Ford Motor Co.’s lagging Lincoln line, searching for a return to relevance, is dusting off the old Continental model name that had its heyday in the Mad Men era and was favored by President John F. Kennedy.
Lincoln will present a new Continental sedan at the New York International Auto Show this week as another new direction for a brand that’s been seeking redemption for decades. The Continental concept features a “new face,” with a rectangular chrome grille replacing one that evoked eagle’s wings and alienated some buyers, said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas.
The big, broad-shouldered Continental is trimmed in large slabs of shiny chrome and has a silhouette that sweeps back to sleek LED taillamps. The opulent rear seat features a champagne bottle holder and a pop-up touch-screen tablet. The substantial sedan is Ford’s latest attempt to reverse a 59 percent sales slide since Lincoln’s 1990 peak. Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields is investing $2.5 billion on four new Lincoln models, including the Continental, which arrives in showrooms next year.
“Lincoln Continental is an iconic name,” said John Wolkonowicz, an automotive historian and analyst in Boston. “It conjures up pictures of Jack and Jackie Kennedy in Camelot.”
The Continental is part of a parade of luxury cars debuting this week at the New York show, the traditional showcase for high-end automobiles. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac will also unveil a flagship sedan, the CT6, while Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus line will introduce a new version of its top-selling RX sport utility vehicle. Mercedes-Benz will take the wraps off its own SUV, the GLE, which replaces the ML-Class.
Lincoln has had success lately selling SUVs such as the big Navigator and the compact MKC. Sedans, though, remain a hard sell for the erstwhile maker of the Town Car, an airport shuttle for business travelers. Overall, Lincoln ranks eighth among luxury auto brands in the U.S.
By restoring the Continental name, Ford hopes to recapture the glory of the 1961 Continental that became known as the “Kennedy Lincoln.” The Continental he was riding in when he was assassinated is on permanent display at the Henry Ford museum near the automaker’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.
“Continental is a meaningful name to people,” Fields said in an interview. “It has always symbolized Lincoln sedans at their best.”
Lincoln discontinued the Continental in 2002, after decades of downsizing and de-contenting had stripped the car of its elegance and appeal. Ford, which is introducing the Lincoln brand in China, hopes reviving the Continental name will highlight its history.
“It’s a modern version,” Hinrichs said in an interview. “But we’re certainly not hiding from the fact that we have heritage, which is important in China.”
Ford rose 1.1 percent to $16.16 at the close in New York. The shares have gained 4.3 percent this year.
Reviving the name also unlocked creativity in the design studio, Fields said. When Lincoln first ordered up a new look for the slow-selling MKS large sedan, the initial renderings were uninspired, Fields said.
“The first couple of themes weren’t lighting us on fire,” Fields recalled. “When we decided to call it Continental and we told the team that in a design review, everybody’s head snapped. They said, ‘OK, now we have our North Star on this.’”
From then, the designs became bolder and evoked the gilded chariots of Hollywood’s golden age, when Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor cruised in Lincolns. Those images still resonate in China, even though Ford hadn’t ever officially sold the line there before now, Fields said.
“Our initial research in China was kind of stunning,” Fields said. “They knew Lincoln as a car brand because they remembered newsreels of presidents and movie stars riding in them.”
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SOURCE: Bloomberg, Keith Naughton