Reinventing Lincoln

On his very first day as the new chief designer of the Lincoln line from Ford Motor, Max Wolff had, in his words, an “oh, shit moment.” Touring Ford’s design studio in Dearborn, Mich., last January, Wolff made his way to the latest model of the MKZ, Lincoln’s top-selling car, which Ford hopes will finally reverse decades of decline at Lincoln and catapult it into a pantheon with Audi, BMW, and Lexus. Trouble was, the MKZ was a dud. The boxy, narrow model had doors identical to the Ford Fusion, the carmaker’s family sedan for the common man. Its prominent grille with cascading chrome ribs had the look of your grandfather’s mustache, and its boxy headlights evoked Milton Berle’s eyeglasses. Wolff, a 39-year-old, faux-hawk-sporting Aussie, turned to the car’s designer, Solomon Song, and asked: “What were you thinking?”

As Wolff recalls, Song said: “We’ve sort of been waiting for you to turn up so that we can do something different.”

They did. One year since his arrival at Lincoln, Wolff is unveiling the redesigned MKZ on Jan. 10 at the Detroit Auto Show. The car, expected to start at about $35,000, bears little resemblance to the homely model Wolff encountered last January. Wolff, whom Lincoln hired away from Cadillac at General Motors, has retooled the car to make it lower, longer, and wider. The most striking change comes on what Wolff calls the car’s “face,” which he contends can make or break a design. Gone is the geezer grille. In its place are side-by-side sleek chrome apertures, bisected by horizontal ribs that stretch like eagle’s wings into swept-back headlights that flow into the front fenders.

Whether or not car buyers go for the sexier, sleeker Lincoln remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Lincoln needs a hit, if not a miracle. The car was the epitome of cool when JFK was in the White House and the Rat Pack was headlining in Vegas. From a sales standpoint, Lincoln reached its zenith in 1990, when 231,660 were sold. As recently as 1999, the heyday of Lincoln’s behemoth Navigator SUV, the line ranked first in U.S. sales among luxury car brands. Today, Lincoln stands eighth, its image defined largely by the black Town Cars that transport people to and from airports. (Ford stopped production of the Town Car in September.) The average Lincoln driver is 65 years old. Lincoln says it sold 85,643 cars in 2011, down a breathtaking 63 percent since the 1990 peak. The latest indignity came last month, when a 1970s-era Lincoln Continental was used to carry the coffin of deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. “Lincoln’s image is as an old person’s car or a taxi,” says Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst with researcher IHS Automotive.

A succession of designers have tried to recapture Lincoln’s faded glory, with little success. In 2001, Gerry McGovern, now chief designer at Land Rover, crafted a slab-sided concept car in homage to the classic ’61 Continental in which President Kennedy was riding when he was assassinated. After that, Peter Horbury, who went on to become Volvo’s design director, sought inspiration from the split-bow grilles of 1940s’ Lincolns. Neither paean to the past worked.

“We’re well past the window on Lincoln of being able to relive the glory years,” says J Mays, Ford global design chief. “We’re in a situation now where we need to reinvent the brand.”

Doing so involves transforming consumer expectations about what a Lincoln looks like. “Lincoln is a brand that’s got authenticity and credentials,” says Leslie Butterfield, a luxury car specialist with Interbrand, a consulting company, and author of Enduring Passion: The Story of the Mercedes-Benz Brand. “But it’s important that the design be a break with tradition. I don’t want to feel I’m buying Old Lincoln, I want to feel like I’m buying New Lincoln.”

That’s where Wolff comes in. He grew up in Melbourne, a car nut and compulsive scribbler who began writing to GM about a design job at age 12. An indifferent student who preferred pool halls to the classroom, Wolff was accepted into design school at age 22, after having been rejected twice for his poor high school grades. This time, though, he excelled in school, winning awards and leading teams of students on design projects for industrial clients, including a Japanese automaker. In 1998, he began designing for GM’s Holden brand in Australia before moving to the automaker’s South Korean studio, where he helped craft the hot-selling Chevy Cruze. In 2006, GM transferred Wolff to Detroit, where he designed Cadillac’s futuristic flagship, the XTS, which is on display at the Detroit Auto Show and goes on sale this year.

Wolff was lured to Ford in late 2010 by Mays, who himself had left Audi 14 years ago to shake up Ford’s staid design culture. He wanted Wolff—who drives a black Mustang and would never be mistaken for a typical Lincoln buyer—to do the same. “Max looks a little disruptive,” Mays says. “He’s got that trendy haircut and the shoes that turn up on the end that aren’t ever quite polished and just the right amount of stubble to make sure you know he’s a designer. He’s probably the best thing that could happen to Lincoln.”

Lincoln insiders say the remake of the MKZ reflects how much the company is leaning on Wolff’s talents. The new-look MKZ had been set to make its debut at the New York International Auto Show last April, but after seeing the prototype, Wolff immediately went to his new bosses and told them their supposed game-changing car would be a game-over car unless it underwent radical surgery. Getting approval to delay the rollout required sign-offs from Mark Fields, the top North American lieutenant to Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, and from Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product development chief.

“What he was asking for wasn’t easy to deliver,” says Kuzak, who gave Wolff the green light for an emergency overhaul. The New York intro was scotched and the car’s mid-2012 on-sale date was pushed back a few months to allow time to reengineer parts of its mechanical skeleton.

Wolff started by asking Song what he would have done differently if he hadn’t been shackled with under-the-skin engineering that required such a square-jawed face on the car. Song walked Wolff over to his drawing board, where he pulled out earlier designs that were sleeker and made the car look faster.

“Maybe we could try to get back to that,” Wolff said.

The two designers immediately sat down at a drawing board and begin a marathon sketching session, pushing their scratched-out solutions across the table to each other. When they hit on looks they liked, they took them over to another designer who converted their drawings into 3D computer-animated images they could take for a virtual test drive.

The most complicated feature of Wolff’s design was the front grille of the new MKZ. The car’s avian headlights necessitated an engineering tear-up. To accommodate the headlights’ dramatic wingspan, Lincoln’s engineers had to change the spot where the headlights plug into the frame. That may sound simple, but it requires moving what engineers call “hard points” in the car’s mechanical architecture. And it set off a cascade of changes that the engineers began calling “the Max Change option.” All the underbody parts that connect the headlights to the frame had to be redesigned. The robots and factory tools used to install the headlights had to reprogrammed or replaced to enable a new way of building the car. The massive presses that stamp out body parts had to be equipped with new dies to make those soaring fenders that the headlights now flow into.

Wolff has already put his pretty new car to the test before owners of Audi, Lexus, and Cadillac models. At secret consumer clinics in California last March, he revealed his new design but kept the Lincoln logo off the car. By nearly two to one, the rival luxury car owners choose Wolff’s new look over the cars they drove. They also thought the Lincoln looked $6,000 more expensive than a Lexus ES350 and created a better first impression than an Audi A4, renowned for its stylish front end.

Neither Wolff nor his bosses at Ford will disclose how much they spent on redesigning the new MKZ. All told, Ford is putting about $1 billion into the effort to revive Lincoln, according to two sources familiar with the plan. That’s still just one-third of what GM spent a decade ago to turn Cadillac’s grandpa-mobiles into racy rides inspired by stealth fighters. For now, Wolff’s job is to perform triage on the seven new models Lincoln has coming in the next two years. The real test of Wolff’s vision will come when the Lincolns he designs from the ground up start hitting the streets, though that won’t happen until mid-decade at the earliest. “All of us want Lincoln to be seen as a top-tier luxury manufacturer, spoken about in the same breath as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi,” he says. “I think it’s possible to do that. How quickly that happens is still up for debate.” Lincoln doesn’t have much more time to lose.

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