Multiple Identities: 2009 Lincoln C Concept

There are several kinds of concept cars in the automotive world. Some are thinly disguised production vehicles, for which the concept was mostly likely made up or approved after factory tooling was ordered. Some are one-offs that allow designers to throw new ideas out there without worrying too much about how they could translate in the real world. Then there are concept cars that require a lot of time and ressources, which have the quality of a finished product but truly mean to inspire and pique customers’ curiosity and interest in the future of the brand.

Sometimes, a company goes to great lengths to create one such vehicle, product plan and all, only to make nothing of it due to circumstances beyond their control. That is basically the story of the concept we are revisiting today: the 2009 Lincoln C.

A particular situation:

Looking at the 2015 edition of the Detroit Auto Show, you may forget that just six years ago the American auto industry was in its most difficult time in modern history. And yet, for all the performance and self-confidence on display this year at Cobo Hall, there was as much uncertainty and bean-counting going on back in 2009. At the Ford Motor Company, which was riding the wave a little higher than General Motors or Chrysler, important decisions were to be made: how to market Fords to people who had given up on the Blue Oval back in the 1980s and 1990s, how to reinvigorate Lincoln after the cancellation of the LS and Continental, and what to do with Mercury.

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Jalopnik.com’s popular “Carpocalypse Now” header, from their coverage of the financial crisis.

While the first question is a story of its own, the other two are very intricately woven. In an ideal product plan, Mercury would bridge the gap between FoMoCo’s standard line and Lincoln by offering premium compact vehicles: with the release of the next-generation Ford Focus just around the corner, it made sense to plug a premium version of the popular hatchback to a younger crowd that would share Lincoln-Mercury’s showroom space with more traditional cars aimed at affluent buyers. That was the theory.

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Mercury had been founded in 1949 by Edsel Ford, Lincoln’s own champion, to cater to the “Middle Class”.

As brands were being axed left and right, Ford’s charismatic CEO Alan Mulally made a choice: funds were scarce so Mercury was to be phased out and its resources injected into Lincoln’s new strategy (“top hat” vehicles distancing themselves from Fords). Thing is, that was not made public until June 2010, so more than a year after the 2009 NAIAS. Still, it is pretty obvious the decision to axe a 72 year-old brand had been made long before and was only made public when the timing was right, so Mercury’s demise would not come as an admission of failure (which could taint Lincoln’s reputation as well) but as a necessary sacrifice akin to that of Pontiac and Saturn to name but two examples.

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Which brings us to the life of Lincoln’s C Concept. When the storm hit, Ford executives openly promised Mercury would get a version of the Focus platform, suggesting an exclusive premium C-segment product. So, when a concept shows up, at that time, with the exact same packaging, no name, and a design that speaks of Mercury more than Lincoln, it tells me that the writing was already on the wall.

Mercury roots?

So far, the evidence is rather circumstantial. Still, Lincoln’s concept of then were rather expressive and highly detailed. And Mercury’s last real concept-car was the 2003 Messenger, which hinted at a new Cougar (I do not count the 2004 Meta One SUV which was a hastily rebadged Freestyle). And when you look at the Messenger, and then at the Milan which was released in 2006, it seems like the Mercury fascia would work pretty well on the general shape of the C. Likewise, at the rear, the wide haunches would showcase three-dimensional units better than it does the full-width Lincoln element.

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Reborn under Lincoln:

Whether or not one subscribes to the above theory, one thing is for sure: the C was released as a Lincoln. But even then, the story is not that straight-forward, since the luxury make was also going through a transformation of its own and a change in design language. Here’s an illustration:

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That sketch was featured on Car Design News, and is credited to designer Jeremy Leng back in 2009 (although most likely dates back to some time in 2008 at the latest). In that sketch, not only is the C a two-door city car, but it features different front and rear fascias. For the rear, not much to say, it is rather traditional. But upfront, it sports Lincoln’s previous corporate face, inspired by the 1961-1964 Continental. Brought back in 2002 after the “chrome shield” years, it was used on and off on concepts until 2007 when the stunning MKR Concept introduced us to the controversial “bow-wave” design.

It is kind of puzzling when it comes to the timeline of the inception of the C… and if you squint hard enough you can see a lot of Ford’s own F-150 in the grille and headlight arrangement!

C Concept’s final form:

And, finally, there is the car the way it was revealed at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. In format, it went from a two-door to a four-door using “suicide doors” going back to the 1961 Continental the car was originally hinting at. But up front, the grille was changed to Lincoln’s new design language, as it was showcased on the 2007 MKR, and not so much the way it was refined on the 2008 MKT. Again, this kind of tells of a long conception period for this otherwise pretty clean design.

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On the sides, the very formal-looking C-pillar maximizes headroom inside, but creates a rather significant blindspot which would have been accentuated by the car’s wide haunches. On the sail panel, the Lincoln star logo almost looks like an afterthought, while it was properly encased in the design on both the MKR and MKT.

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Inside, designers took a rather minimalistic approach with soothing tones and an open layout. The large (recycled) wood applique looks very much Scandinavian, and is only disturbed by the Lincoln script and logo as the digital instrumentation is recessed at the back of the dashboard. Seats are covered in white leather with printed flowers, and they rest on floating mounts that work well with the “suicide doors” arrangement.

Eva, the surprise passenger:

But the most interesting thing about the C Concept, is its onboard computer. Although the interface looks like your average SYNC system from the pictures, you can make out the face of a female avatar in the digital dashboard. That is Eva (or rather EVA, Electronic Voice Activation), an avatar of your infotainment system which was supposed to make it easier for customers to relate to SYNC’s signature voice-command input system. With Eva, you could talk and arrange navigation instructions with a person rather than the abstract operating system of your car. The introduction video looks a little cheesy now, now that we are all very comfortable with smartphones and tablets, but it still is interesting to watch.

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Incidentally, the second half of the 2000s was also the time Ford tried to market Mercury as a brand for woman, though with very mixed results: special ad campaigns, sponsoring events and special editions like the Voga Milan and Sables.

The end of the line?

After the 2009 Detroit Auto Show wrapped up, and as we mentioned above, the news of Mercury’s cancellation came and word was that its resources would be used to expand Lincoln’s line-up down into the C-segment, certainly in order to achieve a sufficient volume of sales. But the segment of premium compacts/hatches did not pick up in North America the way it eventually did in Europe and plans for a Focus-based Lincoln were put on ice, in that form or another. And probably for the best, too.

The rest is history, but many commentators revived the C Concept’s ideal when rumours started going that an MKC (with C standing for City, or Compact) was in the works. That project as we now know took the shape of a premium crossover, which many people would say is North America’s version of the premium hatch segment on the continent: there, the DS3, Opel Adam, Audi A1 and the like fight hard for affluent customers from the city, while here premium compact German crossovers and the Buick Encore have opened a new segment against larger, less fuel efficient SUVs.

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