Having made a less than critically acclaimed stab at reinvention with Ghia’s 1996 Sentinel, Lincoln’s Gerry McGovern hit the bullseye with the 2002 Continental concept.
With the Jack Telnack era of design leadership coming to a close in 1997, Ford’s styling centre in Dearborn entered a new phase under J. C. Mays, who following a two year stint as design consultant for the Blue Oval, was selected as Ford’s new design Veep. With a new face came a new broom, Mays telling journalists at the time, “I have been brought in to make some changes and I fully intend to do that.”
With eight Worldwide styling studios to manage, Mays more consensual approach would prove a marked contrast to Telnack’s abrasive style. But notwithstanding Mays’ remit for change, the 1999 appointment of Gerry McGovern to helm Lincoln-Mercury’s styling team proved something of a surprise.
McGovern certainly didn’t appear a shoe-in for the role, given his CV, but even if his design management skills hadn’t been seriously tested, of design talent he had plenty. No pampered dilettante either; McGovern’s background was modest, even if his ambitions were anything but.
Having made his name at Rover Group in the UK with the lauded 1985 MG EX-E concept and MGF production model, he went on to reanimate Land Rover’s aesthetics with the hugely successful and critically acclaimed 1997 Freelander. Fond of sharp suits and big hair, Gerry McGovern was going places and wasn’t shy about who knew it.
Mays knew what he was doing however and gave the man whose modus was to ‘develop the right level of intransigence to protect your vision’ a relative free hand to go and develop one. McGovern seemed clear as to what that might be, telling Bloomberg magazine, “The challenge was to re-create Lincoln back to its glamorous heyday”.
Research and development began in early 2000, once McGovern had chosen his dedicated design team, who began by revisiting Lincoln’s heritage. One such appointee was another former Land Rover designer, David Woodhouse, who had been part of the design team who created the masterful L322 Range Rover alongside leaders, Ian Cameron, Don Wyatt, Phil Simmons and interior stylist, Alan Sheppard.
2001 saw an early shot across the bows with the debut of the MK 9 Concept Coupé at the New York Motor show. A full sized luxurious two-door in a similarly classic idiom to Jaguar’s R-Coupé of the same year, the MK 9 previewed the direction McGovern saw Lincoln taking, but the main event was yet to come.
The following year’s Los Angeles auto show saw the first showing of the Continental concept, a full-sized reinterpretation of Lincoln’s fabled early ’60s flagship. However, unlike the 1996 Sentinel’s barely veiled menace, the 2002 Continental carried its graceful forms, visual warmth, and formal discipline with a metaphorical cocktail glass in hand. Less Bruce Wayne, more Don Draper.
While some critics dismissed it as a frame-by-frame remake akin to other designs within FoMoCo’s stable at the time, the David Woodhouse-penned Continental deftly skirted the rather tired retro-phase, evoking the original car, yet appearing thrillingly modern.
McGovern told journalists that both it and the previous MK 9 were developed simultaneously, saying; “The MK 9 is overtly sporty and the Continental is formal but both are bound together by Lincoln design cues, a common approach to surface development and an absolute obsession with precision.”
Only the grille / headlamp treatment (which was a little too redolent of yore) and the roadwheels, which at 22 inches were both far too large and somewhat déclassé in appearance for such a formal vehicle, betrayed a lack of good taste. Taken as a package however, the Continental was a visual triumph.
Intended to employ body-on-frame pillarless construction with powered centre-opening doors, triggered by remote or by touching the flush aluminium door handles. With the doors fully open, the pillarless aperture was almost six feet wide, made possible by clever articulating hinges that opened 90° and a ring frame which added structural rigidity along the A-pillar, rear roof pillar, sill and roof rails.
The car was specified with a 6.0 litre V12 engine, mated to a six speed automatic transmission, driving the rear wheels. A multi-link four-wheel independent suspension with driver-selectable electronic damping was also fitted, along with a variable assist, speed-sensitive four-wheel steering system. At over 5.4 metres in length, 1.95 m wide and 1.5 m high, the Continental would, like its creator, be no shrinking violet.
Inside, the cabin was similarly accomplished. Like the exterior, it honoured the past, but was executed in a thoroughly modern fashion. Highlights included the headliner and Eames-inspired seats being upholstered in full-grain aniline ‘Rhode Island Sand’ leather. Within the rooflining, a translucent silk panel shaded the overhead fibre optic lighting, while the flooring was midnight blue sheepskin. Midnight Blue leather also provided a contrast for the instrument panel and upper door trims.
With Lincoln joining Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, the future for the marque seemed assuredly in an upward trajectory. McGovern wouldn’t be drawn on production plans for the car, but was adamant that it would provide the inspiration for a new generation of Lincoln models, saying, “These two concepts, as well as the work we have done in-studio with sport utilities and other types of vehicles, have convinced us that our design philosophy is stretchable, and that we have completed our roadmap for the future.”
Yet it all unravelled. 2001 saw Ford CEO, Jac Nasser, ousted amid accusations (amongst other things), that he spent too much time and resources on the PAG group to the expense of the core marques. He was followed by PAG chief, Wolfgang Reitzle the following year, who was not prepared to play second fiddle to Nasser’s replacement, Sir Nick Scheele. Also departing that year, McGovern accepted an offer to rejoin Land Rover as Chief Creative Officer, a position he holds to this day.
Lincoln’s ascent to the top remains an increasingly flimsy aspiration. Today’s Continental, styled under current design chief, David Woodhouse, is an accomplished enough design with a fine interior, but even he would probably admit that it doesn’t hold a candle to the stunning vision he co-created in that all too brief post-millennium era of optimism and creativity. Some might even have called it Camelot.
Sources: Driving Enthusiast.net / Auto-Didakt.com