The Way Forward: 2006 Lincoln MKS Concept

Today we get acquainted with another important Lincoln concept, presented at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. This particular show-car is in many ways the missing link between the Lincoln brand as it was in the 1990s and the way it was envisioned to be in the 21st century.

Introducing, the 2006 Lincoln MKS Concept.

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The new American luxury sedan

The first thing one notices is that the MKS Concept breaks with the traditional American luxury sedan. For decades, across Detroit but especially at Lincoln, a full-size automobile always meant a three-box design with noticeable overhangs at the front to accommodate a big engine and at the back to allow for a traditional roof line and a larger trunk; in fact, Lincoln has probably worked harder than any other brand at establishing the archetype of the classic American shape.

By 2006, it had just bid farewell to the Lincoln LS which, although the most modern Lincoln ever and a true import-fighter, carried over that three-box shape and earned maybe a few criticisms in the process. Just before, in 2003, the Town Car had been restyled away from its rounded new-edge design cues. And, in 2002, the classically styled and engineered Continental had been discontinued.

It’s in that context that Lincoln fired a direct shot at its German competition and released a full-size, V8-powered concept-car with a fastback profile never seen on a car wearing the Northern Star.

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Based on a variation of the D3 platform originally developed by Volvo and used by Ford across its full-size cars, it sat in length between the departing LS and the Town Car, as part of a two-model strategy that would insert a smaller offering (the Zephyr/MKZ) below the slot formerly occupied by the LS and Continental.

As was common on that platform, renowned for its safety and strength, the car was higher than the models it replaced and proved to be a good canvas for that very un-Lincoln-like roof line, leaving enough amplitude for the roof arc to preserve interior head room and still provide a dynamic short-deck design. While its most established competitors (such as the BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-Class and Cadillac STS) all carry a more traditional roof line and design, this coupe-like design hints at a number of smaller, mid-size hatches native to the European market and often the base for performance versions.

Like many visual tricks in car design, It helps hide the length of the car and emphasizes the dynamism of the aerodynamic wedge-shape. It is, in that respect, not unlike the shape of the contemporary second- and third-generation Lexus GS, itself generally recognized as the performance full-size of the brand.

Even at a stand-still, it conveys an idea of motion.

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Actually, it’s interesting to consider that both of its platform-mates of then (the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego) only offered the classic sedan look we mentioned earlier. This design choice exclusive to Lincoln tells us of another change to come: the “top-hat” strategy aimed at disguising the shared platforms under unique sheet metal – this strategy will only become official in 2008 and the release of the MKT so we’ll keep the details of it for another time.

Still, as it stands, the MKS Concept’s personality could hardly be traced back to the plebeian Five Hundred and Montego by the average customer and that was welcome news after the criticisms drawn at the just-released Zephyr for being too closely related to the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan.

What should a luxury car look like?

This variation on a famous Lincoln motto (Lincoln, what a luxury car should be) hints at the difficulty the brand had in the early 2000s to find its corporate identity, that is to say the unified design language carrying the entire line-up and message. Usually, once found and established through a few successful designs, it becomes a direct synonym for the brand and positively impossible to ignore: one of the most famous is BMW’s twin-grilles, which has been gracing the brand’s cars since basically 1933 and that even Chris Bangle could not alter in the most controversial years of BMW design.

In just a few years, it tried four different identities, none really sticking with the public like BMW’s did. While we’ll revisit all those trials and tribulations in another blog post, it’s interesting to note that the grille retained for the MKS Concept is the last of that particular design and that, precisely because of changing tides in Lincoln design, it will not even make it to the production model as is.

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Here, Lincoln uses the grille designed introduced on the 2004 Zephyr concept car. It is a large satin-finish chromed grille, structured by a full-size free-standing Northern Star logo that divides the opening both vertically and horizontally. On each side of the logo, inward-slanted chrome slats draw attention to the logo while also providing a lot of depth to the front of the car when seen from the sides. Its shield-like shape is accentuated by a chromed brow that is actually part of the hood element and a subtly pointed tip advancing gently into the bumper assembly.

On each side slim, intricate headlamps flank the grille. A line following the top of the grille stretches out to the front wheel opening to meet another line highlighting the shield-shape of the front grille and curving up to the front wheel, giving the car a confident and well-planted stance. Inside, a modern assembly combines HID headlamps with chromed reflectors and marker lights made of Plexiglas tubes following the curve of the bezels.

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Of note is the absence of hood ornament, although it had been brought back to the Town Car in 2003 and used for the 2004 Mark X Concept and even the 2004 Aviator SUV concept. No doubt about that, the Lincoln hood ornament is one of the most famous and established features of these cars, but can it really work on an aerodynamic, fastback-like sedan? For comparison’s sake, think of the Jaguar XJs and XFs we all see wearing the Leaper with more or less success.

Still, it is my opinion that Lincoln designers knew how important it was to Lincoln’s heritage and maybe how many people would expect to see it on their new full-size car. So, they hid it. If you look at the hood of the car, you’ll see a well-defined squared-off crease above the grille insert. Alternatively, it either draws your eye from the top of the hood down to the powerful grille; or up from the grille to guide you to top of the hood, where the windshield gently sinks into the cowl, carrying your eye around the A-pillar and up the chromed drip rail inserts to the sporty rear deck. Again, motion at a stand still.

Back to that crease. When you think about it, at the deepest of that crease, dead center right above the grille, is where a hood ornament would stand on a traditional Lincoln of this stature. And yet, without resorting to this old-fashioned Lincoln element, designers managed to fill the void and integrate it to the car’s dynamic shape. Where there was old, there is now new.

Below, in the inferior part of the bumper, things are more like you would expect them to be on a production car. The large air intake with chromed slats feeds the engine and two large scoops house the fog lights, again taking a page out of a performance sedan’s playbook. Above each scoop, a character line highlights the line defining the curve of the headlights.

Flowing lines

While the arch of the roof makes for most of the MKS Concept’s dynamic profile and unique personality, designers worked the rest of its elements into the mix too. The result is a coherent shape that seems sculpted by the wind as opposed to a collection of parts.

The large doors are smooth and slab-sided, offering little resistance to the wind, almost convex and only disturbed at the bottom by sculpted side skirts and at the top by a strong character line. It appears above the headlamps and runs alongside the belt line, gradually defining strong haunches that meet the C-pillar and tapering rear-end to give us but a hint of “Coke bottle styling”.

Out back, large jewel-like tail lamps highlight the car’s stance. Trimmed with chrome-inserts and Plexiglas tubes, they frame the compact trunk lid and accentuate the shield-like theme of the MKS Concept’s rear-end; this also establishes the coherence between the front and the rear of the car.

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In keeping with the performance feel of the package, a rear spoiler is integrated into the drunk lid design, shielding the Lincoln emblem and chromed license plate opening (to tell how close this Concept was to production!) while large, chromed trapezoidal exhaust outlets have been totally integrated into the rear valance. As in the front and on the sides of the car, the lower moldings are finished in a darker shade of metallic charcoal in order to reduce the visual height of the car.

Craftsmanship

As we’ve seen, the entire car is surely a handsome concept as it is, but Lincoln designers have also added a few extra touches that wrap this up as a true luxury sedan.

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First of all, the wheels. It is common for manufacturers to outfit their concept cars with outrageous wheel designs that probably would never make it to production, which is why Lincoln deserves credit for actually bringing this alloy wheel to the production Lincoln MKS that debuted two years later with no significant change. This ten-spoke design is presented here in 20-inch form, combining five spokes painted in a matte charcoal finish and five slightly-larger spokes finished in chrome. While the latter meet at the center to house a chrome Lincoln medallion, the name of the brand has also been carved on one of the spokes. This design compliments the paint scheme of the car, but also once again mixes traditional American luxury and an idea of modern European performance.

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Very close to these stylish front wheels, an air intake inlet has been set up for the first time; it is a design feature that can still be found on many 2014 models and that many manufacturers have adopted. Dynamically styled with its arrow-like, forward-canted edge, it marries a black honeycomb grille like those you can find on performance cars and a large Lincoln star inset like jewelry right before the door opening.

Traditionally, many Lincolns sported a Star emblem on their sail panels or fenders as a token of luxury; even in a number of concept cars dating to just a few years before the MKS Concept. But, for the first time, it was moved and set into the depth of the fender, not unlike what Chris Bangle did with the BMW and M logos for instance.

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Since we’re by the driver’s door, why not step inside? Again, the design here echoes the MKS Concept as a whole: it is very close to production form, and combines traditional luxury cues with modern elements and materials.

If we start with traditional cues, we find what the driver sees and uses first: the steering wheel and gauges, as if to reassure him and guide him into the rest of the interior’s modern features. The wheel reminds us of Lincolns of the early 1990s, when newly introduced airbags required a lot of space and redundant controls took what was left. Here, a sophisticated wood inserts highlights the grippy rim and brushed metal buttons located on top of the spokes bring speed and audio controls at your fingertips. The gauges also turn out to be very traditional with two large units featuring retro-lettering. Interestingly enough, the wheel will not make it to production and the gauges will last only one model year as is before being replaced with high-tech elements, as if the MKS’s transition to the future was finally complete.

The rest of the interior resembles very closely that of the production MKS, except maybe for its bold color combination and suede-covering on top of the instrument panel; sculptured leather seats, chromed bezels and luxurious wood appliques are all production-ready. Looking up, the driver could see the sky through a panoramic Vista roof offered by Ford on many of its products.

Finally, after pressing the keyless ignition of the MKS Concept, the driver would have fired up a Ford/Yamaha V8 producing 315hp through a rather conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Again, this engine is a missing link between Lincolns of old, and Lincolns of now. Rumored to be an all-new engine readied for the MKS production debut, it was finally cancelled during Ford’s “Way Forward” in favor of a turbocharged “EcoBoost (nee TwinForce)” V6. Interestingly enough, this 4.4 block was an heir to the 3.4 Ford/Yamaha V8 found in the 1996-1999 Ford Taurus SHO, and Volvo itself introduced in 2006 a 4.4 Volvo/Yamaha V8 for their S80 luxury sedan. It is of note that this happened in the same time frame and while Volvo was under Ford management.

Conclusion

As we saw, the whole design of the Lincoln MKS Concept is a coherent one, bringing a strong packaging to a traditional segment. It highlights the best in corporate synergy at Ford Motor Company, from engine to platform, and delivers on features. It offers a sporty fastback profile uncommon in the American full size luxury class , a unique personality that clearly differentiates it from its corporate siblings, and the luxury and attention to detail buyers expect from a storied brand like Lincoln.

Yet, it tells us of what was as much as what could have been. As if the potential of that car had never been truly realized. Due to a greener (and probably very savvy) product plan, its throaty V8 never made it to production even though it was available, and the design identity it attempted to set was changed many times as corporate management tried to find Lincoln’s way.

Still, a production car and a redesign later, with a second-generation MKS due next year, it will be interesting to see if where the Lincoln Motor Company now takes its full-size offering and whether it will build on the MKS Concept’s premise or find a new way altogether.

Copyright 2013, The Mark of Lincoln. All rights reserved.

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