In the 1990s, the Ford Motor Company made a big splash in Europe and then in North America with its new “Edge” design philosophy, aimed at shaking up the world of mainstream car manufacturers in the same way that the “Aero” look did in the 1980s, thanks to the European Sierra and North American Taurus. Gone were the curves and organic shapes of yesterday, it was now all about sharp angles and edges and aggressive styling.
In North America, the Ford Motor Company introduced their new identity with the incredible and still universally acclaimed 1995 Ford GT90 Concept – an even stronger fracture considering that the curvaceous Mach III Concept had just been released in 1993. The following year, the European Ka subcompact city car stole the show at the Paris World Auto Show with its lines, which were as far as they could be from the utilitarian Fiat Panda for instance.
Back home in the United States, 1996 saw the “Edge” design philosophy spread to Lincoln with this radical Sentinel concept, revealed at the 1996 North American International Auto Show (or, NAIAS) in Detroit. For reference, just the previous year, Lincoln had revealed the Contempra and L2K Concepts, which were definitely more tame and traditional.
On paper, the shape of the Sentinel is traditional: formal, full-size dimensions (it was actually for all intents and purposes the same length as a contemporary Town Car), three-box design and classic rear-wheel drive proportions thanks to a long hood and short deck.
Everything else, though, is new and groundbreaking for the brand, incorporating many elements of the GT90 DNA directly into distinctive Lincoln cues. The main themes you notice when you look at the car are its sharp angles and uninterrupted surface treatment: much like the GT90 and 1990s architecture or interior design, smoked glass meets large expanses of metal, but without the help of curves and without leaving any impression on the adjacent panel. This is as far as you can get from the organic, intricate curves of the Mach III.
The sides are slab-sided and almost seem to be made of one long, uninterrupted piece of metal thanks to hidden flush door handles. Underlined by perfectly horizontal sideskirts and a single character line at the bottom of the doors, they keep their coherence thanks to the chrome blade running atop the fenders and all the way down to the tail lamps and to the bottom of the front bumpers – these blades, which are one of the greatest all-time Lincoln design cues, help hide the “suicide” doors, which bring us back to the 1961 Continental.
The roofline, reprising the idea of a glass cockpit already seen on other concepts such as the Machete, seems to plunge not onto but rather within the fenders and directly onto the hood and trunk panels, slowly sloping downward to meet the sharp fin-like fender tips. Overall it creates an illusion of additional width: the sides seem to frame the cockpit, making it seem like the designers added shoulders, or haunches, between the base of the greenhouse and the top of the door caps like on the original 1961 Continental. In reality, the cockpit is flush with the sides. Rear view mirrors have also been replaced with slim casings housing cameras, as was pretty common back then.
Upfront, the Sentinel reveals a very interesting face: for a concept unveiled in 1996, and followed by production vehicles and concept cars using a totally different DNA, it seems peculiarly close to what we’ve seen in the past few years at Lincoln. Notice how the split grille resembles the “bow-wave” design of Peter Horbury’s creations – admittedly, they both found their inspiration in the original Zephyr line from the 1930s. See how the hood overlaps the grille and sets the Lincoln logo into a triangular extension from the main panel. A faint character line also splits the front fascia (and for that matter the whole car) right down the middle, like in later vehicles such as the 2010 MKT.
Unique elements include vertically-mounted headlights, set against the fenders and blending in with the grille’s vertical bars. They mirror the taillights, which are also made up of three stacked sections and set against the rear fenders. Overall, the rear fascia repeats the themes seen up front, with a similar placement of the Lincoln star, but adds a production-ready license plate holder complete with lighting and dual exhaust outlets that act as the only hint of a bumper to be seen on the car.
Now, a little explanation is needed before we open the door and get inside. When the original car was released, it was painted gloss black like in the very first pictures above. Its opaque windows were hiding a lack of finished interior and powertrain. Later on, as it kept touring the auto show circuit, the final interior was added by Ford’s Ghia design studio and the car was repainted to a deep steel/charcoal grey colour and its opaque glass replaced by a smoked glass canopy.
That can explain in part why the the interior of the Sentinel concept seems tame compared to the exterior. Actually, it looks almost ready for production, an impression reinforced by the later car’s new paint colour and usable greenhouse. Here, the influence of Edge design is found in the sharp angles and lines of the door panels, as well as the complex pattern of the steering wheel assembly. Intersecting arcs make up the shape of the dashboard, and marry soft lines with the drama you expect after seeing the exterior. That pattern of intersecting arcs and lines reminds us of what we then saw on the Ford Focus.
While the exterior went for a stealthy look, the interior designers chose light tones, thus making for a striking exterior and a very welcoming interior. Instead of leather, cream-coloured suede covers the dashboard, door panels and seats, alternating between regular and perforated pieces. And while they could have gone for bucket seats given the modern packaging of the car, designers went for a split “comfort lounge” type of setup with two full-size seats and most controls set between the two front passengers. It seems like a very interesting marriage between the traditional idea of American luxury and new ideas that are different yet from what European and Japanese imports offered at the time.
And that sums up the whole idea behind that car: creating a new strain of Lincolns, not from European or Japanese ideas, but from decidedly American ideas taken further and higher. Here is an interesting interview given by the Sentinel’s head designer, the father of Ford’s “Aero look”, Jack Telnack:
The direction that I gave designers on this car was to come up with something that was immediately identifiable as a Lincoln. We wanted a next-generation full-size, luxury car: full interior, full luggage capacity, with the performance of a luxury car today, meaning fuel economy standards that we need to meet in that kind of a car. That was about the direction that I gave them but I did say I wanted that car to be immediately identifiable as a Lincoln, without any badging on it, without any lettering, any nomenclature whatsoever. I want that car to look like a Lincoln, so let’s understand what a Lincoln really is. So that’s the direction I gave them and they went back and did their research and understood what was best in Lincolns over the years, and really what I mean is way back, to the early Lincoln-Zephyrs. And you’ll see, I think you’ll see indications of a number of different Lincolns in this car but they’re all cues that were specifically associated with Lincoln over the years. Right out from the front end of the car, which as a very contemporary interpretation of the Lincoln-Zephyr grille, and which happens to have the turn indicators built into the grille texture. So these are all different variations on a theme, but I also made it very clear that I did not want a retro car. This is not supposed to be a retro car. This is a new car, it’s contemporary, but I wanted if you will a contemporary classic. And the other direction that I gave on this car was I want this car to win the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach fifty years down the road.
Unfortunately, that last direction will probably not work out: like many other Lincoln concept cars, the Sentinel concept was last seen on online auction sites in the late 2000s and early 2010s where it sold to a private party for less then 50.000$. A styling mule was also auctionned on its own for less than 45.000$ but it didn’t feature the Ghia interior. One will also notice the concern for fuel economy standards, which must have arisen after they decided to fit the car with a 6.0 V12 engine (the same unit as the crazy Ford IndiGo concept of then, made of two 3.0 V6 engines bolted together) and huge 20-inch chrome wheels.
Still, what’s interesting in that interview is how similar it is to the leitmotiv of Lincoln designers for the past twenty years. Be it J Mays or Peter Horbury, all tried to work Lincolns of yore into the Lincolns of tomorrow, yet Jack Telnack (who left his position in 1997 and took with him the momentum behind Edge Design) seems to be the last one to have made it work into a new car and not a retro, throwback car.
Today, Max Wolff (who incidentally worked at Cadillac) is working to go back to the idea behind Edge Design and Arts and Science in order to capture the theme that will make the next Lincoln a new car, and not a retro car. Judging by his latest creations, especially the MKC and MKX, Lincoln is on the right track!
Still, however radical the Sentinel may have been, it did not seem impossible to produce (like the Machete was, for instance), especially in its later finished version. Actually, in my opinion, the Sentinel was a visionary concept as to what would eventually save Cadillac and the American luxury car: modernity that does not deny its heritage, unapologetic styling, technology and unique personality. Doesn’t it seem like the Sentinel could be the ancestor, the inspiration behind the 1999 Cadillac Evoq concept-car, which rebooted the brand and inspires its acclaimed styling to this day?
Later concepts like the 2001 MK9 did borrow from the Sentinel in terms of stance, and concepts like the 2003 Navicross and 2004 Mark X carried over its use of chromed fender blades but the fracture between concept and production vehicles became larger and larger as showcars borrowed more and more from the past and new releases went the opposite way.
At the end of the day, only a few cues from the Sentinel made it to production Lincolns and Edge Design fizzled, unlike Cadillac’s Arts and Science philosophy. The redesigned 1996 Continental and 1998 Town Car got some enlarged headlights reminiscent of Ford’s European strand of Edge Design, and the 2002 LS and 2006 Zephyr/MKZ followed different design languages altogether. Even new products like the Navigator and Aviator were styled most traditionally.
To conclude, we can say that the Sentinel was unique and full of potential. It is probably one of my favourite concept cars, one that might seem pretty monolithic at first glance only to reveal a lot of details on further inspection – as a true showcar or even production car should. With this design, performance and luxury did not seem exclusive of one another. So, we cannot help but wonder what could have been, had it followed the destiny of the Cadillac Evoq, what would the brand look like today, would it have encountered the same success as Cadillac?
All in all, it does seem like the Sentinel tried to warn Lincoln of what was coming.. but executives did not listen!
- Concept car of the week: Lincoln Sentinel (1996), at CarDesignNews.com (with video interview of Jack Telnack)
- 1995 Lincoln Sentinel Concept, at ConceptCarz.com