Luxury on a smaller scale.
The North American car buyer has never been entirely comfortable with the notion of good things in small packages. I generalise of course, but in automotive terms at least, attempts at creating a more compact telling of the automotive fable have not met with rapturous success.
Not that all foundered on purely ideological grounds – these attempts frequently proving a somewhat difficult stylistic pill for the consumer to swallow, having been weaned on considerably more expansive nostrums of automotive desire. But as cities became ever more congested and environmental concerns grew, US carmakers sought more inventive ways to nudge the car buyer in a more socially responsible direction.
At the 2009 Detroit Auto show, Ford’s upmarket division previewed the Lincoln C, a compact C-segment luxury concept aimed at the affluent urbanite. Offering all of the visual presence, luxury accoutrements and prestige of a full-sized luxury car within a (relatively) compact footprint, the Lincoln C was aimed at the type of early-adopter, technology-savvy buyer who could theoretically appreciate the idea of a premium product in a less profligate package.
Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director of Design, cited the popularity of fashionable contemporary electronic devices, pointing out that, “During the past decade, people have gotten used to the idea that you could pay more money for a smaller version of the real thing” Horbury and the Ford Motor Company’s belief was that assuming it had all of the attributes and features the tech-savvy urbanite required, a well designed and crafted product would carry as much (if not more appeal) than a traditional luxury product.
The C certainly had the looks. An arresting fusion of monospace, conventional hatchback and three volume sedan, the Lincoln concept married the formality of a brougham carriage with an athleticism derived from its distinctly planted wheel-at-each-corner stance. The low mounted deep shoulder line added further visual strength to the otherwise sheer flanks, providing contrast with the comparatively shallow beltline. A contrasting coloured roof leavened the visual bulk, lending the canopy an element of weightlessness.
The exterior design team of David Woodhouse, Jeremy Leng, Andrei Markevich and Matt Edwards, headed by the Director of Ford’s Strategic Concepts Group, Freeman Thomas, incorporated elements of Lincoln’s contemporary design vocabulary; the so called ‘double wing’ grille, full-width tail lamps and various retrospective touches, like the pronounced C-pillar treatment and pillarless coach doors, reflecting those of the storied 1961 Continental model. Some two inches wider than conventional C-class vehicles, the C was said to offer the cabin space of a classic Continental, combined with the overall length of a Ford Focus and the width of a contemporary Lincoln MKZ.
Inside, simple hammock-style bench seats were trimmed in white leather and embossed with an elegant laser-engraved floral motif. The elegant, minimalist floating dashboard too was leather wrapped, with recycled grey wood veneer accents, which was reprised on the door cards. The ambience was one of openness, light and space; calm. Much was made of the cabin’s integrated in-car connectivity, all of which would probably seem laughably rudimentary by 2023 standards.
As a concept, one should never pay too much attention to what lies under the hood, but for the record, a 1.6 litre EcoBoost four cylinder unit developing 180 bhp was apparently mated to a PowerShift dual-clutch 6-speed gearbox (oh dear). Not a whiff of a hybrid powertrain, let alone anything more eco-ambitious. But powertrain issues aside, the Lincoln C was very good indeed, providing a wholly convincing, modernist take on contemporary luxury in a relatively compact package.
No design from Dearborn could be announced at the time without a word from Ford’s design maven, J Mays, who was quoted as follows; “While the most luxurious and indulgent products often come in the smallest packages, unfortunately this hasn’t been true of most small cars recently. With the Lincoln C, we’ve remixed the traditional small car formula, taking the most engaging technologies and wrapping them in a design fit for today’s urban luxury customer – without sacrificing style or substance.”
At its 2009 launch, Peter Horbury described concept C as offering “sensible indulgence”. But this surely was and remains something of an oxymoron; the idea that any indulgence is either sensible or can be enjoyed in a sensible manner appearing somewhat contrary to human behaviour. Certainly, if we look at how the market has evolved over the intervening 14 years, Horbury and the Ford design team’s ambition of luxury becoming miniaturised has not yet come to pass. Instead, it has become super-sized, both in scale and extravagance – even those electronic devices Horbury cited in 2009 having more than doubled in size and ostentation. In today’s luxury market, more is definitely more.
Despite a number of fine (mostly conceptual) attempts, the motor industry has failed to make a sustainable case for a compact luxury vehicle, not aided by a smart-Alec motor press who are more content to play to the gallery than help alter the conversation. The Concept C clearly failed to muster a business case in 2009, but frankly, would it fare much better in 2023? Because while the Lincoln has retained its relevance, both as a styling study and as a piece of conceptual thinking, indulgence (of the automotive variety) has lost it completely.
 Given the body’s tall silhouette a battery pack beneath the floor would not seem an entirely unthinkable outcome, but Ford, anno-2009 was certainly not in the EV business.
 Had Ford gone ahead with something akin to this, the AMC Pacer comparisons would have come thick and fast, one expects.
 Even if the concept didn’t fly, it seems a pity the styling theme couldn’t have been repurposed elsewhere within the Ford universe. (It wouldn’t have made a bad Lancia either, for that matter…)
Sources: Ford Motor Company/ Cartype.com
21 thoughts on “Please Indulge Sensibly”
“the idea that you could pay more money for a smaller version of the real thing”
Maybe I’m just projecting some of my internal biases toward this quote, but boy does it ever strike me as what is fundamentally wrong with the American approach towards the industry, in general.
The “real thing”. Before I get started, I am going to point out that in the supposed context of this part of the quote and it’s parallel to electronics, I’m just going to say it isn’t the same thing. Physical bulk is rarely (ever?) a positive in the realm of electronics. Screen size? Sure, but the packaging it’s wrapped in is a hard no, so I’m struggling to grasp what Horbury thought he was getting at. How that bit strikes me is what I feel like anyone with exposure to American designed small cars in the past, ohh forever likely knows if they were semi-conscious of other options and/or other American products from different segments; They aren’t serious tries at being “The real Thing”. For whatever reason, this mentality persisted up to the point where the category died off, and prior to this mass extinction, the final holdouts were primarily “not designed here” products (and shock! those weren’t terrible). Cynical to not understand that “the real thing” isn’t image and stature so much as substance and merit. Sigh. So forgive me that I would have zero expectations that this knockoff Megane II from 2002 with Lincoln styling cues spackled on could pull of being a good small car, much less one worthy of being considered luxurious to boot. Inspired is about the last word I would use to describe embossed floral motif.
Then we have Lexus two years later who actually attempted to do Luxury Small with the CT. That actually had some real technology behind the acquired taste face and it landed with a resounding thud, so what do I know?
For Americans, “The real thing” has always been a full size car, anything less isn’t “real” in the same sense but fake or rather ersatz, something good enough when the real thing is unattainable. Remember up until 1960 for example Ford was a one model line, exempting the Thunderbird. There was just only one Ford that model year in different trims, and that model was full size. Not until the sixties they got compact and intermediate lines like the Falcon and the Fairlane. That line of thought has survived up until modern times.
When I grew up in Sweden in the seventies and eighties, I thought the same. Most people aspired to a Volvo 240 sized car, and many were bought domestically. Volvo had fifty percent of the Swedish domestic market in the seventies, literally every other car was a Volvo. And that size became the standard size of car, anything less was just that, less of a car. And anything bigger was luxury. I remember the looking down on people that couldn’t afford what had become a norm, there was clearly a pressure of keeping up with the Jönssons.
That mentality is true (observed as a born-and-bred “Midwesterner”) to an extent; how much of that is ingrained I question, however, due to decades of Smaller cars that were for all intents and purposes either deliberately inferior to the “standard” line and/or different just for the sake of being deferent, aka weird. There are several generations of Americans where their having ownership to an American small car was akin to essentially throwing money away and paying for the privilege to do so, and that’s not for nothing.
I would like to find the person (or, more likely, the committee) that decreed what size a “full-size” sedan or pickup truck should be. That ordination has paid U.S. auto manufacturers handsomely.
A very good point. Like Ingvar with Volvos, in my childhood in fifties-sixties Australia a Holden (2.2 litre 70hp, 105″ wheelbase) was the “standard size” car, and with something like 60% of the market at their peak around 1960, no wonder we thought of them that way. They were the “default car”. But there wasn’t the sense of “poor you, you’ve got a small car”, if you drove something else. Uncle Tony was editor of a country newspaper, but he drove a Morris 1100. On the other hand, if you drove a big American car then you were a bit of a showoff, or “Flash Harry” as Dad used to say, while a big British car like a Rover or Humber elicited a response more like “Well, he can afford that.”, an acknowledgement of perceived quality and value. Partly this might have been because American cars seemed cartoonishly-big, partly also for the space-age styling. Richer Australians tended to be conservative back then, a different national psyche from Americans I guess.
This concept is working way too hard. Slap the double wing grille on a Toyota iQ and stuff it with leather.
But seriously, to paraphrase Steely Dan: Ford wouldn’t know a diamond if they held it in their hand.
mmmm premium (also attractive looking).
Good morning Eóin. Hmm, this concept is so far removed from anything I would recognise as a Lincoln that seems to be an exercise in pointlessness. Cjiguy’s mention of the Lexus CT in this context is apposite, and we all know how that went down: even Kylie Minogue couldn’t persuade people to buy it.
The design itself has some interesting details, like the treatment of the wheel arches and the way they interact with the strong concave feature along the flanks, but it could be a Renault, from that company’s ‘createur d’automobiles’ era, or even an extra-large K12 generation Nissan Micra. The differently coloured roof doesn’t work at all for me. I think the design would look more coherent in a single colour. Not highly talented designer Peter Horbury’s finest hour by a long chalk.
Seems I’ve woken up a bit grumpy this morning…😁
I think that even BMW isn’t entirely sure of the reasons behind the success of MINI, currently the only successful upmarket small car. Maybe because it’s it’s own brand, not a junior, smaller version of ‘the real thing’. The even more upmarket till you can go no higher, Mini Goodwood Edition was a moderate success, wasn’t it?
Maybe it’s the reflected glare off the snow outside my window this morning which distorted my focus, but the first image above appeared at first glance to be a Nissan Micra pretending to be a BMW….. Not a good start to the day!
A well observed and thoughtful article, as ever, about a forgotten concept. I like it and think it all the better for the reference to the K12 Micra, which is a favourite of mine. There were some really nice concepts during this period which were still about the car rather than the bloody infotainment screens, the autonomous driving system and therefore the lounge / boudoir concept seating arrangement inside. Apologies for the language there, but I have become bored with most new car concepts and new production cars themselves. So, it’s nice to be reminded of a concept which looks realisable and also still resembles something one might want to buy. Thank you Eóin.
Topical, that we should be looking at “small” luxury cars, so soon after looking at the VdP Allegro, the zenith of small luxury cars.
For what it’s worth, I thought the Lexus CT had ugly proportions (and the K12 Micra was awful too).
Luxury means different things to different folks, depending on who you are trying to please. Driving a bigger car than you need is a luxury, as is having more power than you need.
GM tried a small Cadillac, when the name still meant something, and that didn’t work. That Lincoln certainly doesn’t appeal to me.
Cadillac’s efforts at smaller vehicles over the past several decades largely have been cynical exercises bound to fail.
The Cimarron of the 80s was a clearly-rebadged U.S. Chevrolet Cavalier, tarted up with a little leather and Cadillac badges. The buying public saw right through that one. The Seville was a better aim at the market but it, too, didn’t feature anything you couldn’t find in the next (big) Cadillac in the line.
Apple will (well, did) sell a mini phone that had the technology of their flagships. Samsung does the same with TVs. American car manufacturers have not been able to do that with their products.
When developing a concept for a compact premium car for the US market, designers should always keep one thing in mind: unless it’s an SUV, Americans don’t like hatchbacks. Particularly tall hatchbacks that evoke MPVs. Particularly one that, as Eoin notes, invites comparisons to the Pacer. Compare sales figures for the Golf vs the Jetta.
While not much of a design statement, GM NA had a relative success in the segment on their hands with the Buick Verano, a tarted up Astra J four door. With a tinselled exterior and a cabin with lashings of “wood” and leather, it satisfied many older Americans’ idea of luxury. I had one as a rental once and what struck me was that Buick had invested heavily in extra sound deadening. Compared to its Chevy Cruze cousin, it was almost Lexus-like in its calm isolation. It was far quieter than the Golf I drive at the time.
In 1994 Lexus showed its Landau concept car, based in the GS midline sedan, including V8 and 4wd. Conceived by Italdesign, it was an interesting “small luxury” idea, but I remember it wasn´t very well received by the press.
I hadn’t seen this one before. Very nice.
A fascinating article (and comments) – thank you. Interesting to see the Ford Start concept, gooddog and the Lexus Landau, b234r; the latter really does look like a Fiat, to me.
I don’t think I’ve seen the Lincoln C concept, before. When I first saw it, I thought ‘BMW’. I then thought ‘Mégane’, as others did. I also thought ‘Evoque’ when I saw the flowery seat design. The interior detailing of the Lincoln C really is lovely. Here’s a video which shows a bit more of the car.
However; if I lived in a large country, with big roads and parking spaces, I don’t think I would necessarily want or need a smaller car, despite the Lincoln C’s tagline of “Luxury Without Guilt’. Also, a car that can comfortably seat 3 abreast isn’t really small.
David W, the Goodwood Mini wasn’t a success, I’m afraid. At £40k in the early 2010s, it’s perhaps not surprising.
The Rolls Royce trick of having something so expensive that it’s a selling point doesn’t apply to trim levels on Minis. This further underlines the point of this article.
As for the Cadillac Seville, at the time it was introduced, it was both the smallest Cadillac, and the most expensive. And it was an enormous success. But it wasn’t a small car, it was European large car sized, virtually identical in size to Opel’s Diplomat-and more importantly the same size as the then Mercedes big saloons.
I apologize for my smart-Alec comment above, though I remain appalled at this concept. I’d like to add the most horrid bit of the designer spiel I recall from 2009: The hump over the front wheel is a contrivance meant to refer to the up-kick in the belt line over the rear quarters found on the ’61 Continental (also found on the original Mustang).
I think very much underlining what is wrong with this Lincoln: look at another concept overseen by Peter Horbury, which also references two much loved cars from the maker’s storied heritage, but we don’t need him to explain any of it to us, which is exactly why it’s a great design*.
*Note how it has the same sort of rear doors and overall proportions as the Mazda RX-8, if only…
Just as soon as a customer gets to the price tag they ask “what else could I buy with this?”. Status enters the scene so that when confronted by the price of a loaded Ford they think “hey, I could get a BMW for that” and they don´t dwell on the reduced feature content or size. With this Lincoln the same thing applies. I think people want as much sheet metal as they can afford or something as cheap as possible – these things seem not to be direct corollaries. An expensive small car appeals to a small subset, those looking for a lot of quality and a small road footprint. The A2 was an excellent bit of work and not that succesful. I think BMWs i3 was a nice example of compact quality and again, not such a hit. Renault´s Baccara R5 and Clio cars show the only way to get sales in the “small/luxurious” category and it´s only bolt-on luxury, nothing intrinsic. Unlike others here, I think the Lincoln C is pleasing and might have worked as a European car sold through Ford dealers. For Japan, it´d be too wide.
I think the Lincoln C is a brilliant interpretation of the classic Lincoln design language. Well, classic as in 1961 – 1965 Lincoln Continental, not the humongous Lincoln land yachts before and after. I mean, the C-pillar and actually the whole roof line pays homage to that of the aforementioned 1961-1965 Continental and the broad shoulders are definitely inspired by that model too, as is the overall cleanliness of the design and exterior surfacing, in my opinion. I feel bad for not noticing this concept until 14 years later, but then again I’m normally not too interested in concept cars so I guess this one slipped past my radar quite easily.
As for “the Real Thing” in the American car market, I think it’s not necessarily limited to the bigger is better approach. The two most important status symbols in the 1980s American car landscape were the Mercedes-Benz SL roadster (R107) and the BMW 3-Series (E30). Both cars were considered small at the time (and positively tiny today, especially the E30) and yet for many people, they were much more desirable than the contemporary Cadillacs and Lincolns. I think the secret here, and one that Cadillac and GM learned the hard way with the Cimarron, is that people are willing to get a smaller luxury car only if it offers the same substance or more than its larger alternatives. The SL Roadster and E30 sports sedan/coupe were exquisitely engineered and built compared to the large Lincolns/Cadillac of the time and people started to notice and appreciate it enough to forgo a larger size.