Ford Motor Co. is making a bold move by sending its Lincoln Mercury Div., bogged down in something of a mid-life crisis, packing to Southern California.

The whole idea, of course, is to distance the upscale marque from Ford Div. in terms of its products, market position and image. Mercury has struggled to establish its own identity almost from its birth in 1939.

Over the years, every new divisional general manager prescribed a makeover. Usually it involved a gimmick. Make a former member of Charlie's Angels, Kate Jackson, the celebrity spokeswoman. Put a larger percentage of the more powerful 3.8L V-6 in the Sable. Sometimes it worked, as with the Lincoln Navigator, a gus-sied-up and chrome-bedecked sister of Ford Expedition, a profit-generating Clydesdale in its own right.

In the end, there is only so much you can do with advertising.

If you're competing with Lexus and Infiniti and Mercedes and BMW, why not leave Motown behind and transplant yourself in that bastion of imports and images, Southern California? It worked for Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, didn't it?

On the organizational chart, Lincoln Mercury (notice they are dropping the hyphen) will be treated similarly to Jaguar. It will function as an independent marketing arm, but will still have access to the corporation's vast design, manufacturing and product development resources.

Does a new address in Irvine, CA, really matter? Did the rest of the world care when Georgia-Pacific moved its headquarters from Portland, OR, to Atlanta? Or when Mobil Oil left New York for suburban Washington, DC?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But for the people involved, the change is real. Not only does this send a clear message that Ford is committed to Lincoln Mercury, it also says management is willing to roll the dice in the hope that it will instill a sense of freshness and creativity in the way its luxury division presents itself in the market.

Lincoln Mercury's product planners, marketers and engineers will reside in the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the U.S., with nearly 20 million people in a 100-mile radius of the new Orange County headquarters.

It's a culture that encourages risk takers.

More importantly, however, it will expose Lincoln Mercury's people to a much more diverse automotive culture. In Detroit, every third new vehicle on the road may be driven by someone eligible for one of the Big Three's employee discount plans. In Southern California, General Motors Corp., Ford and Chrysler Corp. have to fight for every sale.

During a typical 15-minute drive on the 405 Freeway through Orange County one likely will see as many BMWs and Mercedes-Benz's as Honda Accords or Toyota Camrys.

Former Ford Chairman Donald E. Petersen used to tell a story about a focus group he observed in Marin County, CA, north of San Francisco, shortly after he became Ford's president in the mid-1980s. At first the group was asked how many of them owned a Ford product. No hands went up. Then they were asked if they knew anyone who owned a Ford product. Still, no hands went up.

"Suddenly it dawned on me," Mr. Petersen recalled. "For most of these people, we weren't on the radar screen."

This isn't to suggest Lincoln Mercury is not on the radar screen of Californians, but a risky decision like this could help get them on the shopping list of many people who never gave them a second thought before.

This isn't a panacea.

Products such as the new Cougar and the Lincoln LS6 and LS8 sedans coming next year, will still have to meet or exceed the already lofty quality and reliability expectations of their competitors' customers.

But this is an exciting first step. If Ford allows Lincoln Mercury the autonomy it says helped drive this decision, then a higher level of creativity may find its way into future vehicles, and that could translate into more market share throughout all 50 states.

If that happens, I wonder which Big Three division will be the next to head west?