(first posted 10/10/2017) As the 1997 model year was unveiled in the October 1996 issue of Automobile Magazine, it was clear that trucks were big business at Ford Motor Company. In fact, the bigger the better, as the ’97 Expedition lumbered onto the market to rake in profits from hungry American SUV buyers looking to “super size” their rides. Good thing too, as Ford needed all the financial help it could get.
The mid-1990s were surprisingly tough times for Ford Motor Company. After an impressive resurrection in the 1980s led by vehicles like the “just right” Taurus/Sable mid-size cars, Ford once again started losing its way, with expensive and often misguided product programs. The bottom line naturally suffered, but there was one salvation: trucks, trucks and more trucks. For 1997, just 36% of Ford Division sales were cars: the rest were pickups, vans and SUVs. Ford had clearly decided to double down where the big profits roamed, and well, who really needed cars that much anyway?
There’s little doubt that Ford missed the mark with the overly-ovoid Taurus and its fish-mouthed Sable sibling, and they lost what had been a pre-eminent position in mid-size sedans. The softer, rounder lines of the F-Series, however, were no issue at all, as the big pickup continued as the best selling vehicle in America.
Sadly, while we did get “New Edge” design on a number of Ford products in the years after 1997, the Lincoln Sentinel never saw the light of day beyond just being a design concept. That’s a shame, as the crisp detailing looked very good on a big, black Lincoln sedan.
The revamped Escort was one of the few bright spots for cars at Ford Division in 1997, with sales for the much-improved small car climbed smartly, increasing 141%. Unfortunately for Ford, a lot of those buyers may have simply chosen the new Escort over the more-expensive Contour with its too-small back seat, as sales for the “World Car” tumbled 57% from 1996. Taurus carnage continued as well, with sales dropping 9% even with more extensive discounting. Mustang was down 19%, Thunderbird was off 10% and Probe decreased 44% as it neared the end of its life. The only other Ford carline to post an increase was the ancient Crown Victoria, which rose 7%. The new Expedition was a hit however, and sales for the other pickup and SUV models were either flat or off slightly (-4% to -5%) from the year prior.
Lincoln had a tough year. The Continental dropped 28%, Town Car dropped 12% and Mark VIII dropped 11% compared to 1996. There just wasn’t much news, the products seemed tired, and the competition for luxury buyers was fierce.
Mercury did better, as sales rose 4%, primarily due to the arrival of the Ford Explorer clone, aka the Mercury Mountaineer, as well as the well-received updated Tracer (+396%, though off a very low base). Grand Marquis also saw sales surge 23% (even though there was still no black-on-black DeSade package) and the big Panther remained the best selling Mercury. The worst seller in the line? The Mercury “Mistake” (Mystique), showing that Ford’s “World Car” definitely wasn’t competitive in Mercury showrooms.
So how did the revamped 1997 Ford Motor Company line-up go over with buyers? Let’s have a look, starting with the Ford Division:
Here were the 1997 results at Lincoln:
Clearly the tarted-up Ford Expedition, to be named the Lincoln Navigator, couldn’t come soon enough… That early 1998 beast did improve sales, though it ultimately damaged Lincoln’s credibility as a legitimate, sophisticated luxury brand (and Cadillac would soon catch the same disease too). It is ironic to consider that just 20 years prior, Lincoln had introduced the tarted-up Versailles, clearly nothing more than a Ford Granada with different grille, tail lights and interior upholstery, but the car was a complete flop–buyers saw through the veneer and rejected the poseur. Fast Forward to 1997, and Lincoln did the same thing to a Ford product, but this time it would sell like hotcakes–proof positive that buyers would snap up anything, so long as it was an SUV.
And then there was Mercury, soldiering along but not still deeply in the shadow of the Ford Division.
So 1997 was decent but not spectacular for the Blue Oval, and in the short-term, the extreme focus on cheap-to-make, high profit truck based SUVs seemed smart. At least until those Firestone tires started to blow…