Friday, May 28, 2010

“YOU HEARD THE STORY OF THE HOT ROD RACE, WHERE THE FORDS AND MERCURYS WERE SETTIN’ THE PACE…”

5/28/10

While I probably cannot add anything especially insightful or fresh to the commentary on yesterday’s news that Ford decided to discontinue its Mercury division, perhaps adding a personal perspective can illuminate, or at least reinforce, some of the observations being made.

The execution of Mercury, which had survived even the unfortuitous timing of its founding (1939), was surprising only because it took so long. How Mercury survived this long, especially after Alan Mulally has cast aside so much other vestigial tradition to make decisions that were both obvious and necessary, is a mystery. It has been obvious for at least the last twenty years that just about every Mercury product was a gussied-up and, for the last ten years, not even all that gussied up, version of a Ford. Equipment, sticker prices, even looks were almost indistinguishable from their Ford counterparts. Just to clarify here, I am NOT saying that Mercuries are not good cars; they have been, like their Ford twins, outstanding products, usually at least one cut above those of their domestic rivals, and are getting better to the point at which they are about the equal of most of their “foreign” competitors. The problem is not that Mercuries are bad cars; the problem is that they are redundant cars.

My first car was a Mercury, a 1982 Lynx, grey with a red vinyl/cloth interior, five speed manual, an AM radio, and air conditioning. It was a great car for its time, but it was a clone of the Ford Escort. I really would have rather had the Ford Escort for two reasons: It was available in a shade of blue that was not available in a Lynx and I really liked the Ford emblem affixed to the back of the Escort. (That these were the points of distinction between the two cars for something of a car buff says a lot about Mercury’s demise.) I wound up buying the Lynx, however, because my buddy Paul Kuhn worked at his family Mercury dealership (Park Lincoln-Mercury, 18100 Woodward Avenue, Detroit), appreciated the business, and made me a good deal. Paul threw great parties, which were a very high priority for me in those days, and it was worth the very marginal sacrifice involved in choosing a Mercury over a Ford both to retain our friendship and continue being invited to his parties.

One of my favorite cars was also a Mercury, a 1998 Mystique, fully loaded with a five speed manual transmission. It was a terrific car and I often wonder why I ever got rid of it, but, at the time, I was in the habit of changing cars with the frequency most people change pants. Our daughter Emily was three when we bought the car and probably five when I traded it in. For the next several years, she demanded that we “get the Mercury back.” When I told her I’d consider buying a new Mercury, she would say “no, Daddy, not a Mercury…the Mercury.” She loved that car, maybe because of all the fun we had when she was in it with Daddy when he was testing its limits on the way to White Castle. But I digress. When I bought the car, I would have rather had the car from which it was cloned, the Ford Contour. But my grade school (and to this day) buddy Paul Napleton sells Mercuries from the very store that his father established back in the ‘70s in Blue Island, Illinois, just across 127th Street from Eisenhower High School. Like Paul Kuhn, Paul Napleton appreciated the business and made me a great deal. And there was another rub: to get a fully loaded Contour/Mystique with a stick, ordering from the factory was a necessity, and I felt much more comfortable ordering from Paul than from a dealer I didn’t know as well; I knew Paul wouldn’t bollix up the order.

In both cases, had I not had friends who sold Mercuries, I would have bought the virtually identical Ford and been just as happy. I only had serious interest in one other Mercury, the Marauder, which was only produced for a few years at the beginning of the first decade of this millennium. I decided not to buy it because gas mileage, tossability, and a manual transmission were more important than all-out muscle, but, even if I had decided to seriously pursue this fire breather, I could have accomplished the same thing, albeit not quite the same look, by buying a Ford Crown Vic with the bigger V8 and a police package.

And that has been the story of Mercury for the last twenty or so years: rebadged Fords chosen over their Ford clones because of the deal or the relationship with the dealer. The division should have been killed years ago. The question becomes what happens to the Paul Kuhns and Paul Napletons of the world, and all the other Lincoln/Mercury dealers, when Mercury makes its exit. (Probably not good examples; I haven’t seen or heard from Paul Kuhn in at least 25 years and I suspect he is retired; Paul Napleton’s car empire extends far beyond Mercury so the loss of Mercury, while important, will probably have little impact on him or his employees.) It would seem that, as long as Lincoln stays in business, they should be fine. While the papers say that the loss of their “volume” brand, Mercury, could be a devastating blow to these dealers, can one with a straight face call Mercury a “volume” brand? This will give Lincoln the opportunity to upgrade the newly single brand Lincoln dealerships in order to better compete with other luxury, or near luxury brands. Some Lincoln/Mercury dealers will be merged with Ford dealers; in many areas of the country, such a combination is even now more the rule than the exception, which must have made it awfully difficult for such dealers to sell a Mercury at any kind of a mark-up.

In any case, the dealer problem should not be insurmountable as long as Lincoln remains in existence, and there’s the rub. As the Wall Street Journal reported this morning

Ford officials also are engaged in an intense review of he future of Lincoln, which has struggled as well despite its fairly new lineup.”

Discontinuing Lincoln would seem to be a mistake. First, it just makes sense to have a volume division (Ford) and an upscale division (Lincoln), as does every car other manufacturer that peddles its wares in this country, with the possible exception of Chrysler (It’s hard to call the Chrysler marque “upscale.”) , which shouldn’t be used as an example by anybody aspiring to success in any case. Second, judging Lincoln’s performance by the last few years, which have been tumultuous for the entire industry, is foolhardy, especially since Ford execs appeared to have made a vital, and I think commendable, decision at the outset of these difficult years; i.e., repositioning Lincoln so that it competes not so much with luxury marques such as Cadillac, Lexus, and Mercedes but, rather, against such “one notch under” marques as Buick and Acura. Ironically, since making that decision, Lincoln has never competed, at least from a product standpoint, more effectively against Lexus in particular than it ever has before. If you don’t believe me, drive a Lexus ES350 and a Lincoln MKX and tell me that the MKX is not as good a car.

Shuttering Mercury was a great decision; doing the same with Lincoln would be a bad decision from many perspectives.

One more note:

Lest anyone call me on the title of this post, it is taken from the original 1955 version of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” written and performed by Charlie Ryan, which was an answer to “Hot Rod Race,” written by George Wilson, recorded in 1950 by Arkie Shibley, and covered numerous times since then, most famously by Jimmy Dolan later in the ‘50s. “Hot Rod Lincoln” was also covered numerous times by others, including Jimmy Dolan. The most famous version was the 1972 version by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. That version starts “Have you heard the story of the hot rod race when the Fords and Lincolns were settin’ the pace?”

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ironic that your 'Google Ads' were Mercury and Lincoln/Mercury oriented - OR NOT...

Keep writing.

Ken (recent Elmhurt MBA recipient)

The Pontificator said...

I guess they feel they have to clear out the inventory, and I'm one of the few guys saying anything good (?) about Mercury of late!

Thanks, Ken, and congratulations. Elmhurst is a great place, but being able to teach people like you makes it that much better.