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.
By the middle of the noughties, Ford was well on with divesting itself of its varied premium brands. Volvo went to the Chinese, Land Rover and Jaguar to the Indians and Aston Martin to a buy-out team. PAG was wound up.
The move to the ‘One Ford’ global strategy (a single brand name and a series of global models) looked like a masterstroke when the Credit Crunch hit in 2008.
Since then, however, the global market for premium cars, massively bolstered by Chinese demand, has boomed. And Ford looked as if it had inadvertently locked itself out of the most profitable (US pick-ups aside) part of the car industry.
So here we are again, 14 years down the line. David Woodhouse is back at Lincoln (having transferred from Ford’s Ingeni studio in London) and the brand has just rolled out its latest reinvention.
Heavily chromed and drawn up with the kind of gently bulging surfaces that you would associate with the upmarket European cars, the new Continental is aimed squarely at China and the US.
It is, says, Woodhouse, about unashamed first-class travel and has no pretentions about driving dynamics.
The production version appears in around 12 months and will have a "unique to Lincoln" 3.0-litre V6 Ecoboost engine, but that’s all we know.
Has Ford engineered a proper rear-drive platform for it? Will it be at least partly aluminium? Will money and time be lavished on the production interior? Ford isn’t saying.
But it seems Reitzle might have been right all along. If Ford is going to get a last-minute foothold in the premium segment, it needs to invest heavily in a no-excuses product. Anything less is almost doomed to failure.