In addition to being one of Detroit’s Greats, FoMoCo is also a large and powerful world player in the car industry, with notably autonomous operations in South America, Australia, and of course Europe after it consolidated its stand-alone British and German subsidiaries in the 1970s and 1980s. When I grew up in France in the 1990s, and I have been told it used to be much stronger yet, FoE (Ford of Europe) was basically considered a European company and often lumped with German manufacturers in the standard catalogs of my youth. Indeed, the group had many factories and design centers throughout the continent, and a line of cars tailored for local needs that had not much in common with its American models.
There is a LOT to say about the corporate and labour history of Ford in France, the United Kingdom and Germany and all of those entities’ relationship with Detroit. But what is very interesting for us here is that they for many reasons took it upon themselves to fill the gap left by the absence of a luxury division like Lincoln or Mercury for that matter. And doing so, they probably went farther than GM ever went with its own Vauxhall and Opel. And by doing so, the history of FoE’s luxury model, the Scorpio, has more in common with Lincoln than what you would initially think.
For British prospects, the Scorpio was actually the Granada Mk3 as the car retained its predecessor moniker at first, to play on its British heritage. But the 1985 Scorpio was for all intents and purposes a very German car fielded in that grey area of the market, between a standard line manufacturer’s loaded models and a luxury manufacturer’s price leaders – a very much competitive segment in tax-heavy Europe. That car made it to the North American market for a couple of years as the Merkur Scorpio in the mid-1980s, but paradoxically its second generation (which kept the Scorpio name even in the United Kingdom) remained a European exclusivity even though it has been heavily, heavily influenced by American luxury sedans.
So, to discover this long lost cousin of Lincoln, we are going to take a little tour: today, in Part 1, a translation of an article published in a French car magazine for the 30 years of the Scorpio nameplate, and which describes in broad terms the genesis of the car and what it meant for Ford of Europe. In part 2, for the sake of comparison, we’ll put head to head the 1987-89 Merkur Scorpio and the 1988 Lincoln Continental. In part 3, we’ll take a close look at the American-grade 1995-1998 Ford Scorpio II, which is one of the rarest and unfortunately most maligned cars I can think of.
Post-scriptum disclaimer: for reasons known to all, cars are smaller in Europe overall. So although the Scorpio was, even in sedan form, a full two inches shorter than a contemporary Ford Taurus, it was by European standards and for tax purposes a “large/full-size car”. So bear with me if I make it sound like a Mondeo or Insigna are quite large enough!
Ford Scorpio: the end of standard line luxury cars.
Originally published by Nicolas Meunier in Le Quotidien Automobile (Challenges) on February 2nd, 2015.
Born in 1985, the Ford Scorpio is celebrating its 30th birthday. It is a symbol of the inevitable end of large luxury sedans from standard line manufacturers, all to the benefit of proper luxury brands.
At the time, the 1980s still looked like a blessed time for full-size sedans. Not yet threatened by minivans or SUVs, which were just starting to gain sales, cars like the Renault 25 (NB: Eagle Premier for North-American buyers), Citroen CX and Opel Rekord managed to post honorable sales numbers. It is in that profitable environment that Ford chose to renew its top-of-the-line entry. The very classic Ford Granada thus made way for the much more futuristic Scorpio in 1985. Despite favorable conditions though, this large luxury sedan would turn out to be the last one to be ofered by the Blue Oval in Europe. A situation many of its contemporary competitors also had to go through.
The Scorpio’s launch happened two years after that of its little sister, the Sierra. Styled by Patrick Le Quement (NB: world class designer who later went to work for Renault), the Sierra wore very modern and aerodynamic styling directly inspired by the Probe III showcar displayed at the 1981 Frankfurt Auto Show. Based on a lengthened version of the Sierra’s platform, the Scorpio also benefited from its unique exterior design. So much so that Ford released it as “a flagship from the future”! To back up this promise of modern engineering, Ford chose to an ABS designed by Teves as standard on all models: a first for a production car in 1985.
At the time of its release, the Ford Scorpio was well received by the press, which awarded it with the much coveted title of “1986 European Car of the Year” (NB: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class finished 3rd, to give you some context). Journalists commended the car for its roominess, the many settings of its power seats which made for a good driving position, and handling in many ways superior to that of its predecessor the Granada. That was due in part to the rear suspension, a sophisticated multilink design. On the other hand, the car’s engines, including the aging “Pinto” four-cylinder for entry-level trim levels, delivered an experience far from being exceptional.
Interesting characteristics, but without the prestige of a luxury badge
Also, the fact that the Scorpio was unavailable at launch as a four-door sedan seemed to right away hurt the car’s image in a segment marked by the importance of style over practicality. Finally, direct comparison with proper luxury cars only highlighted the Scorpio’s ultimately inferior build quality. That proved to be the Scorpio’s downfall in a comparison test organised in Alsace (NB: a beautiful region in Eastern France full of twisty roads – link to the test at the end of this story) by Car Magazine, a British publication. Although it held its own in terms of dynamics (except maybe when it came to body roll), the car could not pretend to match the long-term value of a Mercedes-Benz 230E on the second-hand market, or the cozier and better-built interior of the just-as-futuristic Saab 9000 Turbo. Back then already, “premium” brands managed to use the value of their badge against competitive but plebeian offerings.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, the Scorpio had its fair share of success. Its qualities were even recognised in the United States where it was shortly sold under the Merkur brand alongside the Sierra in select Lincoln-Mercury dealerships (NB: a European perspective alright, but it seems the US-Spec Scorpio received good reviews despite being a sales flop, see link at the end of this story for a great Curbside Classic article).Unfortunately, confusing marketing doomed the Merkur brand and the future of the Scorpio, which was then marketed, in English, as “the German premium car” to play on the fact that it had effectively been designed in Ford’s German design center in Cologne. Even through that, its roadability, helped by a softer suspension unique to US-spec models, and the practicality of its hatch were lauded by the North American press.
In sedan form, the Scorpio tones it down
In 1989, Ford replaced its aging entry-level four cylinder engine by a much more modern DOHC design. If it still was not an enthusiast’s dream, it at least provided much improved fuel economy. A year later, the Scorpio received a new four-door, sedan bodystyle in line with luxury buyers’ tastes. Longer, more balanced, more traditional also (NB: the sedan lost the hatchback’s floating roof and glass canopy a la Mercury Sable) it also looked much more upscale. That being said, if the available leather interior could rival with luxury makes both in looks and smell according to a review by The Automobile Association, fake wood inserts still fell short of the competition. What’s more, Saab also released the 9000 CD, its own upscale sedan version of the original 9000 hatchback! Once again, Car Magazine recognised the appeal of cars like the new Audi 100.
In the mid-1990s, Ford had to start thinking about replacing the aging Scorpio. Truth be told, the car met its objectives in terms of sales, but looking ahead the large/full-size car market (luxury and standard line) was in a downward spiral, with luxury makes tightening their grip on what was after all their speciality. The cause? Europe’s newly discovered fondness for minivans, often smaller and yet more practical and sometimes even luxurious. Indeed, if the Renault Espace and Chrysler Voyager (NB: Chrysler liked to mix and match cars and nameplates in Europe) were in a class of their own a couple of years earlier when the first generation Scorpio was launched (NB: Both minivans had been released around 1984), by the mid-1990s many other players had appeared, especially through a joint-venture between FIAT and PSA Peugeot-Citroen which yielded four competitors at covering every price point: in order, the FIAT Ulysse, Citroen Evasion, Peugeot 807 and Lancia Zeta. Ford itself chose to join forces with the Volkswagen Group to release the co-developped Ford Galaxy, Volkswagen Sharan and budget-minded SEAT Alhambra. General Motors was for its part working with Chevrolet and Opel to create the long wheelbase Chevy Venture and short wheelbase Opel Sintra.
With the success of this new kind of vehicle, suited particularly well for families, customers looking for roominess stopped buying traditional sedans. And those who remained attached to the stately appearance of sedans, wanting to show off their social status, kept buying BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, or to some extent SAAB, Volvo or even Alfa Romeos. In 1994, some Ford executives could probably still genuinely think it was all just a phase, and the group decided to sign off on a second generation of Scorpio. Still, the new car would have to retain the platform, structure and as much of the mechanicals of the first generation as possible.
The Ford Scorpio II, a last attempt at standing out
To make a ten-year old design appear essentially new, Ford designers went all out and arguably too far, coming up with what has often been deemed one of the ugliest cars of all times. The car’s styling was so polarising that Top Gear Magazine condemned it to last place in a comparison test with the Opel Omega and Nissan Maxima QX even though the Scorpio’s handling dynamics were a strong point. Jeremy Clarkson, writing for The Times, even said that bringing up the Scorpio II should be a trump card whenever discussing the ugliest cars ever made.
Indeed, the second-gen Scorpio’s oval grille and small rounded headlights stood out just too much in a rather conservative market. The rear, with its full-width taillight assembly, heavily outlined in chrome, proved even more divisive. At least, the popular and cavernous station wagon retained the previous generation’s body past the B-pillar and was spared this kind of… ornamentation. Inside, a new dashboard covered with fake wood inserts adopted the smooth lines of the Mondeo’s interior (NB: Ford Contour / Mercury Mystique in North America). Unsurprisingly, with a style so divisive, the second generation Scorpio did not set sales records, barely reaching 100,000 units over its three-year run. A last attempt to smooth out the controversial styling in early 1998 with new front and rear fascias was not enough and the Scorpio was cancelled out just a few weeks later.
The Scorpio’s inevitable demise, and the bizarre styling of its second generation, are telling signs of the overall decline of large/full-size luxury sedans from standard manufacturers. After the Scorpio II, a number of such cars, like the Renault Vel Satis, Lancia Thesis or Citroen C6 tried to bet on originality to challenge German manufacturers without having to go head-to-head with their traditional offerings. All of them in vain. If Opel managed to keep its Omega going longer than its competitors, it’s first and foremost because the car was part of a global program: designed in large part in Australia by Holden engineers, it was also sold in the United States as the Cadillac Catera. Still, like every other standard manufacturer, Opel now fields the intermediate Insigna (NB: Buick Regal in North America) to replace both the intermediate Vectra and full-size Omega. But even Opel first tried a last attempt at originality by releasing the Signum, an oddball long wheelbase hatchback version of the Vectra.
But even as standard line manufacturers retreat from the large/full-size market, it appears that today’s intermediate cars get closer in size, and sometimes even bigger, than the luxury cars of the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, the new Mondeo (NB: Ford Fusion in North America) measures 487cm/191,73in, which makes it 20cm/7,87in longer than the original Scorpio! That way, Ford is able to market the same car in both Europe and North America. Interestingly enough though, the Blue Oval still has something to offer to customers looking for lots of room: it offers not one but two minivans, the short-wheelbase and sporty S-Max, as well as the long-wheelbase and luxurious Galaxy. But while this sounds like a perfect recipe for the 1990s and 2000s, minivans are now in turn threatened in Europe by the rise of SUVs (NB: but Ford is now prepared since it offers in Europe both the Edge and the Escape, marketed as the Kuga).
Conclusion of Part 1
The story of the Scorpio goes to show that there was no room for imported Lincolns in Ford of Europe’s strategy and product placement. While in North America the group had decades to build a presence on a luxury market owned by American makes, in Europe it would have had to spend a lot of ressources just to get a spot on the German brands’ home turf – as General Motors learnt the hard way with Cadillac. Also, in the 1980s and 1990s, with the many currencies in use throughout the continent, as well as different safety regulations, or the impact of fuel and tax prices, importing an American-built luxury car would have proven very nerve-racking for Detroit. For instance, back when I was a kid in France, a “Chrysler Saratoga” (in essence a fully-optioned Plymouth Acclaimed) retailed for three times the price of a Fiat Panda before taxes.
All these conditions surely convinced local executives to come up with their own plan for a profitable expansion in larger, more luxurious segment. Still, we’ll see in Parts 2 and 3 that brand cachet aside, Ford engineers really made an objectively great car with the Scorpio, and even tried to get some of Ford of America’s “Lincoln mojo” in with the second generation.
- La Ford Scorpio a trente ans, on Le Quotidien Automobile
- 1985 Car Magazine Comparo in Alsace, on Flickr.com
- 1985 Ford Granada/Scorpio commercial, on YouTube
- Curbside Classic: 1988 Merkur (Ford) Scorpio, on CurbsideClassic
- Jeremy Clarkson on: The Ford Scorpio (’96), on TopGear.com
- Jeremy Clarkson on: The Ford Scorpio (’98), on TopGear.com
- Back seat driver: Top Gear reviews the Opel Signum, on YouTube.com
- Official: European Mondeo gets VIP treatment
- 2014-2015 Ford Mondeo Vignale Concept