"Things are so much better," said Ed Witt, owner of Witt Lincoln in San Diego. "This brand was starved and neglected. Thank goodness that chapter is over. It still requires patience, it still requires a lot of hard work, but I think they've done amazing things."
Lincoln has the MKC and its peculiar commercials with actor Matthew McConaughey to thank for its 2014 performance. MKC sales were 102 percent of Lincoln's total sales increase for the year -- 13,077 MKCs were sold while the Lincoln brand's overall sales rose 12,780 vehicles. Despite the big gain, Lincoln's entire lineup tallied fewer sales last year than the Town Car alone managed in 1998, when it ended Cadillac's decades-long grip on the luxury crown.
In January of this year, a similar pattern emerged: Lincoln sold 648 more vehicles than it did in January 2014, an 11 percent increase, while it sold 1,602 MKCs compared with none last January.
But dealers and executives say Lincoln's pipeline of upcoming products makes them confident that a real revival is underway and that 2014 was not just a fluke. Ford Motor Co. is pouring more than $2.5 billion into Lincoln as it introduces the brand in China and works to triple global sales by 2020.
Lincoln's utility vehicles, including the re-engineered Navigator SUV, are critical to its prospects in the U.S. as well as China. The MKC, MKX and Navigator accounted for 59 percent of U.S. Lincoln sales in the second half of 2014. In China, where dealers sell only the MKC and MKZ sedan, the MKC has been 70 percent of sales.
"If anything's going to push the needle for new customers, it's going to be those types of products," said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst with Edmunds.com. "Not a large sedan -- something Lincoln-esque."
Lincoln's transformation has been welcomed by dealers eager to attract younger buyers, even though it has meant less emphasis on the segments favored by those customers who stuck with it.
"We have some customers who are disappointed that we don't have cars like the Town Car or the Mercury Grand Marquis, but Lincoln had to head in a different direction," said John Mamayek, general manager of Franklin Park Lincoln in Toledo, Ohio. "It's the way the market is. Everything is trending that way."
Ford CEO Mark Fields, who advocated keeping Lincoln while his predecessor, Alan Mulally, cast off every other non-Blue Oval brand during the recession, says the company is fully committed to Lincoln, despite its small size. Lincoln represents just 4 percent of Ford Motor's U.S. sales and less than 2 percent of its global total.
"We have to realize we're not the biggest luxury brand," Fields told reporters at the Detroit auto show, "and we need to use that to our advantage -- the personalized service that we and our dealers are doing a fantastic job of delivering to our customers."
Witt, whose store is among 143 Lincoln retailers without a Ford brand franchise, said he believes Fields will ensure Lincoln finally gets the investment and attention it needs to succeed. In addition to new products, Lincoln has been developing exclusive features such as its Black Label program, which combines high-end materials in the vehicle with customer-service perks such as extended free maintenance and annual detailing.
"I think he really sees the value of a luxury franchise," Witt said. "I see an unprecedented effort by Ford Motor Co. to do the right thing for Lincoln and to make Lincoln the type of luxury brand that retailers want to be involved with."