The film version of Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer, starring a Matthew McConaughey who reportedly keeps his shirt on, opens this weekend. It's the story of a L.A. lawyer who advises sketchy clients from the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car -- an old Lincoln Town Car. It's also symbolic of how far Lincoln has tumbled as a brand since its jazzy heyday with the Navigator SUV in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Ford (F) has had Lincoln moldering on the sidelines since the bottom fell out of the market before the financial crisis and the Detroit carpocalypse. The brand wasn't foremost in the mind of CEO Alan Mulally, whose rallying cry has been "One Ford" -- an obsessive focus on the core of the company. Mulally's plan has created a very solid lineup of vehicles under the Blue Oval nameplate. But pretty soon, he's going to have to quit stalling and do something about Lincoln -- or consider ditching the brand and its relatively meager sales.
Lincoln was once well-defined, but lately it's been drifting
Lincoln is well-known for three vehicles: Presidential limos (JFK was riding in a modified Continental when he was assassinated), the ubiquitous Town Car (favored conveyance of car services), and the Navigator, an upscale SUV that has seen sales crater in the past few years.
For decades, Lincoln was Ford's answer to General Motors' (GM) Cadillac. But with the arrival of Mulally, Ford has largely dismantled its old brand family. While GM has kept Buick alive, Ford axed the analogous Mercury. And as GM has continued to push the envelope with Caddy, of late producing a series of high-horsepower sport versions that are meant to go toe-to-toe with BMW and Mercedes, Ford has allowed Lincoln cars to languish with -- gasp! -- only front-wheel drive platforms.
In the luxury market, it's rear-wheel-drive or else
Ford intends to re-invest in Lincoln, but it could take a while to bring it back to its former glory. Like Acura, Honda's luxury brand, Lincoln really needs a rear-wheel-drive sedan. Honda stubbornly refuses to build one for Acura, and this is the main thing that's kept the brand from ascending to "Tier One" luxury status, alongside BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and Audi. It wouldn't be hard to imagine Ford waffling on this one, as well.
At this juncture, Ford is beginning to look a lot like the American Honda, to GM's Toyota (TM) (although in truth GM really doesn't look like anyone other than GM these days, for good and bad). This is great for Ford in that all its mass-market vehicles are globally competitive with Japanese rivals, while it still has the best-selling pickup truck in the F-150. Best of all, Ford is the best-positioned of all the carmakers who do business in North America to weather a gas crunch this summer.
Back to the future won't work either
The Lincoln that serves as McConaughey's rolling office in the movie is a total throwback: a relic from the 1980s, constructed in the old body-on-frame manner that defined big American luxury cars for decades. It won't help Ford to roll back the clock to those good old days because another factor has entered the luxury equation: performance. All current Lincolns fare poorly against rivals because they lack the crisp handling and vigorous power that customers now routinely associate with the upscale driving experience
It will also be tricky to revive the Navigator, as over-the-top SUVs aren't really the way forward for anybody these days. My feeling is that Ford might need to transfer its success with fuel-efficiency from the main brand and reinvent Lincoln as the environmentalist's luxury ride. There's a whiff of this already in Lincoln's concept cars (pictured above), which are small, idiosyncratic, and crammed with technology. Nothing a lawyer would want to do business out of. But perhaps something a Silicon Valley entrepreneur might want to drive.