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Old 11-08-2004, 05:46   #1 (permalink)
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US:Continental's death marked end of an era for Lincoln's "car of presidents"

Continental's death marked end of an era for Lincoln's "car of presidents"
AMY WILSON | Automotive News

When Ford Motor Co. killed the Lincoln Continental in 2002, it marked a steep tumble from the brand's high-flying days as the "car of presidents."

The Continental squired a number of U.S. leaders around in the 1950s and 1960s. During the late 1950s, Lincoln retailers even sold the Continental Mark II, the priciest American car of its day. Coveted by the rich and famous, it counted Elvis Presley and the Shah of Iran among its owners.

Even as the era of dignified barges faded and foreign competitors muscled more of the U.S. market, Lincoln saw a resurgence in the late 1990s. The brand topped the luxury segment in sales in 1998, beating Cadillac for the first time in decades.

The 1997 debut of the Navigator launched the big, luxury SUV craze. With an estimated margin of up to $18,000 per vehicle, it was a profit boon. The 1999 introduction of the Lincoln LS - developed in part by Jim Padilla, now Ford's COO - was a promising start to a car revival.

But product-development efforts stalled in the face of the Firestone debacle and Ford's resulting financial crisis. Ford moved Lincoln Mercury to southern California in 1998. It rolled Lincoln into its Premier Automotive Group luxury collection.

Former PAG chief Wolfgang Reitzle envisioned Lincoln as a global luxury player. The ex-BMW executive planned a new rear-drive platform for Lincoln and other PAG brands. But the plan was scrapped because it was too expensive and ignored retail stablemate Mercury.

New entries haven't turned out very well. The Blackwood pickup was a flop. The Explorer-based Aviator made a lackluster debut in 2002, just as consumers started to move from truck-based SUVs to car-based sport wagons.

The redesigned 2003 Navigator and re-engineered 2003 Town Car and LS disappointed because they didn't look new. Ford executives have acknowledged they should have changed the styling more.

Ford officials are counting on vehicles under development to help rebuild Lincoln's prestige. The idea of "accessible luxury" is driving the planning.

Said CEO Bill Ford: "I think the road we're on will work for us. And I think it will re-establish Lincoln as a very credible American luxury brand."
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