DETROIT—It looks better in blue. On an all-white stage, Ford CEO Mark Fields brought out the all-new Lincoln Continental, reviving an iconic nameplate. The darker prototype version shown at the New York show last year made a bigger impression, but this is still one very imposing automobile. It will be at dealerships in the fall.
The Lincoln Continental was a star in three decades. The 1939 original, styled by Bob Gregorie (reflecting the understated taste of Edsel Ford), offered clean lines and a big V-12 engine for much of the '40s (interrupted by World War II). It looked modern then, and it still does. The car wasn’t a big seller then, but prestigious? Yes.
The 1950s Lincoln Continental Mark II was gorgeous, a classic, but it wasn't a moneymaker. (Photo: Chad Horwedel/Flick)
In 1956 and 1957, the Continental Mark II continued the tradition — low-key elegance, and (because of exacting production standards) the company lost money on every one. The ‘60s version, with suicide doors and the world’s only four-door convertible, recalls the "Mad Men" era and the swingin’ White House of John F. Kennedy, who actually died in one. There’s more history (the marque disappeared in 2002), but the important part ends here.
Evoking the ‘60s, Lincoln had a nice jazz combo (featuring vocalist Sara Niemietz, who nailed “Fever” and Fly Me to the Moon”) serenade Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra, who called the Continental a statement of “quiet luxury.” It’s warm, he said, it’s human. Unlike the competition, it’s not about raw horsepower — “the doors close behind you, softly. You take in the scent of leather” as you sink into the “tailored” seat (which offers heating, cooling and massages). You fire up the three-liter, 400-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 as you occupy your “beautiful personal sanctuary.”
The prose was a bit purple, yes. But what we have here is a very impressive vehicle aimed at the Chinese market, where big cars with chauffeurs are preferred. The economic situation there is a challenge, but Fields said the company experienced its second year of strong growth there last year. Some 33 Lincoln dealerships were opened in China in 2015, more than the 25 planned. More than 10,000 cars were sold there.
Galhotra said that once customers arrive in the luxury segment (which counts 1.5 million cars globally) “they tend to stay there, so it’s an important car for us.” Is there life in the nameplate yet? We’ll see. Ford has priced it very competitively at under $50,000.
Also really big was the Lexus LF-FC, a preview of the upcoming LS. But the car on the show stand (a version of which was first shown in 2012) is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It’s a big brother for the Toyota Mirai, and proof, Lexus says, that scalable fuel cells can power many different platforms.
That one is a concept, but the $100,000 Lexus LC500 Coupe, a star at the show, is headed for the market. Again, it was a big car that wore its weight well — and it shares the family spindle grille with the LF-FC. The taillights echo those in both the Mirai and the LF-FC. Under the hood is a 467-horsepower V-8, on a rear-wheel-drive modular platform that could see other entries soon.
Nissan opened its program with David Bowie’s stirring “Heroes,” a tribute to the pop star’s death that day. Then they pulled the cover off a truck Bowie wouldn’t have been caught dead in — the Titan Warrior Concept. The Titan is a bid for Americans to buy their macho trucks from Japan, not Detroit, and the Warrior was an exercise in brute force. It drinks Bud, not sake. As Nissan North America Chairman Jose Munoz pointed out, “We’ve outperformed in all segments except full-sized pickups.”
And speaking of big, I went from kicking the tires on the Titan Warrior to being bowled over by the VLF Force I V10. The company was VL (Gilbert Villareal, the money; and Bob Lutz, the executive front man), but now the F is Henrik Fisker — who designed the Fisker Karma that the company’s Destino sedan is based on.
Confusing? Yes, a bit. Fisker’s namesake plug-in hybrid Karma failed in the marketplace, but everybody loved the way it looks. (Fisker has styling credentials from BMW, Aston Martin and Ford.) And so the Karma became the Destino with 6.2-liter GM power. The Fisker-designed 8.4-liter Force I (zero to 60 in three seconds) is a Dodge Viper under the skin, and its appearance faces the headwind of a threatened lawsuit from Aston, which said it copies the DB10, among others.
Fisker is, of course, Danish by birth, but that didn’t stop ‘em from playing “Born in the USA” when his creation was unveiled. America’s a big melting pot, and Fisker’s a citizen now.
VLF is a bare-bones operation; Lutz said the office (in Auburn Hill, Michigan) is barren, with dimmed lights. The company’s goal is nothing less than to become “America’s only purveyor of bespoke luxury cars,” but it’s doing it on a beer budget. The Force was built in a mere 10 weeks. Profits will be made on volumes of 100 cars a year, Lutz said. “Gilbert hasn’t spent a penny he didn’t need to spend,” he added.
VLF did pay to be on Detroit’s main floor. Out in the penny-pinchers’ concourse was some interesting stuff. Auto supplier Valeo offered a 48-volt belt starter generator system with electric supercharging. It’s a mild hybrid system that spokesman Matt Vint said was soon to be featured on a German car.
Also out there was the three-wheeled, 84-mpg, $6,800 Elio, still raising money for production. Spokesman Jerome Vassallo told me it won’t be affected by a federal safety agency proposed rule-making against three-wheeled cars — because it has back-to-back, rather than tandem seating.
If Elio was forced to go to four wheels, it would have to build its cars to full federal safety specs, complete with crash testing, new bumpers and all that.
Finally, I was taken aback by the Line X Super Sport Utility Concept, a collaboration with Advanced Automotive Technologies. They called it a “highly stylized off-road concept vehicle,” and it was that. Mix a Hummer with "Road Warrior" customizing, and you get this. Here's a closer look at that one on video: