U.S. Lincoln-brand dealers face an Oct. 1 deadline to comply with new operating guidelines designed to make Ford's luxury marque more competitive in the luxury-vehicle market.

The guidelines are intended to upgrade the customer experience, the auto maker says. Ford's plan to begin measuring compliance April 1 is among the pillars that support an aggressive strategy to breathe new energy into the storied brand.

Another pillar is a dealer network that is smaller than the current 1,100-store organization.

“Without those two elements, everything's lost,” says Ken Czubay, vice president-sales and marketing.

The auto maker declines comment when asked how many dealers it hopes to cut nationwide.

Toyota's Lexus brand, the U.S.-market's luxury-segment leader for 11 years running, has fewer than 500 dealers and recorded 229,329 new-vehicle deliveries in 2010, according to Ward's data.

Lincoln's swollen network accounted for 179,023 sales last year, more than half of which were Mercury-brand vehicles, which Ford phased out of production last year.

But Czubay confirms a dealer-count bogey in the 320 range to cover the top 130 markets.

Lincoln has 434 dealers in those markets now, down from 500 in October when Ford first announced its plan to rejuvenate its luxury brand's business.

The operating guidelines outlined for dealers include implementation of a certified pre-owned vehicles program and customer-service upgrades, such as providing car washes and loaners.

Dealers largely seemed unfazed by the push to trim their numbers. “I think Lincoln has a bright future,” says Chuck Eide, general manager of Sioux Falls Ford in Sioux Falls, SD.