For America's rich and famous, the Lincoln Continental once was the last word in automotive luxury. From the 1940s through the Cold War, the elegant sedan was a staple at Hollywood premieres and presidential motorcades.
Ford Motor Co. stopped making the Continental in 2002. It lost its allure as Americans gravitated to German and Japanese luxury brands. Forsaken by the Hollywood stars and the Wall Street wizards, the Continental became the preferred car of limousine services shuttling high school students to the prom.
Now the venerable nameplate is about to make a comeback. Lincoln will unveil an early version of the 2016 Continental at this week's New York International Auto Show.
Ford sees the car as the linchpin connecting two strategies: proving to Americans that Lincoln once again can be synonymous with luxury and attacking the red-hot luxury market in China.
In China, the Continental will try to appeal to a new breed of wealthy back-seat drivers. Buyers of high-end vehicles in that country typically do not drive themselves. The rear seating area, often an afterthought in American and European car design, is essential in the Chinese car market.
“A Mercedes-Benz S class sold in the U.S. and Europe focuses on the driver,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Automotive. “In China the focus is on the rear-seat passengers in terms of everything from space to amenities.”
The Lincoln's back-seat amenities will include a laptop table that motors itself into position, electric sockets to power a laptop and other devices, and a champagne cooler in the center console.
The ceiling, pillars and upper reaches are lined with a silky-smooth satin. The rear seats are covered with high-grade leather and are adjustable 30 ways. There's shearling wool carpeting the floor.
The rear seat reclines deeply but does not lie flat. Designers dropped that idea after realizing it would have placed the passenger's head in the trunk.
“This is not a vehicle we developed for the U.S. and then said, ‘We will see how it does in China,'” said Raj Nair, Ford's group vice president and chief technical officer for global product development. “The rear seat was designed for the Chinese customer first and foremost.”
The Chinese car market is the largest in the world, and sells an increasing number of luxury cars. Sales in that segment grew almost 22% last year to more than 1.6 million vehicles, according to the IHS Automotive, an industry research firm. Sales are expected to rise nearly 13% this year.
Audi will sell about 640,000 vehicles there in 2015, BMW 483,000 and Mercedes-Benz 330,000. Those numbers are bigger than what the big luxury nameplates sell in the U.S., according to IHS.
Other American nameplates have done well in China.
General Motors Co. sold a record 919,582 Buicks in China last year, about four times the number of Buicks it sold in the U.S. Altogether, automakers sold more than 23 million vehicles in China last year, so even getting a small slice of the market can be important for a brand such as Lincoln, Brinley said.
Three of the top Lincoln dealerships in the world this year are in China. The company has 11 Lincoln retail outlets in China now and hopes to have 60 by the end of 2016.
Lincoln's Continental started life in 1939 as a Lincoln Zephyr that Ford scion Edsel Ford had customized following a trip to “continental” Europe.
The one-off caught on: “His peers and friends liked it so much they put it into production,” said Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon used them as limousines. Frank Sinatra owned one. Elizabeth Taylor had a 1956 model painted to match her violet eyes.
But more recently Lincoln, which is already enjoying some success in the U.S. with its new small crossover MKC, has struggled in the luxury business. It was passed first by the German brands and more recently by Lexus and the other Japanese nameplates, Kendall said.
Sales peaked at nearly 232,000 vehicles in 1990 and have been on a long downward slide.
The vehicle that goes on display later this week is labeled a “concept” — close to what the new Continental will look like but subject to tweaks and adjustments.
But it will showcase safety technology. The planned vehicle includes a robotic parking app that will guide the sedan in and out of parallel and perpendicular parking spaces, a cruise control that can slow the car to a complete stop and then bring it back to a safe following speed, and a front-end collision avoidance system that includes pedestrian detection and automatic braking.
The sleek and premium appearance of the Continental, which will compete with the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Lexus GS, “surprised” Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Autotrader.com.
Krebs said that when she first learned of the model she expected that, like other Lincolns, the Continental would be derivative of existing Ford-branded vehicles, but with nicer trim and amenities.
“It really leapfrogs Lincoln ahead of where the brand has been,” Krebs said. “Lincoln needs a vehicle like this.”