What Do We Really Want in a Modern Lincoln?

There’s a brouhaha right now between designers for Lincoln and Bentley over the new Lincoln Continental design, which is a shame because the American luxury maker is loved by many of us…but since the mid-’70s seems unable to make vehicles that enthusiasts find desirable.

Both Car Design News and Jalopnik have excellent stories on what was said between Bentley and Lincoln designers about the just-unveiled Lincoln Continental Concept, and I encourage you to read them.

First, everyone disagrees with wholesale copying of designs—this has been a problem everywhere, not just in China—and for years judges and juries the world over have heard arguments for and against the creators of so-called copies. Ever hear the one about Volkswagen settling out-of-court with Ringhoffer-Tatra for 1,000,000 Deutsche Marks in 1965 over the alleged copying of the Tatra V570 prototype by Ferdinand Porsche? And the car? The Beetle.

That case had serious merit not only because of Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka’s friendship and regular correspondence, but also because the two cars shared a very similar design DNA from the tires to the roof that’s pretty hard to ignore.

These days, however, the differences are often in styling—and in a line here, grille there, who can really lay claim to having an Aston Martin-like grille or Audi-like tail lights? Because this is Petrolicious, it’s worth exploring design nuances all of us appreciate, and it’s also a chance to explore some of the strong heritage that Lincoln could have drawn upon.

First, modern car companies are analyzing the same things in order to predict future trends—designers don’t work in a vacuum, nor do the firms who predict future trends.

That said, I’m no expert in the design of modern cars, so I asked Drew Meehan, design lead for Car Design Research Ltd. The firm works closely with automakers to create their next generation of vehicles and if there’s anyone who understands the industry from a design perspective, it’s him.

In the case of Lincoln “copying” Bentley, Meehan suggests there’s much more at work than a similar grille and headlights—and complaints between designers about modern cars end up becoming much more nuanced.

The Tatra V570 prototype and Volkswagen Beetle were similar not just in styling but also in mechanical design—close enough to see Volkswagen award Tatra in an out-of-court settlement.

“To use a well-known grill design from another marque while ignoring the myriad other options, including your own—current or historical—is possibly what set Donckerwolke off,” Meehan says, “More egregious, however, and likely to upset a designer is actually the treatment of the surfaces and details, like the movement of the shoulder line, the placement of the side vent, or even the wheel arch treatment—which is astonishingly similar between a modern Bentley and the Lincoln Continental concept. These are the little things that designers take pride in, so to see them on another car feels more personal, more like "stealing" perhaps, than the overall thing.”

I find it interesting that among designers, it’s often not the major styling features that cause concern; Meehan says a good example of this is why Bentley isn’t bothered by the Chrysler 300C, for instance—or why the new Ford Fusion’s grille doesn’t keep anyone from Aston Martin awake at night.

We share the same sentiment when it comes to blame being placed on vehicle regulations, crash standards, and all that bull. Meehan confirms my suspicions: headlight technology is such that nearly any shape desired can now be manufactured—especially on a flagship concept—and he says a modern car “grille” is now almost exclusively ornamental…for branding purposes.

That’s right: “branding purposes.” You may cringe, but we live in a world far removed from Lincoln’s success with iconic cars like the Zephyr and Continental models Mk. II–V.

Subconsciously, it’s the little design details that we love about cars like the Porsche 911—a car that will probably look largely same in 50 years. For enthusiasts, often what upsets us most is when we’re able to look at an automaker’s back catalogue and wonder why it’s so difficult to bottle some of that magic and slap a Monroney sticker on it.

“A brand with a glorious past and a tenuous future should be looking straight ahead rather than cribbing its answers from the smart kid next to them,” Meehan says. “It feels like they're using Bentley's words to tell their own story, rather than write it themselves. Those details aren't likely to be noticed by the press or public, but the design community obsesses over them.”

We all love classics, and no doubt have an idea in our heads about what we wish to see from new cars. At this point I’ll turn the story to you: What should a modern Lincoln be…and what should it look like?


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