Vintage Review: 1980 Lincoln Continental And Mark VI – The Challenges Of Shrinking Giants

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As we saw in Eric703’s post on the 1979 Lincoln Continental, the wondrous whoppers were quite successful in their final years and would be hard to replace.  Without a doubt, downsizing and rethinking FoMoCo’s flagship line was a monumental challenge.  In their Q4 1979 release, Automobile Quarterly took an early behind-the-scenes look at the development of the new 1980 Lincolns, as designers, engineers and marketers struggled to transform “extra-large size, presence and luxury” into “still familiar but newly relevant.”

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The problem was that the Lincoln “look” had been the epitome of longer, lower and wider for years, and the massive dimensions were required to ensure that the formal, baroque styling appeared proportional.  Pasting the angular design cues on the smaller platform wreaked havoc on the visual impact, transforming it from “stately” to “square and stumpy.”

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A trip inside the styling studios revealed some of the early design concepts, both for the Continental and the Mark VI.  As is often the case with renderings, the sketches are sleeker and more stylish than the products that eventually emerged: the rooflines in particular looked less clunky, and the bumpers seemed more contemporary and better integrated.

Also clearly evident in the early clay model from November 23, 1976 were the extremely long overhangs (especially jarring in front) that Paul chronicled in his design analysis of the Lincoln Mark VI.  Sadly, the model’s cleaner roofline with limousine-style wrap-over doors did not make it to production.

The Head of Design for the 1980 Lincolns, Gail Halderman (who was a key designer on the original Mustang), noted that there were styling proposals with more “flowing lines” but unfortunately those concepts did not move forward.  Did the top Ford brass fear that these were too much of a departure?  The downsized Lincolns were a program Lee Iacocca would have signed off on, so did his creeping conservatism and love of styling clichés come into play?

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Personally I’ve never been a fan of the “half-vinyl” tops on 4-door sedans, and the designers were rightly concerned about how this feature would look on the blockier, downsized cars.  However, the powers-that-be felt it was necessary as a unique “premium” Lincoln option–though ironically it also became available on the top-of-the-line Panther 4-doors at Ford and Mercury for 1980 as well.

With or without the half-vinyl top, the roofline on the new Lincolns was a discordant mix of thick pillars and vertical lines.  The taller roofline, more vertical windshield angle, framed door glass, rear quarter window cut-outs, vent window cut-outs, opera windows, opera lights and puffy padded vinyl all conspired to make the car look bulkier and more top-heavy than the previous generation Continentals.  The Continental Coupe, though far from a raving beauty, at least had a simpler greenhouse.

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While the main focus of Lincoln’s new offerings was t-square styling and traditional Detroit interior opulence combined with improved efficiency, Dearborn also wanted to emphasize extra-cost options for its flagship cars.  In particular, the Digital Age was getting into full swing in the late 1970s, and Lincoln wanted to be a leader in offering fancy electronic gizmos on the new 1980 car.  The “space age” digital instrument cluster was standard on the Mark VI (and a pricey option for the Continental at around $1,000, or $2,925 adjusted), and “futuristic” options like electronic door and trunk locks (aka “keyless entry”) were offered to tempt luxury buyers.

Who would those Lincoln buyers be?  Well, they looked a lot like Cadillac buyers for starters.  For their core product lines (Continental and DeVille/Fleetwood), both domestic luxury brands found 75% of their sales going to buyers aged 45 and older, with median household income ranging from $36,000 ($119,523 adjusted) to $37,000 ($122,843 adjusted).  Mark V and Eldorado buyers tended to be younger, wealthier and more style conscious.  That last point would prove lethal for the Mark VI 2-doors…

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Ford Motor Company Marketers were gearing up valiantly for battle, trying to focus on functional benefits of the new Lincolns such as fuel economy (no mileage miser, but better than before) and roominess.  However, the magic marketing elixir of indulgence and prestige, previously so vital for American luxury cars, seemed to have vanished.  Likewise, the new emphasis on engineering efficiency was at odds with the extremely formal, ponderous 1980 Lincoln styling.

This marketing confusion likely resulted from internal struggles during the development of the car.  Automobile Quarterly offered some glimpses into the machinations of Ford’s senior management at the time.  These were the last days of Lido: Iacocca would be out just a year before these Lincolns started production, and the write-up hinted at the disagreement between Henry Ford II and his underling on the direction of the downsized cars.  “Hank The Deuce” was coming around to the notion of smaller cars with more international flair, while for Lee Iacocca it was “baroque or bust.”  Lido wound up getting his preferred car design…and the boot right out of Ford Motor Company.

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Not explicitly noted in the article, but nonetheless a huge event in Detroit and New York at the time, was the massive shake-up in Ad Agencies that resulted from Iacocca’s move to Chrysler.  Kenyon & Eckhardt had been a key Ford Motor Company Advertising Agency since 1948, including having responsibility for Lincoln-Mercury campaigns in the 1970s.  The Agency was also very close to Lee Iacocca.  Shortly after his arrival at the ailing Pentastar, Iacocca dismissed all of Chrysler’s key Ad Agencies including Young & Rubicam, BBDO and Ross Roy, consolidating the business with–you guessed it–Kenyon & Eckhardt.  Ford was left without a key marketing partner, and the Agency musical chairs that followed resulted in Young & Rubicam winning the Lincoln-Mercury business just before the launch of the downsized 1980 cars.  The new Agency had to scramble to launch the new cars, no doubt with plenty of added pressure from FoMoCo demanding big sales gains for the smaller Lincolns.

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Unfortunately for Ford Motor Company, the plan to increase production capacity for the new Lincolns at the Wixom, Michigan plant was for naught: sales of the downsized 1980 Lincolns were a disaster!  Much of that could be attributed to the second Oil Shock and the dismal economy, along with an extreme shift in buyer preferences to smaller cars.  Even mighty Cadillac took it on the chin, with total brand sales dropping 39%, while the core DeVille/Fleetwood lines saw sales tumble 47%, dropping to 136,637 for the model year.

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But the damage was far worse at Lincoln.  Total brand sales for FoMoCo’s flagship sank 61% to just 74,908 cars.  Sales of the Continental Sedan and Coupe plunged 66% to 31,233.  Sales of the Mark IV dropped almost as alarmingly, declining 49% to 38,891.  However, peel away at those Mark VI numbers and the story actually got even worse.  1980 saw the arrival of a 4-door Mark VI, nothing more than a fancy Continental that captured 18,244 traditional sedan buyers, and thus should really be counted as part of the Continental total.

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As for the high-end personal luxury coupe market, buyers stayed away from the Mark VI 2-door in droves: a mere 20,647 were sold for 1980, representing a catastrophic 73% drop versus the 1979 Mark V.  Arch rival Eldorado easily regained its sales lead, besting the Mark VI 2-door by 32,036 units, and would significantly outsell the Lincoln Mark through 1985.  Obviously an awkward “Mini-Me” Mark V with a base price almost 20% higher–equating to a cost increase of $2,720 ($9,031 adjusted)–was not what the marked wanted.  And the agony just continued for the Mark VI 2-door, with sales of 18,740 in 1981, 11,532 in 1982 and 12,743 for 1983–in fact, at 63,662 units, all production for the 2-door Mark VI didn’t even equal the weakest single year for the Mark V (1978 with 72,602 sold).

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The only silver lining in this dark cloud was that the horrific sales shocked Ford management out of their styling stupor (and the departure of Iacocca probably helped in that regard).  The designers furiously went to work on restyling some of FoMoCo’s biggest 1980 bombs, like the Ford Thunderbird (-44% year-over-year), the Mercury Cougar XR-7 (-65% versus 1979) and of course the Mark VI coupe.  The new aero look for the Ford and Mercury personal luxury coupes that arrived for 1983, along with the sleek 1984 Lincoln Mark VII, ushered in a bold and successful design ethos that would serve FoMoCo very well in the coming decade.

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While the personal luxury coupe market was still too big to dismiss (thus the hasty redesign to mitigate the Mark VI 2-door disaster), Lincoln simply gave up on the traditional large luxury coupe. The 2-door Continental was rechristened Town Car Coupe for 1981, along with Town Car for sedans–the Continental name would migrate to the bustle-backed Fox-based “baby” Lincoln.  But that was about the extent of the changes for the big Lincoln 2-door’s short life: it would be gone for 1982, after selling only 7,177 in 1980 and a mere 4,935 for 1981.  This minty green example, found by Tom Klockau on eBay a few years back, is indeed a very rare car–hopefully it found a nice home.

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However, plenty of Town Car sedans found homes in the 1980s, and Lincoln wound up having the last laugh in the quest for old-school American car buyers.  After a dreadful start to the decade, Town Car sales started to climb in 1983.  Styling revisions in 1985 smoothed out the blocky lines a bit and prompted another sales spurt.

il_570xN.544795558_jb0nUltimately, the same old-school look and feel that had powered the super-sized Continentals to their best sales years at the end of their production run also applied to the downsized Continentals/Town Cars of the 1980s.  An unbelievable high point was reached for 1988, when 201,113 were sold.  In fact, sales for this 10-year generation of big Lincolns beat the milestone set by the previous 10-year generation: 886,916 Continentals/Town Cars were sold from 1980 through 1989, topping the 615,151 Continentals sold from 1970 through 1979.  Missteps by Cadillac undoubtedly helped, but no matter the cause, Lincoln happily mopped-up the market for ultra-traditional luxury buyers and big city livery fleets.

Lee Iacocca must have been fuming!  After all, this was his boxy baby that was generating enormous, chrome-dipped, pillow-tufted profits for the Ford Motor Company.  Well, he’d show them who was the real king of the luxury car world!  Lee’s newest brainchild, this time bestowed upon Chrysler, was readied to capture the coveted luxury car crown for the 1990s!

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Or not.

The problem for conventional “Detroit Think” was that consumer tastes in luxury cars changed dramatically during the 1980s.  Upscale buyers had discovered prestige in subtly styled cars with engaging performance, while falling in love with brands that deployed cutting-edge engineering and first-rate materials.  So while the unexpected success of the backward-looking Lincolns wound-up contributing handsomely to Ford Motor Company’s bottom line, these volume sales actually inflicted long lasting brand damage.  After all, discerning car buyers, young or old, didn’t want a brand that was the rolling showcase for yesterday’s tastes.  Lexus, not Lincoln, would soon become synonymous with modern, desirable, cosseting luxury cars.

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Personally, I wish that the same urgency that prompted Dearborn to rapidly reinvent the Mark VI with a fresh, relevant new look had also been applied to rapidly revamping the Town Car.  Imagine if we had seen the handsome, aero-inspired-but-still-obviously-a-Lincoln Town Car design that appeared for 1990 come out in 1985 instead…

Or imagine if Lincoln had developed a flagship sedan based on a stretched-wheelbase version of the sophisticated MN12 platform that underpinned the 1989 Thunderbird and Cougar.  Such a move would have given Lincoln a capable, comfortable, right-sized RWD V8 competitor to attract upscale customers just as the luxury market saw enormous transformation and growth.  Now that would have been what a luxury car should be!

Additional reading:

eBay Find: 1981 Continental Mark VI – Pine Opalescent Panther by Tom Klockau

Car Show Classic: 1982 Lincoln Town Car – Honey, I Shrank The Lincoln by Jason Shafer

Curbside Classic: 1983 Lincoln Continental Mark VI – Missing The Mark by JPCavanaugh

Car Show Outtake: 1983 Lincoln Continental Mark VI – Mark Of Indistinction by Brendan Saur