Ford seems to have spent much of the past 15 years trying to reinvent the Lincoln brand.
I think the New York unveiling of the Lincoln Continental concept marked probably the fourth attempt at a defining a new look for the marque as it tries to get away from the clunking image of the giant Lincoln Town Car.
The indestructible Town Car, which was built on a separate chassis, was the US limo of choice in the 1980s and 1990s. It was related to the Ford Crown Victoria, the mainstay New York cab for many years.
This was a Lincoln which was a world away from the ultra-modern, elegant and sharp-edged 1961 Continental which became infamous as the car in which President Kennedy was shot.
In 1999, Ford created the Premium Automotive Group as it moved heavily into buying up premium brands. Home-grown Lincoln found itself under the same corporate roof as Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin.
Indeed, the 1998 Jaguar S-Type was sister car to the Lincoln LS, a partnership that only highlighted the gap between what US and European engineers regarded as a premium quality platform.
Wolfgang Reitzle took over PAG in 1999. Earlier that year, he had walked out of BMW in the wake of the boardroom cull triggered by the debacle of Rover Group ownership.As the brains behind the Mini and Range Rover Mk3 (both of which were still in development at the time), Reitzle was clearly prescient about how the premium car market would develop.
Once in charge of PAG, he decided Lincoln needed a complete reboot and hired a group of designers he had worked with at Rover Group.
Among them were Gerry McGovern (now design boss at Land Rover), Marek Reichman (the current design boss at Aston Martin) and David Woodhouse, who has been the Lincoln design boss for the last 18 months.
The largely British team had jumped across the Atlantic as Rover Group was broken up and sold off by BMW in 2000. Reitzle commissioned the team to come up with a new look for Lincoln.
First up from McGovern and his team was the 2001 Lincoln Mk9 Concept, a clear homage to the classic 1961 model, a sharp chromed edge running along the car’s window line and down the front and rear wings.
The following year saw the 2002 Continental concept, which backed off from the direct ’61 references and featured a much more modernist look with large, uncluttered surfaces.In 2003 came the unusual Navicross, executed by Reichman. It was a rather unusual mix of luxury coupé and jacked-up off-road running gear.
But by this time Reitzle had left PAG. Industry stories at the time suggested the strategy he pitched to Ford management was for a huge investment in an all-new rear-drive platform for Lincoln.
He believed, probably rightly, that Lincoln could only be a convincing premium brand with the best possible technical base. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and with economic confidence fragile, Reitzle’s plan was rejected.
As a result this brilliant engineer and premium guru left the car-making industry for good, joining German industrial gases company Linde.