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Spotted this while surfing. I wonder if Lincoln could get it together.<P>March 30, 2001 <BR>Ford's Slipping Brand Is Set for Redesign,<BR>But Will Current Customer Base Defect?<BR>By Norihiko Shirouzu <BR>Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal <BR>Standing before a room full of Lincoln luxury-car dealers in Irvine, Calif., not long ago, Gerry McGovern looked like a rock star who had wandered onto the wrong stage. But his appearance -- wavy shoulder-length hair, black Italian suit, stylish shades -- belied his mission: to critique Lincoln's model lineup.<P>Mr. McGovern is a Lincoln automotive designer, and his message on this day was blunt: With the mammoth Navigator SUV, the portly Town Car limousine and the vaguely Teutonic LS sedan, the Ford Motor Co. brand lacked a consistent character and needed a major overhaul to woo younger customers. A worried dealer barked from the audience: But don't wreck Lincoln's appeal to its loyal base of existing customers.<P>"The customers?" Mr. McGovern shot back. "They will all be dead soon anyway." The room erupted in laughter.<P>The trouble is, it's not really a joke. Long content to be No. 2 to General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac in the American luxury-car market, Lincoln now confronts a demographic abyss. The average customer -- not counting rental-car fleets and limo services -- for Lincoln's best-selling Town Car is 71 years old. Together, these individual buyers are only 62% of the Town Car's customer base, a figure considered comparatively low.<P>American luxury cars long ago lost their allure abroad. What's worse, more consumers at home are falling in love with Lexuses and Mercedeses and BMWs, not to mention Jaguars, Volvos and Land Rovers, the latter three all now owned by Ford. Last year, Lincoln fell to third place in the U.S. luxury market. No. 1: Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand. Now that Ford has invested so much in its Euro luxury brands, can it also revive Lincoln, and make the brand desirable in Europe while at it?<P>That's the challenge for Mr. McGovern, a 44-year-old former designer for Britain's Land Rover who has about as much in common with typical Lincoln buyers as the mid-20th-century minimalist furniture he fancies has with the aesthetic of Lincoln's chrome-decked land yachts.<P>Mr. McGovern's prescription for Lincoln is taking shape in part behind the locked doors of a sun-drenched studio in Gaydon, England, not far from Coventry, where he was born. Lifting a dark green cloth, Mr. McGovern reveals a clay model of a concept Lincoln painted in metallic silver with subtle, simple lines and curves. Mr. McGovern says this model is the "DNA" for the new wave of Lincolns that will hit show rooms starting in 2005. It is also the basis for the MK 9 concept coupe Lincoln is expected to unveil during the New York auto show on April 10.<P>But he is still unhappy with the grille. Too much chrome, he says. Maybe, he says, he should give it a brushed finish to tone it down. Chrome, Mr. McGovern says, reflects Detroit's misguided efforts to "make a perception of luxury at a minimal cost."<P>Mr. McGovern arrived at Lincoln in late 1999 with a resume that includes designs for the Rover MGF sports car and the Land Rover Freelander sport-utility vehicle. In Detroit, where senior executives are typically reserved in dress and demeanor, Mr. McGovern departs from the norm with his tieless, black ensembles and caustic assessments of design ideas he doesn't like.<P>The concern of some Lincoln dealers that the revamping may alienate the brand's current gray customer base is summed up by Michael Evered, a co-owner of the Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Bellevue, Wash. "I am excited about the direction that Lincoln is taking, but we certainly don't want to lose our loyal customers... and all the dealers have the same concern," he says. "Any time you effect change, there are challenges and opportunities."<P>Based on the concept vehicles under development in Gaydon, the Lincolns of the future will have a personality that reflects Mr. McGovern's personal tastes to a degree that's unusual in an industry driven by focus groups and marketing data. But Ford executives are supportive. "Gerry knows exactly where he wants to take our brand personality," says Mark Hutchins, head of the Lincoln-Mercury division. "We're all psyched about him."<P>When not jetting between the U.S., Europe and Lincoln's headquarters in Irvine, Calif., Mr. McGovern relaxes in an apartment near Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., or in a house in Britain, both of which are museums of modernist furniture, filled with chairs, lamps, clocks and other works of his design heroes, like Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and George Nelson, all of whom he says influence his work and designers at Lincoln.<P>Mr. McGovern isn't rejecting Lincoln's past entirely. The prototype Lincoln sedan sitting in the Gaydon studio has a long wheel base, smooth side panels, and vertical center-opening doors like the classic 1961 Lincoln Continental President John F. Kennedy took to Dallas.<P>This fusion of retro and modernism, or design and functionality, is a sharp contrast to the strategy GM is pursuing to revive its Cadillac brand. Convinced that the epitome of American style is found in high-tech military hardware, Cadillac designers are readying sedans and coupes that echo the sharp-edged look of Stealth fighters.<P>Mr. McGovern counters that the essence of American elegance is found in the indulgent wood-paneled cabins of Wally B luxury yachts, which is why the prototype has a wooden floor; the DNA car's trunk, designed to slide out of the rear of the car, is modeled on the functionality of Halliburton's fashionable -- and expensive -- metal briefcases. The car's interior also was inspired in part by Mr. McGovern's favorite Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair, an amalgam of smooth leather and formed plywood, which sits in his study.<P>"Some people might say, oh, that's modernistic crap," he says, looking at the chair through the hallway in morning light. "It's just bloody elegant, and it really gives me an incredible amount of enjoyment."<P>Write to Norihiko Shirouzu at [email protected] <BR>
 
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