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Friday
Dec142012

Been Down This Road Before

By Christopher A. Sawyer

When I left automotive journalism in 1997, it was to join a Dearborn, Michigan-based boutique PR firm where I would act as the communications director for Lotus Cars USA. I had friends there, people who very much wanted me to take the job, and I loved what the company stood for, which is more than just “make them light and fast… and fragile.”

Lotus couldn’t fund me full time, which meant I had to do other things to earn my keep or, more accurately, bring in three times my salary so that the agency would keep signing my paychecks. One of those things was launching parts supplier Visteon, newly liberated from Ford, in an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza that required almost as many people and airplanes as the Normandy invasion. Another was to write the press kit for the freshly facelifted Lincoln Mark VIII. That was my first run-in with Ford’s bureaucratic sclerosis, and the revolving door that has hobbled Lincoln.

This was to be a “re-launch” of both the car and the brand, punctuated by a private drive and dinner for editors from the five buff books. They would be wined and dined, and get access to the men behind the resurrection of Lincoln; men who had spent a good bit of time thinking long and hard about how a Lincoln should ride and handle, sound and look. The Mark VIII was nothing more than an signpost on a long road ahead, and it was necessary to put it in the proper context.

To make a very long story short, the idea behind the Mark VIII kit was to make it a walk-around of the vehicle; moving from outside to inside, with a section on the mechanical updates and marketing. This would make it similar to your average road test format, and easier for any “journalist” that desired to crib liberally from the press kit while keeping the facts straight. The Ford PR staff, and they were legion, loved the idea. (The joke among PR people is that the perfect title for any automotive journalist’s autobiography would be: It’s All In the Press Kit.)

It took very little time to get the necessary interviews with the engineers, etc. and start piecing the story together. Central to the kit were divider cards that came from a poster the agency had done for the Pebble Beach Concours the previous year. It had a number of photographs of design details of iconic Lincolns, drawn from the Lincoln Motor Company's founding through the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and beyond. I saw them as the perfect image to go on the front of each sectional divider. On the back would be historical information about those and other Lincoln vehicles of the era. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Once the words were done, the fun started. First, the horsepower increase claimed disappeared because the folks in the purchasing department decided the new exhaust system was too expensive, and went with a cheaper supplier. As for the press kit itself, it went through countless (more than 20) “reviews” by various and sundry PR folk at Ford, each with their own idea of how things should be phrased, presented and portrayed. This included placing the five press kits to be given to the enthusiast magazines in leather binders with gold lettering, despite warnings that the journalists would not be using these binders to carry their personal papers around once done with the press kit’s contents. Everyone else got a Staples/Office Depot white binder.

So did the PR people. In fact, I had to make at least one extra leather-bound edition, pull five regular versions out of the 300 planned, and cobble together five more from the extra sheets we had printed. That left me with 295 (the leather versions were part of a change order that didn’t affect the quantity of “regular” press kits), and a request from the woman in charge of Lincoln PR to get five kits for her. Amazingly, she hadn’t seen it, apparently having been frozen out of the entire process. I told her that I couldn’t do that—I didn’t even have a full kit—but I could walk her through it, and get her singular copies of all the pages. She’d have to get her own binder before putting it in Lincoln’s PR archive. Of all the people I dealt with, she was the most reasonable.

Things got so ridiculous that I—and all of the Ford PR people involved in “the process”—were called before the head of Lincoln during the full-line preview Ford held that year at its Dearborn test track for journalists. Lined up before him in a dark room, it felt like execution by firing squad. That’s when something incredible happened. I was asked to explain the concept behind the kit’s design and layout before anyone else was allowed to speak. As I did, he leafed through the example I’d brought with me, stopping at the divider pages to look at the pictures and words. When I finished, he looked at the assemblage before him and said: “Well at least someone here cares about the Lincoln brand… and he doesn’t even work for the company!” From that point on, the process moved quickly, though a few roadblocks were thrown in my path. I ignored them. I had the boss’ approval.

Gerry McGovern before the woman in his life requested that his hair be shorter than hers...Years later, after returning to journalism, I had the opportunity to interview Lincoln’s chief designer, Gerry McGovern, at the New York Auto Show. I sat and waited at one of the interview tables set up on the stand, when McGovern walked by and asked if he could help me. “Well, yeah,” I said. “I’m your 12:30 interview.” According to McGovern, who was on his way out to get some lunch and visit a few art galleries, no one had told him. At which point he sat down, and gave me one of the funniest and most expletive-filled interviews I have ever had.

In it, McGovern—whose full name is Gerald Gabriel McGovern (“Mum must have wanted me to be an angel.”)—laid out the whole premise behind Lincoln’s “American Luxury” tagline. It was heartfelt, and based on a tour of the U.S. he and his staff had taken the year before. McGovern said European luxury was overblown, service at high-end American hotels and restaurants was better than in Europe, and that he was looking to give the brand a style that was both neatly tailored and versatile. “Sometimes it takes an non-American to see what makes America great,” he said.

He then proceeded to describe how the Lincoln buyer had “made it” in his/her work life, didn’t forget their humble roots, and didn’t have a trophy spouse. “You have to build on a solid foundation,” he claimed, “if the image you project is going to work. Buyers see through all the bullshit. You can’t fool them for any length of time. What you are projecting has to be real.”

His reinterpretation of the 1961 Lincoln Continental, he claimed, was an attempt to reestablish the “best and most memorable theme” Lincoln has had since its heyday, and use those design hallmarks in the future. Coming as he did from Land Rover, he understood the need to stick with a theme, hone it relentlessly, and reinterpret it through new vehicles and designs. McGovern then launched into a remarkably profane—and accurate—tirade about designers who claim “inspiration from a waterfall, a flower or a toaster.” I remember it to this day:

“You know the type. He gets up before the press on a launch program and talks about his latest camping adventure. Pretty soon, he’s recounting his walk near the campsite where he discovered a waterfall he hadn’t expected. Taken in by all of the beauty surrounding him, this asshole stands there and takes it all in. And then” he said while leaning in conspiratorially, “he announces” ‘And that’s why the taillights on this car look the way they do. It was all inspired by that waterfall.’” At which point McGovern, eyes wide and hands flailing, exclaimed, “What bullshit!”

In no time “The Angel Gabriel” as I took to calling him, was ready to leave the hall and, “go listen to the bullshit gallery owners tell customers about the paintings they have on sale.” About a year later, if memory serves, McGovern was gone as the bullshit hit the Ford fan. Premium Automotive Group (PAG) head Wolfgang Reitzle’s plans for a $2 billion dedicated rear-drive Lincoln platform—some Ford and Jaguar executives were scared silly that sharing platforms would diminish Jaguar’s uniqueness and lead to buyers cross-shopping the brands—were dropped as Ford began hemorrhaging money. Any plans to resurrect Lincoln as something more than an upscale Mercury were gone (as was the BMW-bred Reitzle), and with it the promises made in that Mark VIII press kit just a few years before.

Today’s “One Ford” of CEO Alan Mulally may be much less bureaucratic and more profitable than during my run-ins with Lincoln, but there is no guarantee that it will remain that way. Each top Ford executive has his coterie of supporters more interested in what “the boss” thinks than in what’s good for the company as a whole. It’s a failing of any human organization, and all-too common in the auto industry. Re-establishing a tarnished brand takes decades to accomplish, and must be built on a fundamental set of characteristics that cannot and do not change with the circumstances. I would love to believe that it will happen this time. However, there has been no one other than Edsel Ford who, since the brand’s early days in Ford’s garage, has had the power and vision necessary to accomplish the task. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

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