Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Ford is nearing completion of a dedicated Lincoln design studio, marking the first time in decades the luxury brand has had a separate styling facility.

The Dearborn, MI, studio is expected to be completed in a couple of months. Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says the facility will allow the design team to focus its attention on Lincoln without distractions from Ford’s mass-market Blue Oval brand.

“We want our designers every day when they walk in the door to be eating, drinking and sleeping luxury,” he tells WardsAuto at the auto show here.

“When we have major meetings with our marketing folks or dealers, we can bring them down there and they know they’re in an environment where Ford is not in the background.”

Lincoln sales have languished for years, with the auto maker criticized for creating models that are little more than modified versions of Fords. Lincoln sales through October were down 52.2% to 71,183, according to WardsAuto data.

In addition to the new design studio, Fields says a dedicated Lincoln team has been assembled that will be kept apart from Ford personnel like never before.

To date, the team numbers about 100 and encompasses all disciplines, including engineering, design, public relations and marketing, Fields says, noting some members were hired from competitors such as Lexus, Audi and Cadillac.

Plans call for Lincoln to introduce seven new or refreshed vehicles in the next three years. The first of those, the redesigned ’13 Lincoln MKT cross/utility vehicle and MKS flagship sedan, are unveiled at the show here.

The auto maker wants to attract the one-fourth of luxury buyers who are “willing to experiment,” Fields says.

Some Lincoln team members have no automotive background.

“We hired folks from the luxury-retail industry, and the combination of them and (automotive personnel) I think is really powerful and helps to create a really A-team to give us A-results going forward,” Fields says.

Focus won’t be restricted to product. Attention also will be paid to revamping the customer experience, so that Lincoln buyers are treated the same as at high-end retailers such as Nordstrom or luxury hotels such as Four Seasons.

“They’re used to that treatment,” Fields says. “We want to make sure they have (the same) customer experience in all elements, including when they first get on the Internet to check out vehicles or walk in showroom doors and how they’re treated after they’ve purchased,” he says.

As part of that effort, Ford has been whittling the number of Lincoln dealers to include only the largest in the top 130 U.S. luxury markets. Fields declines to reveal how many showrooms would be ideal, but says having dealers embrace Ford’s plan is essential.

“Had too many Lincoln dealers selling too few Lincolns,” he sums up. “We’ve worked to get larger dealers that can get a return on their investments so they can invest in their facilities and their people and the overall experience.”

The executive admits there are no short-term fixes that will turn Lincoln into a legitimate contender in the luxury segment, and he vows the plan won’t be rushed.

“We know this is going to take time; this isn’t instant pudding,” Fields says. “It takes a number of years to build a great luxury brand, to bring Lincoln from where it is today to where we want to take it.

“I think Lincoln is held in high regard, but clearly we still have a gap compared to some of the competitors, and that’s what we're aiming to bridge over the next number of years.”

bpope@wardsauto.com