How Lincoln Returned From The Brink Of Death And Put Ford Back On The Luxury Map

Lincoln Navigator Concept
The Lincoln Navigator concept, unveiled in 2016.
Kumar Galhotra is what you might call the right man for the job, and the job happens to be one of the toughest in the entire auto industry.

Galhotra runs Lincoln, Ford's luxury brand. Since roughly 2013, the brand has been attempting to stage a comeback, with billions in funding from the mothership in Dearborn, Michigan.

Born in India, Galhotra — who has a degree in engineering from the University of Michigan — came to Ford in 1988 and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the vice president who oversaw how all Ford and Lincoln vehicles were screwed together. In 2014, Ford CEO Mark Fields tapped him to take on the Lincoln challenge, promoting him to president of the marque.

Founded in 1917 by Henry Leland, one of the most successful automotive entrepreneurs of the early 20th century, Lincoln was a magnificent American brand for almost its entire history. Leland had also started Cadillac, selling it to General Motors in 1902 for the then vast sum of $4.5 million. Premium cars were Leland's specialty, along with a Roaring Twenties version of mergers and acquisitions: Lincoln went to Ford in 1922.

In the mid-1950s, when the US auto industry was at its postwar apex, Lincoln created the iconic Continental. The 1961 Continental is one of the most famous cars ever designed, distinguished by its rear suicide doors and its sober avoidance of flash. It was as close a big four-door could come to being a perfectly tailored tuxedo. It announced itself with reserve. The '61 Continental was powerful, but there was almost no point in driving it fast. It wanted to cruise along in an aura of serene self-confidence.

Enter the Navigator

The mighty Navigator SUV.

In the late '90s, Lincoln gave birth to its first large luxury SUV, the Navigator. That massive vehicle capitalized on the SUV boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, when gas prices fell in defiance of earlier predictions that Middle East oil supplies would dry up, spawning a permanent gas crisis that would make the crunches of the 1970s look tame by comparison.


The Continental had been associated with the national well-being of the Kennedy years, and in many respects the Navigator was the Continental of the Clinton administration. It brought a new level of finish to the large yet utilitarian SUVs that Ford had considerable expertise in building.

Customers who never would have looked twice at the Expedition snapped up Navigators, which were marketed using jazzy TV commercials and smoothly urbane imagery that profitably overrode any hesitation over the sheer size of the vehicle, one of the biggest on the road.

Lincoln was selling a quarter of a million cars and SUVs annually in the late '90s, but that would turn out to be a peak for the brand, which then fell into a seemingly terminal decline. For one, gas prices began rising again in the mid-2000s, and the bottom fell out of the SUV market. A wave of hybrids took the US market by storm, led by the Toyota Prius. The Prius won the 2000s, while gas-guzzling hulks like the Navigator lost.

By the time gas prices in California hit almost $5 a gallon in 2009, it was widely assumed that luxury SUVs like the Navigator and Cadillac's Escalade were woolly mammoths headed for extinction. The market shift was a disaster for the Lincoln brand, which couldn't compete with the German luxury triumvirate of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.

Kumar Galhotra, the man with the plan.
Lincoln wasn't matching up against the Japanese, either: Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti were hanging with the Germans. Lexus was a first choice with many buyers, and seemed to have figured out how to beat the Germans at their own game. Acura and Infiniti were "second-tier" luxury brands, but even the seconds were stronger than Lincoln, which was barely on anyone's radar.

Cadillac, meanwhile, had set about reinventing itself with a new radically angular, Stealth-fighter-inspired art-and-science design vocabulary, which endeared the brand to customers who wanted something more aggressive than what BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus were selling. Caddy wasn't moving a lot of product but its cars stood out.

Identity crisis

By the time the 2008 financial crisis hit, Lincoln had almost no brand identity left. The austerely sexy Continentals of the 1960s were a distant memory; the nameplate left the lineup in 2002, but by then the JFK associations had been replaced by the impression that Continentals were driven by livery-cab guys in New York City and hadn't had a whiff of the country club in decades. A certain retro vibe had kept Lincoln afloat — barely. It was the brand of some aging hipsters and Hollywood coolios, making an appearance in the opening credits for the HBO bromantic series "Entourage" and oozing Rat Pack authenticity, particularly for the convertible versions.

A 1961 Lincoln Continental.

But the reality of the brand was that its most important vehicle was out of favor and its sedans were both unexciting and beset with an aging customer base. The cars were perfectly competent, but unlike BMW's or Mercedes' sport sedans, Lincolns were throwback freeway cruisers, rebadged versions of Ford's mass-market sedans. They came in various trim levels, to satisfy customers who might want a slightly peppier ride, but Lincoln had nothing like the high-performance M Sport or AMG divisions that amped up the cars sold by BMW and Mercedes, respectively.


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