Happy Anniversary to the Lincoln Navigator

Stephan Franklin, Auto Show Global

     This year we celebrate the release of the Lincoln Navigator. Heralded as the largest luxury SUV at its debut, it sent Cadillac into a design tail spin just to rebadge a GMC Yukon Denali. Of course, Cadillac claims the Escalade was designed in a under 10 months, but anybody with good design sense could see that GM and Cadillac clearly were caught with their pants down and was forced to rebadge a GMC.

     At the time, the Lincoln Navigator was released, I was working for Ford. In 2000, GM design had an opportunity to redesign the Escalade, and then I was working for GM in Cadillac. All I can say is that product cycle for the Cadillac was the beginning of the of the end of the large luxury segment dominance of Lincoln and the Navigator.
     Ford spent so much money structural architecture and sheet metal sharing between the Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition, and F-series pick-ups, the Navigator began to grow long in the tooth. Ford began to place resources in other truck programs such as the Ford Excursion, F-350 series, Explorers, Sport-Tracs because they were proving to be profit builders. In the meantime, General Motors was creating a very strong iconic product portfolio that would be one of the face of Cadillac. General Motors was focusing on brand identity and product placement among its crowded and sometimes redundant portfolio, but Cadillac was coming in on its own terms. In the meantime, Ford was looking at putting products in every incremental segment while trying to create new ones, all at the whim of marketing, while slowly and unintentionally, letting Lincoln slip away.
     In 2002, the all-new Cadillac Escalade debuted, and literally snatched the luxury full size SUV crown from Lincoln. It was weird watching it all unfold. I had worked on the new Escalade and the old Navigator, and I knew Ford’s product cycle for the Navigator was weak, even with the minor enhancements, it wasn’t going to be enough to keep Cadillac from coming at Lincoln. Furthermore, Cadillac had a whole new portfolio of products to back up the brand, and Lincoln was losing its footing fast.
     Fast forward. hip-hop music, celebrity influencers, and athlete endorsements favored Cadillac. Virtually reference came to benefit Cadillac and passively promoted Cadillac as the premiere brand in the eyes of the customers. Lincoln’s mid-cycle enhancements could not keep up with the new updates from Cadillac. The Lincoln Navigator had always looked heavy and over-bodied, while the Cadillac Escalade was getting more and more athletic looking. The Navigator’s front ends kept getting uglier with more chrome and bars as Lincoln was searching for its new identity. Interior enhancements didn’t pacify the dated exterior. Design management shake-ups, and even recruiting and hiring former Cadillac design management could not resuscitate Lincoln. For almost 20 years Cadillac has dominated the large luxury SUV market.
     Next year may be different. Lincoln has changed its branding strategy which has become popular among car enthusiasts. With the return of the Continental, Lincoln is finally beginning to make sure the product line looks consistent. The Lincoln Motor Company looks as though it is poised for a hostile takeover with the new Navigator. Let’s hope the 20th anniversary leads to 20 more years of fierce competition between Cadillac and Lincoln once again.

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