Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lincoln Compact Luxury Cars, the Lincoln Versailles, And The Lincoln Collector Series

The 1979 Lincoln Versailles was hastily developed to rival Cadillac's more compact Seville. Model-year 1977 also saw Lincoln move into the luxury-­compact class, its first response to the radically changed market left behind by the energy crisis. Called Versailles, this was a hastily contrived reply to Cadillac's remarkably successful 1975-76 Seville. It was little more than an everyday Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch adorned with a Continental-style square grille, a stand-up hood ornament and humped trunklid, plus more standard equipment. Established Lincoln buyers looked askance at the plebeian origins (which the press never failed to mention), while buyers balked at the $11,500 price. You can only fool some of the people some of the time, and Lincoln didn't fool many with this one. Versailles' 1977-model sales were a mere 15,434, a fraction of Seville's. This basic three-car squad held the fort for 1978-79 while Lincoln readied a troop of downsized 1980 models. Amazingly, the big cars continued to sell well, defying the combined threat of further fuel shortages and a fleet of luxury intermediates from lesser makes. Part of this was due to circumstance. By 1979, anyone who wanted a truly large luxury car -- "traditional-size," Lincoln called it -- had precious few choices. One of Lincoln's most successful marketing ploys in the '70's was the Designer Series. American Motors had tried something similar with Gucci Hornets and Pierre Cardin Javelins. As a luxury make, however, Lincoln was in a much better position to exploit the snob appeal of haute couture brands. First seen for 1976, these extra-cost packages were decorated inside and out with colors and materials specified by well-known high-fashion designers. The schemes varied somewhat from package to package and year to year, but the results were invariably striking and usually pleasing. Perhaps the most consistently tasteful was the Bill Blass edition, a nautically inspired blend of navy-blue paint and eggshell-white vinyl top outside and navy velour or dark blue-and-cream leather upholstery inside. Other combinations were created by Hubert Givenchy (generally tur­quoise or jade), Emilio Pucci (maroon and gunmetal grey), and Cartier (champagne/grey). The last, of course, was not a designer but the famous jeweler. Following a spate of limited-edition 1978 packages to mark Ford Motor Company's 75th anniversary, Lincoln devised a "Collector Series" option group for the '79 Continental and Mark. Both were adorned with appropriate nameplates, gold grille accents, special midnight-blue metallic paint, and a host of "custom" accoutrements such as color-keyed umbrella and leather-bound owner's manual and tool kit. It marked the end of an era: The day of oversized Lincolns was over. So, too, it seemed, any differences between Continentals and Marks. The 1980s were much more alike, but also much more sensible. Lincoln now adopted the "Panther" platform introduced for '79 with the full-size Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis as the basis for a substantially smaller Continental and an upmarket Mark VI sibling, thus resuming its 1958-60 practice of fielding two versions of one basic design. Compared to their immediate predecessors, these cars were up to 10 inches ­shorter between the wheels and significantly lighter. Yet they were nearly as spacious, thanks to only marginal reductions in width, plus taller, boxier styling. Each line retained its usual appearance cues, but not the usual big-block engines. Standard for both was the corporate 302-cid small-block V-8 in new 129-bhp fuel-injected form; a 140-bhp 351 was the only option. It was all for the sake of economy, as was Ford Motor Company's new four-speed overdrive automatic transmission, basically a three-speed unit with a super-tall fourth gear added (0.67:1). Handling was more competent, thanks to a revised suspension, and refinement was emphasized with retuned body mounts and suspension bushings, plus standard high-pressure radial tires, which also helped eke out slightly more mpg. A pillared four-door Mark returned for the first time since 1960, and the various designer editions were bolstered by a new Signature Series much like the pre­vious Collector option. Lincoln Sales in the 1980's The 1980 Lincoln Town Car was a harbinger of the success Lincoln would enjoy throughout the decade. A second fuel shock occurred in 1979, touching off a deep national recession that drastically reduced 1980 volume throughout the industry. Lincoln suffered more than most, its model-year total sales skidding to just under 75,000 -- nearly 115,000 below '79. The underwhelming Versailles was in its final year and found fewer than 5000 buyers. The 1981 result was even worse, falling to about 69,500. But that would be the decade low, and Lincoln followed the overall market in making a strong recovery. By 1985, it was up to some 166,500. Output dipped the following two years, then rebounded to over 215,000 through 1990. More important to proud division managers, Lincoln passed Cadillac in 1988, only to lose that position, but Ford's finest remained competitive with its arch­rival despite offering just three distinct models to Cadillac's five. Remarkably, much of this success was owed to a single 1980-vintage four-door that saw only one major change through 1989: a rounded-corner "aero" facelift for 1985. Called Town Car after 1980, it soldiered on following the cancellation of the 114.3-inch-wheelbase Town Coupe after '81 and the Mark VI duo after '83. The throttle-body fuel-injected 302-cid V-8 was the only engine available after 1980, but it would be upgraded. After an '84 boost to 140 bhp came more sophisticated multi-point fuel injection that ­lifted horsepower to 155. Trim and equipment shuffles were the only alterations in most years. But it didn't matter: At 50,000-100,000 units annually, this series outsold other Lincolns by margins of 2-to-1 or more -- sometimes upwards of 5-to-1. Yes, the Town Car was smaller than its late-'70s predecessor, but it proved that traditional Detroit biggies still had a place in the '80s. As Mark Twain would have said, reports of their demise (in the wake of "Energy Crisis II") were greatly exaggerated. Such consistent popularity was remarkable for this large, rela­tively old-fashioned car. Though Cadillac remained the luxury sales champ, its lead over Lincoln dwindled as the '80s progressed. One reason: An increasing portion of Cadillac sales depended on smaller "big" cars that looked too much like cheaper GM models and lacked the Town Car's sheer presence. Lincoln was quick to play up its rival's "lookalike" problem in snobbish TV commercials designed to pull in more and more "conquest" sales. Chrysler, meantime, had nothing remotely like a traditional full-size car after 1981, though its midsize Fifth Avenue found a steady market for the same reasons Town Car did: plentiful creature comforts in a package that "mature" buyers could relate to, all at reasonable prices. Of course, stickers swelled a lot on all cars from 1981 to '89 -- in the Town Car's case from about $14,000 to about $25,000. But relatively speaking, this Lincoln remained a good buy, and the public's "pocketbook vote" confirmed it. If the late-'70's Versailles was a hasty reply to Cadillac's Seville, the new compact Continental sedan of 1982 was a more-considered response. It even had "bustleback" styling like that of the new 1980 front-drive Seville, plus a Mark-type grille and the usual base, Signature Series, and designer-edition trim and equipment variations. Underneath, though, it was just a heavily modified Ford Fairmont with an extended-wheelbase version of the same rear-drive "Fox" platform -- and it was really none the worse for it, except perhaps for rear-seat room, which was limited. A 232-cid V-6 was offered in the debut '82s, but proved somewhat weak for their weight, so most left the fac­tory with injected 302 V-8s of 130, 140, or 150 bhp (the last adopted after 1985). The front and rear ends were smoothed out for '84 a la Town Car, the only appearance change for this design generation. A noteworthy mechanical development was an antilock brake system (ABS), a 1985 option that became standard equipment for all Lincolns the following year. Developed jointly by Ford and the German company Alfred Teves, ABS greatly improved steering control in panic stops and shortened stopping distances on slick surfaces, a laudable safety advance. The compact Continental was far more successful than the Versailles it effectively replaced, selling an average 21,000-26,000 a year through 1987. If not a vast aesthetic improvement, the bustleback sedan was more roadable and enjoyable, well put ­together, and as posh as any Lincoln. And at $21,000-$26,000, it, too, represented good luxury value. Lincoln Mark VII LSC Hot Rod With its aerodynamic look, the 1985 Lincoln Mark VII LSC represented a departure from the typical stodgy Lincoln design. After years of square-lined formality, Lincoln's premium coupe took a dramatic new direction with the 1984 Mark VII. Though it shared a platform with the bustleback Continental, this swoopy semifastback was derived from the new-for-'83 Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar. The result was smooth, distinctive, and more visually aerodynamic than any previous Mark. A humped trunklid, modest taillamps in the rear fender trailing edges, and a toned-down Mark grille were stylistic links with the past, but the car was clearly aimed at a very different clientele: younger, affluent buyers who'd been defecting to high-dollar, high-status imports, a group Lincoln had never courted before. It was also a bold challenge to Cadillac's Eldorado, which was still relatively overblown. The Mark VII was an instant critical success, especially the performance-oriented LSC (Luxury Sport Coupe) -- the fabled "Hot Rod Lincoln" come to life. Enthusiast magazines even thought it a credible rival to the vaunted BMW 6-Series and Mercedes-Benz SEC. No wonder. Where the base and Designer models had a soft ride and traditional appointments, the LSC boasted a firmer suspension with fat performance tires on handsome cast-aluminum wheels, plus multiadjustable sport bucket seats and Lincoln's best cloth or leather upholstery. For 1985 it adopted the Mustang GT's high-output V-8 with 165 bhp (versus 140 for other models). The '86 got an even hotter port-injected engine with 200 bhp (versus 150 bhp on other Marks), plus standard ABS four-wheel disc brakes and a nice set of analog gauges (replacing the digital/graphic electronic display retained for its linemates). Engine refinements extracted another 25 bhp for 1988-90. With all this, the LSC was the most overtly sporting Lincoln since the very first Continental and the most roadable Lincoln since the "Mexican Road Race" days. It was also one terrific buy at initial prices of $23,700 -- about half the cost of erstwhile German competitors. Lincoln-Mercury planners thought lesser VIIs would outsell it, but buyers confounded them by ordering more LSCs -- enough that by 1988, the original four models had been cut to just LSC and Bill Blass. Overall Mark VII sales were good: 30,000-plus in the first season 15,000-38,000 thereafter. Prices inevitably escalated, reaching the $27,000 level by decade's end, but standard equipment also kept growing even as trim variations thinned. The 1990s boasted an important new safety feature in a standard driver-side airbag, which also brought a reworked, slightly more ergonomic dash. Perhaps even more daring than the Mark VII was the all-new Continental sedan that bowed for 1988. Essentially a stretched version of the excellent midsize Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, it was the first Lincoln with front-wheel drive and the first with all-independent suspension, both of which contributed to a noticeable increase in cabin room despite a wheelbase only half an inch longer than its bustleback predecessor's. In appearance, which L-M described as "aero limousine," this new Continental departed even more from tradition than the Mark VII: squarish but carefully detailed for efficient "airflow management." The old humped trunklid was abandoned at last, leaving only a vertical-bar grille to echo the past -- and even that was low and smoothly curved to match the nose and modern flush-fit Euro-style headlamps. Powering the new Continental was the 140-bhp 3.8-liter V-6 made optional for the '88 Taurus/Sable, mounted transversely (in typical front-drive fashion) and teamed with a four-speed overdrive automatic transaxle. It didn't provide much snap in the heavier Conti (which was little lighter than its rear-drive forebear), and even L-M officials later admitted the car was underpowered for its class. At least quietness was a strength. A MacPherson-strut suspension employing dual-rate shock absorbers and LSC-style air springs, both computer-controlled, sounded great on paper. Unfortunately, this complicated design failed to provide a truly outstanding ride/handling balance in the real world. The standard all-disc brakes with ABS were superb, however, and interior decor was a blend of Euro-trendy and American traditional. For 1989, the dash and steering wheel were redesigned to accommodate dual airbags. Though just a driver-side airbag would have satisfied the government's new passive-restraint rule, Lincoln got the jump on Cadillac by providing inflatable cushions to protect both front occupants. Arriving at dealers in December 1987, the front-drive Continental proved a strong seller, thanks partly to an attractive $26,000 base price -- again, thousands less than comparable European sedans. Model-year production totaled about 41,000 for '88, rose to 57,775 for '89, then climbed above 64,000 for 1990. The Continental wouldn't fare this well again, but the mere fact that Lincolns could now stand comparison with high-buck foreigners spoke volumes about how far Lincoln had come in the '80's and where it hoped to go in the '90's. Source: Internet