LOS ANGELES — One of the biggest questions facing the U.S. chauffeured transportation industry is what will happen to the storied and trusted Lincoln Town Car, the predominant bread-n-butter livery sedan and stretch limousine since the 1980s.
Speculation during the last few years has fueled rumors and denials about specific models, but no confirmations. In recent years, Town Car consumer sales have stagnated while fleet sales of the Executive L livery version remain strong, according to industry observers.
Jeff Nichols, the limousine and livery manager for Ford Motor Co., offered some more insights on the Town Car’s future during a dinner meeting and vehicle expo last night of the Greater California Livery Association, held near Los Angeles International Airport.
Nichols, who succeeded Doug Walzcak earlier this year as the key Ford liaison to the industry, was asked point-blank by Los Angeles operator Chris Hundley about whether the Lincoln MKT has a future as a livery-oriented vehicle.
“All I can say is we’ll have the Town Car for another two years,” replied Nichols, referring to Ford’s stated intention to manufacture the Town Car for the 2010 and 2011 model years. “If I told you, my boss would have to kill you because he would have killed me first,” joked Nichols of his boss, Ford CEO Alan Mulally.
Nichols said he could not communicate more about a possible Town Car successor for competitive and labor union reasons. He said he hoped that Ford may have more details about the future of the Town Car and a potential successor by this time next year.
Operators nationwide profess a fierce loyalty to the Lincoln Town Car Executive L model, which blends comfort, style, durability, leg and luggage room, and class into one affordable workhorse on wheels. The ubiquitous “black car” has become the emblem of private luxury transportation in America.
Nichols made it clear that any potential successor to the Town Car in 2012 will not skimp on those qualities.
“We understand this industry in terms of what drives the success for our vehicle today,” Nichols said. “Legroom, comfort, and luggage space are our priorities.” Ford-Lincoln recognizes that the industry needs a reliable vehicle large enough to carry two or three passengers and their luggage to the airport, Nichols said. “You must have a car to handle that. If you need two cars to do that then you embarrass yourself.”
Nichols played a brief video clip of Mulally during a recent question and answer session where the CEO said fleet sales make up 30% of Ford’s revenue pie, and that Ford intends to “profitably” grow its commercial fleet vehicle market share.
To that end, Nichols also detailed Ford’s long-term strategy and recent successes in surviving the deep recession as the only major automaker to not take taxpayer bailout money.
Ford’s loss this year was trimmed by $500 million to $850 million, compared to last year. The company is also on track to meet or exceed its 2009 cost performance targets.
Nichols said Ford borrowed enough money before the economy tanked so it could refine its line-up of models and emphasize research and development. As a result, the company is seeing sales climb again, with the Ford Fusion ranked as the second most purchased vehicle under the federal government’s Cash for Clunkers program. Its line-up of revamped and new models, including the Ford Transit Connect, are positioned to take advantage of rebounding consumers in future years.
Furthermore, Ford’s vehicle quality ratings now match those of Toyota and exceed those of Honda, said Nichols, citing vehicle evaluations by Consumer Reports and J. D. Power.
With its aggressive development of hybrid, E-85, and fuel cell engines, Ford has set a target of 35% overall fuel economy improvement by 2012, Nichols said.
For now, the automaker will offer added incentives to buyers of the 2010 Lincoln Town Car to offset slower sales this year because the recession forced many consumers to delay vehicle purchases, he said.
— Martin Romjue, LCT editor