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U.S.A.:Ford's financial crisis starves Lincoln lineup

By CHARLES CHILD | Automotive News
Automotive News Staff Reporter Amy Wilson contributed to this report

As Cadillac builds momentum with fresh products, rival Lincoln is stuck in neutral.

Ford Motor Co.'s luxury division suffers from lackluster products. The problem: Neglect. Ford's financial crisis dried up investments for the brand.

COO Nick Scheele says new products are on the way. But Ford will not spend the billions on Lincoln that General Motors spent at Cadillac. Instead, Ford plans to give Lincoln two Mazda6-based vehicles, plus a new rear-drive large sedan.

There is a sense of urgency at Lincoln, whose sales nose-dived from 193,009 in 2000 to 150,057 in 2002. From Lincoln's viewpoint, Ford's recent history is a tale of missed opportunities and misplaced priorities.

Former CEO Jacques Nasser poured cash into other luxury brands. He paid $6.5 billion for Volvo Cars in 1999 and $2.9 billion for Land Rover in 2000.

Meanwhile, Ford moved Lincoln's headquarters out of Dearborn, Mich., to Southern California in 1998 and added Lincoln to the Premier Automotive Group. Lincoln reported to PAG Chairman Wolfgang Reitzle, who was 5,500 miles and eight time zones away in London.

Nasser and Reitzle planned to follow in Cadillac's footsteps with a new rwd platform for Lincoln and other PAG brands, but Ford's financial crisis aborted their ambitions.

The enormity of the problem became clear shortly after Bill Ford replaced Nasser as CEO in 2001. At the Detroit auto show three months later, Reitzle told reporters that a new rwd platform for Lincoln and other PAG brands had been axed. The company couldn't afford it.

The Lincoln lineup lacks excitement. Navigator sales are solid, but the Aviator, which was introduced in November, has been disappointing. It is perceived as a knockoff of the Ford Explorer and is priced too closely to the Navigator.

That leaves the Town Car, which is aimed at senior citizens, and the LS, which suffers from vanilla styling.

Lincoln sold 106,577 vehicles in the first eight months of this year, compared with 135,051 for Cadillac.

To get Lincoln back on its feet, Bill Ford pulled Lincoln out of PAG and back into North American operations. Reitzle, a Nasser hire, left the company last year.

Scheele says Ford will revive Lincoln and make the luxury brand competitive with Cadillac. "It will (be competitive) but without the billions," Scheele said. "I'm very comfortable with where Lincoln is going. We did have some problems."

Executives say Lincoln will get three new products within the next three years:

A mid-sized sedan, related to the coming Ford Futura and based off the Mazda6, is coming. Lincoln has not released timing, but the Futura is scheduled to debut in 2005.

An all-wheel-drive sport wagon, also based on the Mazda6, is slated for production in August 2006 as a 2007 model.

A flagship rwd sedan is planned, though Lincoln officials are sketchy about its arrival date. Ford product developer Chris Theodore said in April that the vehicle is based on the LS platform. But a Ford official says that is not certain.

Under the Reitzle revival plan, Lincoln would have received more new products than planned now. Not only were they too expensive, but Lincoln Mercury dealers objected.

The dealers wanted to balance product investment between Lincoln and Mercury, says John Fitzpatrick, general marketing manager at Lincoln Mercury.

Mercury sales are key to supporting Lincoln Mercury dealers, Fitzpatrick says. The Mercury Grand Marquis and Mercury Mountaineer alone will account for about 115,000 retail sales - or 40 percent - for Lincoln Mercury dealers in 2003.

Mercury is getting four new products by the end of 2005. The two brands must continue as unique but complementary lineups, Fitzpatrick says.

"Our dealer network does not survive without those two unique brands through the same retail outlet," Fitzpatrick says. "Cadillac, they are doing some of these new things. But we have to be careful that we're not dismissive to Mercury."

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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