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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

That was just what Ford's market research had suggested that the Town Car customer wanted. The designers had shown pictures of potential designs to current Town Car and Cadillac owners, and the responses convinced them that likely buyers would go along with a modestly updated design, but that they didn't want radical changes.

These were, after all, older individuals who hated the import look.

"These are buyers who think the Acura is a ridiculous car," notes Ross.

Size Unchanged

To appease those people, the car couldn't shrink. A constant concern of the designers was that more rounded features would make the new Town Car appear smaller.

So the design team was under orders to make sure that the car's length, interior room and trunk size weren't reduced. "The trunk was the most important thing about the car," recalls Edsel Ford. "It's the biggest trunk in the industry, and people love the fact that they can put four golf bags in there."

Throughout the development process, customer perceptions of every aspect of the car were constantly under scrutiny. Ford sound engineers even used "psycho-acoustics" to determine how drivers responded to different noises emitted by the car. As a result, they revised the exhaust system so that it gave off a deep, resonant sound that drivers perceived as powerful and substantial.

Ford engineers and market researchers were reminded of the conservative nature of their customers at a market research session in Florida--home to so many older Cadillac and Lincoln customers--last December. Several potential buyers complained that the prototypes that they had driven didn't have enough chrome.

"We wanted to get rid of the chrome, but we couldn't," sighs John Huston, who succeeded Jay as program manager, overseeing Zeniuk and Lyall.

But to a far greater degree than on any other car, the Town Car design team also had to please Ford's directors. Despite Petersen's distaste for the car, the Town Car was still what most of Ford's older outside directors drove. They didn't want it to change, and they let their sentiments be known to Telnack and Petersen each time that the Town Car was discussed at board meetings.

"Telnack would come back from meetings with the board of directors and say, don't screw up the Town Car," recalls Halderman.

That took time. Lou Ross recalls taking slides of the Town Car design to a board meeting in 1986. "They hated it," he says. It wasn't until a clay model of the car was brought to a meeting that the board was mollified.

"You can't tell what a car is like from looking at a picture or a slide," says Ross. "That's the last time I'll take slides to a board meeting."

By March, 1986, Ford management was ready to give the initial go-ahead for the car, with final approval set for the following year. But by waiting so long, management had put its product development group more than a year behind schedule for a 1990 model year launch.

Chassis Unchanged

Meeting the deadline would be made slightly easier by the fact that most of the major mechanical components of the Town Car would remain unchanged for 1990. Air bags would be installed, the exterior styling would be completely redone, the suspension and steering systems would be modified, and anti-lock brakes would be added to give it a slightly tighter ride and handling characteristics.

But under the new skin, most of the old car would remain. The Town Car would continue to be built on Ford's decades-old, body-on-frame chassis, known as the "Panther" platform within the company. By contrast, almost every other new car on the market today is built on lighter and less expensive uni-body platforms.

Meanwhile, the Town Car's costliest parts, its engine and transmission, would carry over until 1991, when a more fuel-efficient Ford V-8 is to be introduced.

Since they were retaining so much of the old car, FN36 engineers were able to save time by testing each newly modified part on existing Town Cars to see how they changed the car's ride.

But a shortage of time wasn't the only problem. Ford also didn't have enough people to do the job.

And with the new air bag law coming for 1990, Ford's body and chassis engineering department was swamped with work; it had to completely redesign the instrument panels of every car in Ford's lineup.

Robert Marshall, then head of body and chassis engineering for Ford, was so discouraged by the workload that he was ready to veto the Town Car simply because Ford lacked the manpower to engineer it--to take it from a clay model to a prototype car. Marshall had looked in vain for outside help, but none of the big suppliers in Detroit could do it. It was, after all, work that Ford had always done in-house before.

"The Detroit design shops had never been asked to do that kind of engineering work by anybody," says Marshall.

Then, the Town Car got a lucky break. Marshall, on vacation in his native England, stumbled across a small engineering company, International Automotive Design of Brighton, that seemed ready for the job.

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