The Unexpected History Behind Lincoln’s Quiet Luxury Revival
Aiming for an audience with more restrained tastes, should Lincoln ignore its high profile past?
Think of an American premium car brand and Cadillac will likely first come to mind. GM has been diligently refining the brand the past couple of decades, including a recent relocation of management to offices in New York City. Ford itself has enjoyed success with well-designed cars and trucks that are selling globally. Left behind has been Lincoln, which today is mostly a car brand people expect to see when they need a ride back and forth from the airport.
There is a new focus at Lincoln to reboot the brand by incorporating elements of what it used to be known for. Historically, Lincoln’s design vocabulary was elegant and conservative, but that didn’t stop the brand from being a go-to vehicle for Hollywood and politicians.
Presidential limousines from the late 1930’s to the early 1990’s were all Lincoln models (except for a lone Cadillac used by Ronald Reagan around 1983). These examples highlight how Lincoln styling evolved over the decades.
The 1939 Lincoln “Sunshine Special” used by Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first car built expressly for presidential use.
Four presidents made use of the 1950 Lincoln Limousine. It was originally built for Truman, but Eisenhower made most use of it, adding the clear plastic bubble top to the convertible. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson kept the car as a backup during their terms.
The 1961 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine is the car President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in on November 22, 1963. Originally a convertible and un-armored, following that event it was modified with a permanent roof, armor plating and repainted black.
The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley happened as Reagan was getting into this 1972 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine. The car was used by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush, being modified along the way with updated front sheet metal and 1979 model year grille.
Lincoln cars being connected to those serious events are contrasted by the vehicles making extensive appearances in movies and TV shows. The Internet Movie Cars Database at the time of writing this has 82 pages of appearances listed just for the Continental model alone. The original Batmobile was in fact a Lincoln.
Car customizer George Barris famously bought the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car from Ford for $1.00. It sat and deteriorated for several years behind his shop until the Batman TV show quickly needed a car for filming. Barris sold the car at auction in 2013 for $4.62 million.
Goldfinger, the James Bond movie that many say is the best of all time, features both a 1964 and ’63 Lincoln Continental. The car is both a villain and victim in the film, ultimately getting crushed in a scrapyard.
There is a lot of love in auto design circles for the early 60’s Continental. The long and low proportions, slab body side and discreet grille complement each other nicely. This elegant design vocabulary appeared to get more confused over the next couple of decades. Most familiar of recent Lincoln’s is the Town Car made from 1981-2011. For a time, it was the largest and longest car sold in America. A staple in the livery of every car service, these are still a common sight cruising between JFK and Laguardia in NYC.
Lincoln’s slide to becoming a more expensive trim level for Ford based vehicles is where the brand ended up losing a lot of meaning. In addition to that, it has been domestically pummeled by Cadillac’s product upswing in recent years. The reset button was finally hit a couple years ago with the release of the MKC, a freshly styled premium compact SUV. Last year, a new Continental was introduced in concept form in New York, to be followed by a production version reveal in 2016. The latest new model from Lincoln is the MKX, a mid-sized crossover that will compete in a hotly contested segment which has essentially replaced the traditional sedan.
We got a chance to drive one for a week and see what exactly the reborn Lincoln offers buyers today.
First of all, the MKX shares a chassis with the Ford Edge and the overall silhouette shape of both are similar. But the MKX does have a unique exterior design that does look more refined than the Edge. In car design speak, this is a two box vehicle, the front being one and the passenger being the second. The challenge is always to get the shapes to flow between the two and the MKX design achieves this quite nicely.
While the level of understatement isn’t at 60’s Continental range, the MKX exterior doesn’t aim to be an attention grabber, and that’s not such a bad thing. There’s enough style here to feel fresh without tempting fashionability.
Some interior elements are shared between the MKX and Edge like the dashboard and center console. The MKX has the upper hand in terms of materials – the dash can be leather wrapped, and wood grain accents replace the plain plastic found in the Edge. The seats in the MKX are pretty fantastic for long drives, especially with the massage feature that spans the full back and seat.
The interior doesn’t heavily project technology, the transmission is a push button, a throwback feature of some Ford cars in the 1950’s. The touchscreen on the other hand runs the latest version of SYNC and MyLincoln Touch and is both intuitive and easy to use. Entering a navigation destination or searching for music on a phone takes a minimal number of steps and the interface sports a clean design. The optional Revel sound system made by Harmon Kardon is another nice feature if you want a super clean music listening experience in your car.
We got to see how the MKX did on an extended drive, heading from NYC to Portland, Maine. The highway ride was comfortable and the interior was pleasantly quiet. It had enough room in the back for two bikes with the seats folded down.
Lincoln has adopted a mantra of ‘Quiet Luxury’ and the MKX on a road trip was a good companion. This idea of low key luxury is what drove Lincoln’s marketing launch of the MKX. The first commercial features the return of Matthew McConaughey in a nearly 3-minute spot where only two words are spoken. Keep an eye out for the interesting choice of supporting cars in the parking shot.
Luxury brands have to be aspirational and this spot is clearly in that realm. There’s also an important nod to Lincoln’s heritage. The reviving of the brand can’t completely divorce itself from that and really shouldn’t. It is part of a narrative that can make Lincoln distinct. The challenge is to make that story relevant today. Our destination choice of Portland, Maine was chosen on purpose to allow for some stops to check out other brands who are reinventing furniture, hospitality and wine making. We thought their stories would compliment the path Lincoln is now on. You can read about their stories here:
Photos: The Henry Ford, Dave Pinter