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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

Ford Avoided Downsizing

"The Town Car customers were so loyal, we at Lincoln-Mercury said, 'Hey, how can you walk away from them?' " adds Ross Roberts.

Meanwhile, GM, locked into a massive downsizing program that included Cadillac, found the market shifting against it once more. Luxury car buyers were rejecting GM's small, nondescript offerings, like the DeVille that Zeniuk tried that fall day.

With GM's downsizing strategy, Cadillac no longer sold the largest luxury cars in America; the Town Car, unchanged since 1979, now held that distinction. Soon, Cadillac's traditional buyers--older, upper-income consumers who wanted plenty of leg room and a trunk big enough to hold a foursome's golf bags--were defecting to the Town Car in droves.

By the fall of 1985, Lincoln-Mercury had picked up on the trend, and Town Car ads began mocking GM's puny, look-alike cars. One devastating Lincoln commercial depicted a Cadillac owner who, about to step into a car brought around for him by a valet, is stopped when another man who says, "Excuse me, but I believe that's my Buick."

Soon, it was clear to everyone at Ford that Cadillac had handed Lincoln an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Town Car's strong sales and Cadillac's mistakes led to a "consensus" among top executives in late 1985 that the Town Car had to be kept and updated, recalls Ross Roberts.

"We saw an opportunity to straddle Cadillac," he adds.

Ironically, Ford's financial crisis of the early 1980s helped put it in a position to beat GM. Ford had been unable to afford to move as quickly as GM in the shift to front-drive luxury models. So when GM's downsized products failed, Ford was not yet committed, and was able to kill its plans to do the same thing.

"If we had had all the money we needed back in 1980, we could have very easily ended up in the same situation GM got in," notes Zeniuk.

Indeed, much of Ford's financial success later in the decade can be traced to its huge success and profits on older, large models that suddenly regained popularity just as GM was abandoning the market.

Surprisingly, however, it was the federal government, Detroit's longtime Nemesis, that provided the final push that persuaded Ford to redesign the Town Car. New auto safety laws required that all cars built after Sept. 1, 1989--the start of the 1990 model year--come equipped with either air bags or motorized, automatic seat belts.

Redesign Launched

That meant that if Ford wanted to continue selling Town Cars, it would have to redesign the car to accommodate air bags. Faced with making that investment for the 1990 model year, Ford officials figured that they might as well spend more and redesign the rest of the car at the same time.

So in August, 1985--long before final approval had been given--the first steps on the program were taken, when a design team at Ford's design center was ordered to come up with sketches and clay models of possible Town Car replacements.

By May, 1986, the design team, led by Gail Halderman, one of the stylists on the original Mustang, had four exterior renderings--one on each side of two full-scale clay models--ready for inspection by Ford's four-member design committee. The design committee--Petersen, Telnack, Ford President Harold (Red) Poling, and William Clay Ford, vice chairman--held veto power over all styling at Ford. It was one of the few aspects of the company's car operations with which William Clay Ford, the younger brother of Henry Ford II, had any real involvement.

The committee received a wide spectrum of design proposals. They ran the gamut from a simple, conservative update of the existing, boxy Town Car, to a far more sleek, Euro-style look patterned after the new Continental.

Eventually, the committee agreed with the designers' recommendation--a compromise design that included touches of both the old Town Car and Ford's new aerodynamic look. It would be rounder, but conservative touches, like rear opera windows, would have to stay.

"We had an established identity that we wanted to keep, but the problem was how do you do that and make the car look fresh and new?" says Halderman. "You are walking kind of a narrow path."

The car was to be just sleek enough to reduce the wind noise that had been one of the old car's most annoying problems. Front vent windows, for example, long a favorite of drivers who smoke, were removed to give the car a cleaner look and to reduce outside noise. Ford figured that, since fewer people now smoke, complaints would be less numerous than they would have been in the past.

Yet the design would still not be too sleek. From some angles, it would hint at Mercedes, but overall it would still suggest the traditional Lincoln look.

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