Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – Despite assurances to the contrary from Ford Motor Co. executives here at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, some Lincoln-Mercury dealers believe the Mercury brand is in jeopardy.

“Dealers are concerned about Mercury,” says Kip Row, president of Colonial Auto Center in Charlottesville, VA.

“I think they’re still going to make them, but they’re going to be more of like how Scion is to Toyota (Motor Corp.),” Row tells Ward’s following the auto maker’s dealer franchise meeting. “That’s what Mercury will be to Lincoln, more of a niche product.”

Steve Downing, owner of Yuba City Lincoln Mercury in Yuba City, CA, echoes Row.

Ford “didn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard before,” he says. Executives “just say that they’re exploring (Mercury) and looking forward to talking about it in the future. They didn’t give us a definitive answer one way or another. It would make anybody nervous.

“Obviously the future is with Lincoln,” Downing adds. “I don’t care if they give us a product called XYZ. They can call it Lincoln, Mercury; call it anything. They can call it Edsel again, as long as we can sell it in volume.”

Jim Farley, group vice president-marketing and communications, points to powertrain upgrades in the Mercury Mariner cross/utility vehicle and the upcoming Mercury Milan hybrid as evidence the auto maker has not abandoned the marque.

“I think you’re seeing a continuing investment in Mercury and Lincoln for both to grow,” he tells reporters following the franchise meeting.

However, Ford executives do leave the door open for Mercury’s eventual demise.

Asked if he could positively say whether Mercury had a future, Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says, “Anything is possible.”

It’s “possible the sun will extinguish in the next five days,” Fields says.

“We’re very much focused on the assets we have today and how we leverage them for our mutual benefit, and that’s the focus of our discussions,” he says. “We can hypothesize about what can happen, but who knows what can happen?”

Michael Adamson, vice president of Adamson Motors in Rochester, MN, and a member of the Lincoln-Mercury Dealer Council, says he thinks Mercury will remain viable going forward.

There is “no indication from any of the dealers that Ford is turning their back on Mercury or their dealers,” he says. “They’re giving us stuff to sell. We just have to sell it.”

Ford officials do say there no longer are any stand-alone Mercury stores.

Meanwhile, both Farley and Fields are bullish on the future of Lincoln, saying they expect sales to be up in 2008 over last year.

The MKX CUV is performing exceptionally well, with sales up some 65% in January vs. year-ago.

“Luxury customers are always interested in trying new things, and MKS somehow strikes a chord even with conquest customers that weren’t even looking at Lincoln,” Farley says. “The more people who talk to each other the more we sell, it’s almost become a nice word-of-mouth product.

“We have our hands full in a good way,” he says of the Lincoln marque, noting the upcoming launch of the ’09 Lincoln MKS flagship sedan.

Adamson says he is pleased with the direction of Lincoln-Mercury and that dealer profits were up last year, largely due to reduced floor-plan expenses.

“The dealers that are left are a lot stronger,” he says. They’re “a lot more profitable, better dealers.”

bpope@wardsauto.com