Lincoln carves out new future
Ford hopes bold design reinvents luxury brand
By Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News
NEW YORK -- With the launch of the Lincoln Zephyr sedan and the unveiling of the new Lincoln Aviator crossover, Ford Motor Co. has begun a reinvention of its luxury marque that is all about capturing the spirit of American achievement and optimism, albeit with an assist from a British designer and Japanese engineering.
Lincoln was once the best-selling luxury brand in the United States but has seen its sales decline amid the resurgence of General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac brand and fast-growing foreign brands.
Ford has struggled to make Lincoln relevant again but with little success. So far this year, Lincoln sales have fallen 10 percent.
"We've kind of lost our way," said Elena Ford, the company's director of North American product marketing, planning and strategy. "Product is always what brings you back."
The person in charge of designing that product is Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of design and the man credited with giving Volvo its new strong-shouldered look.
Elena Ford -- great-great-granddaughter of Henry Ford and cousin of Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. -- said she is counting on the British-born designer to work the same magic with Lincoln.
The first step, Horbury said, was figuring out what Lincoln means as a brand. "I think first and foremost, it's American," he said.
To Horbury, that means optimism and achievement, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge.
"I have to find a way of translating all these positive qualities of America into sheet metal," he said, adding that the new Aviator is a good start.
Horbury said the current Aviator -- like other SUVs with their high seats and long hoods -- evokes the Conestoga wagon and the stagecoach. He said the future Aviator was designed to conjure images of fighter jocks, poised for takeoff on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Elena Ford admits all this talk about Americana can sound a little strange in a British accent, but she said the fact that Horbury is not American actually gives him a unique ability to distill the essence of this country and its culture.
"He sees things differently than we do," she said. "He got on this whole American Dream thing with me the other day. I'm like, 'I get it, I get it.'"
Officially, the Zephyr inaugurates Lincoln's new look and the Aviator underlines it.
Taken together, Horbury said, they point the way to Lincoln's future -- smaller, sleeker and more fuel-efficient. Horbury offers measured praise for the Zephyr, whose design was all but finished when he was asked to begin Lincoln's makeover 20 months ago. He's more enthusiastic about the Aviator, which he was able to put his imprint on.
Lincoln also has promised two new large sedans will be coming in the future. The new Aviator bears little resemblance to the current version -- a big, boxy SUV built on the same platform as the Ford Explorer. It's a curvy crossover based on the Japanese-built Mazda6.
Horbury said it was designed to capture the spirit of the "memorable Lincolns of old" in a thoroughly modern package.
The 2007 model will officially be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January and is expected to be in dealer showrooms next fall.
The Aviator breaks with many of Lincoln's styling cues, which Horbury found too restrictive.
"America is nothing if not diverse," Horbury said, adding that he wants to mirror that in his designs. "I don't see the reason why we have to keep the same design on every car."
He also wants to see Lincoln move into new market sectors.
"What's to say that's the smallest Lincoln of all?" Horbury asked, pointing to the Zephyr. "The design department is deeply involved, not just in how the vehicle should look, but in what the vehicle should be."
With the Zephyr shipping in volume and the introduction of the new Aviator, 2006 promises to be a big year for Lincoln.
"Next year is our growth year," said Lincoln Mercury President Al Giombetti.