush.
At the 2013 Detroit auto show unveiling of the MKC Concept, Executive Chairman Bill Ford took the stage to reiterate his family's commitment to Lincoln.
He invoked his grandfather Edsel Ford, who, said the younger Ford, saw Lincoln as “a brand dedicated not to be all things to all people but everything to a certain few."
If Lincoln’s ambitions are fulfilled, a small percentage of buyers in China’s massive market would go a long way towards making the brand relevant again.