Co.Design

That's A Lincoln?! With MKZ Concept, Ford Bets Big On A Brand Revival

The once-mighty Lincoln has struggled for 20 years. But Ford is trying to turn it around, using the power of design.

Today at the Detroit Auto Show, Ford unveiled the MKZ Concept, which is meant to herald a rebirth for its once-mighty, now struggling Lincoln brand. If it looks bold and even a bit foreign for the Lincoln brand, that’s the hope. "We believe that the trend of reimagined retro has gone by the wayside," Max Wolff, Lincoln’s head of design, tells Co.Design. "For Lincoln, the MKZ is about looking forward rather than back."

Far from being a mere concept, Wolff insists that the production MKZ that reaches showrooms later this year will look virtually identical to the concept you see here. "The average consumer shouldn’t be able to tell the difference," claims Wolff.

The design has a few, albeit subtle, nods to Lincoln’s history—the split grill being the most obvious. But Wolff’s team was at pains to make a departure from the Lincolns that came before, simply because the brand is too far behind to play it safe. "The customer we’re after is looking for something more modern," explains Wolff. Thus, the design has a few striking features: An all-glass roof of the sort that you might find on a Porsche Targa; strong, swooping lines intend to make the car seem taller and more dignified; and gonzo details, such as taillights that carry across the trunk, a la Aston Martin, and rearview mirrors that look as if they are perched on metal wings. The swoop of the grill itself, and the darting lines of the hood and headlights, were inspired by an eagle with its wings spread for takeoff.

Ford isn’t shy about what sort of customer they’re going for: Younger, urban, and coastal. And they believe Wolff knows what they want. Ford poached him a year ago from Cadillac, which has become a case study in turning around a brand using the power of design. Rather than hewing to a more familiar look that felt connected to the other brands in the GM stable, Cadillac separated itself from the market, with an unusual design language of gem-like facets.

Wolff seems intent on carrying over a similar strategy, calling the new Lincoln language "transformational." It better be. Lincoln accounts for only a small portion of Ford’s sales these days—just 4%, while Lexus is 12% of sales for Toyota and Cadillac is 6% for GM. For Ford to keep growing its profits, Lincoln has to become a viable luxury brand, which it hasn’t been for 20 years. Thus, they’ve invested heavily in a raising the brand’s design chops: Just over a year ago, Ford built a dedicated design studio for Lincoln—the first in Lincoln’s history.

Wolff believes that the timing is right, and that American car companies like Ford are finally on sure enough footing to take risks. "For so long, Detroit was looking just to save itself," he says. "We’re past that."