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TOWN CAR ODYSSEY : In the redesign of its consummately American luxury sedan, Lincoln turned to Japan and Europe for help.

October 08, 1989|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

"We were all thinking gas would cost $2.50 a gallon by 1989," notes Ross Roberts, Lincoln-Mercury's general manager. "Regardless of how loyal your customers are, you've got to wonder what they will do when they have to pay that much for gas."

At the time, of course, Ford was also a much different company than it is today. Gripped by a horrendous sales slump brought on by soaring interest rates, tough Japanese competition and skyrocketing gasoline prices, Ford in 1980 was in the midst of the most serious crisis in its post-War history. While Chrysler's federal bailout was grabbing headlines, Ford was on the verge of bankruptcy; it lost $1.5 billion in 1980, its worst financial performance.

To survive, Ford's leaders were slashing and burning their way through the company, eliminating jobs and cutting costs. While Ford insisted in its 1980 annual report that its problems were not reducing "the scope of Ford's worldwide plans for future products," the Town Car wasn't being considered, in large part because the auto maker had to devote its scarce resources to more important programs. Ford officials say they were about to "bet the company" on the $3-billion Taurus-Sable program. Something had to give.

In place of the Town Car and other traditional rear-wheel-drive luxury cars, Ford in 1980 planned to convert to sleeker, smaller, front-wheel-drive luxury models by 1986--much like the strategy that later got GM into so much trouble.

For a time, Ford executives thought of simply slapping the Town Car nameplate onto a proposed front-wheel-drive luxury car--which eventually became the 1989 Lincoln Continental--killing the Town Car's identity and pulling the company out of the traditional rear-drive luxury market.

So throughout the early 1980s, as the product planning committee updated its schedule, the Town Car's redesign was consistently left out; few besides Zeniuk and fellow Town Car product planner John Jay believed that the car could make it back onto the master list.

What's more, a change of leadership at Ford in 1985 seemed to further reduce the Town Car's chances for survival. Donald Petersen, an auto racing buff with a strong engineering background, replaced Philip Caldwell, a dour financial man with little operating experience, as chairman.

The new chairman had been the catalyst behind Ford's unique aerodynamic push when he was Ford's president. Helping lead the development of the Taurus, Petersen had given Ford's chief designer, Jack Telnack, marching orders to "design a car that you would be proud to have in your driveway."

Town Car Didn't Fit

Petersen made no secret of his dislike for the stodgy Town Car--the very antithesis of aerodynamic design. He hated its squared-off looks and its "Boulevard Ride"--a Detroitism for an old-fashioned, pillowy suspension system--and he refused to drive one.

Many of the newly promoted executives around him felt the same way. They just didn't see how the Town Car could fit into their new company, and few of them would have wanted to be caught dead with a dowdy Town Car in their driveway.

"Don (Petersen) and I like cars with feel," says Lou Ross. "But Don was more outspoken than I was in his opposition to the Town Car. He wanted to see it go."

That sentiment remained even after project FN36 was approved. Ross disliked the Town Car so much that he had to warn his engineers to "ignore what I say," because he felt that he was too biased against it.

Still, Zeniuk, Jay and a few others kept pushing, trying to change the minds of top management, arguing that demographic and economic data showed that the market for big, rear-drive cars was coming back. Eventually, Zeniuk and Jay--later to become the first Town Car project manager--enlisted the support of the marketing executives at the Lincoln-Mercury Division, including Edsel Ford II, the oldest son of the late Henry Ford II.

But it was the market itself--and bungling at General Motors--that eventually wore down top management's resistance.

As gas prices fell and the economy began to recover, sales of luxury cars started to take off once more. In 1983, Ford brought back the second shift--and eventually overtime--to its Wixom luxury car plant to keep up with surging customer demand.

By 1984, with the economy in full boom, Ford executives could hardly believe what was happening to Town Car sales. They reached 90,000, up 50% from 1983 and a staggering 300% over 1980. Wixom's harried manufacturing engineers were pulling out their hair in an effort to squeeze more production capacity out of the old plant, which was also building the Lincoln Continental and the Continental Mark VII.

By 1985, when sales rose an additional 30% over 1984, it was becoming clear that the Town Car was not going to disappear of its own accord.

"The major driving force was that the car refused to die," recalls Jay, now head of product development for Ford of Australia. "Clearly, there was a class of customer drawn to its styling and traditional handling."

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