How to Make Lincoln Cars Cool Again

The granddaddy of American luxury is never going to be a progressive brand. That’s not a weakness.

Lincoln’s been on a bit of a media blitz lately. It hired Matthew McConaughey to spout some zen aphorisms about progress and its new MKC then – after the spot inspired a fair amount of mockery and a memorable SNL parody – starting fielding press inquiries about the measurable (as in, 25%) bump in sales.

Thing is, it’s been a long time since Lincoln was cool on the strength of its products alone – Carter was in office if that puts it in perspective. The last Lincoln Continental Town Car rolled off the line in 1978. That car was nineteen-and-a-half feet and 5,500 pounds of velour–lined Yankee grandeur. Unwieldy and inefficient enough to trigger a gas crisis, that behemoth oozed excess. Slipping behind the wheel of a 3–ton two–door was an act of indulgence on par with bathing in a hot tub. Gratuitous, sure, but goddam American.

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In the decades since that car hit lots, Lincoln has become little more than a badge, the ultimate trim level on Ford’s economy sedans. The tragedy is that Lincoln used to sell the coolest cars in America. To any person under forty that might sound like more marketing hyperbole, but hear us out.

In 1956, Lincoln released the Continental Mark II, a car so high in quality and price that Ford tried to market it as a different brand—consumers still called it the Lincoln Continental. In a time of excess in automotive design (chrome, dagmars, fins), the 1956 Continental was elegant and restrained: simple round headlights, an eggcrate grill, and a simple rear deck, with an integrated spare tire.

The cars were hand built with the best parts around; the painting process was multi-day affair that climaxed with a thorough hand polishing. Priced at $10,000, these cars cost the equivalent of two Cadillacs or five standard Ford sedans. They were driven by the fifties’ biggest stars: Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley.

Just five years later, Lincoln released the 1961 Continental. This sedan was 15 inches shorter than Lincoln’s last, and managed to combine a simplified, elegant shape with what came to be iconic features: rear-hinged “suicide doors” and quad headlights in a chrome-mesh grill. Tellingly, when the Waschowskis were looking for an appropriately menacing Dystopia-Mobile, they chose a ’65 Continental over contemporary Lincolns. 

So how can Lincoln get some of that respect back? Certainly not with a line-up of rebadged Ford Fusions and Escapes. Cadillac has shown that folks under 60 are interested in American luxury cars so there’s no reason Lincoln shouldn’t be savoring a slice of that pie. 

Here’s what they need to do to get back their mojo.

1. Let Lincoln Be Lincoln

Though past sales trends like ChiaPets and pet rocks might suggest otherwise, American consumers are discerning. So, though it’s shaped a little differently, people know Lincoln’s MKZ is a Ford in a pretty frock. A real Lincoln needs its own platform, colors, and, dare we say, engines.

2. Restore Rear-Wheel Drive

Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans have front wheel-drive. Mercedes, BMWs, and Rolls-Royces have rear-wheel drive. Right or wrong, rational or otherwise, rear-drive cars are perceived as sporting and luxurious. Lincoln is better off using this perception to its advantage than trying to convince buyers otherwise.

3. Bring Back the Badass Names

Lincoln sells the MKX, MKZ, MKS, MKT and MKC. None of these names have more than a few years’ history, and all are easily confused. A return to actual names, instead of cat-on-a-keyboard letter jumbles, would add some panache to the brand.

4. Limit Fleet Sales

Late model Lincoln Town Cars are used so often as livery cars that, like Kleenex and Xerox, the brand name has come to stand for the generic item. No one wants to have a car in the driveway that jogs memories of vinyl seat covers, industrial air freshener and missed flights.

5. Increase the Footprint

There’s a saying in the car industry about engines: There’s no replacement for displacement. Well, Lincoln should listen up, though in regards to the cars as a whole. Nothing says luxury and profligate, oil-money Americana like a 20-foot sedan. If emissions standards require it, stuff an Ecoboost V6 under the hood and lighten the beast with an aluminum frame. Just, please, give us the long, low, slab-sided Lincoln saloon we’ve been waiting for: The one that would get the front spot at Peter Luger’s, the monster that takes two people to park, the car whose trunk fits four stool pigeons real comfortable-like. 

Photos by Ford Motor Company