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The Continental Concept draws from the 1956 Continental Mark II and 1961 Continental, but establishes a contemporary interpretation of an American luxury car that centers around an efficient and innovative use of space.

Lincoln's design chief Gerry McGovern may look the part of the tortured artiste, and express definite views of how things must be, but he never seems to take himself too seriously.

Inner Space

Moving Lincoln from a second-string has been to a premium luxury brand won't be easy, but the division's chief designer, Gerry McGovern, has a strategy to do just that while redefining the term "American Luxury."

If you want to know what Gerry McGovern has in store for Lincoln design, look no farther than the pen. Matte black with a muted steel trim, no identification, and a classic shape that is neither trendy or old, the pen–one of the supplies that are available to the press at Lincoln media events–sums up his view of the division's future products. Timeless. American. Premium of look and feel, though made of prosaic materials.

The latter may be of greater importance now that control over Lincoln has shifted away from Ford's Premium Automotive Group and back to Dearborn. And that the company is in the midst of deep cost-cutting programs which have slowed or eliminated proposed new platforms. A production version of the Continental Concept McGovern's design team showed earlier this year will have to wait, though its presence will be felt throughout the Lincoln lineup. "The Continental is about the clever use of space," says McGovern, "and functional logic." He points to the center-opening, pillarless doors as an example of what he means. "They are part of our heritage, their verticality allowed us to maximize the opening, and they look good." You get the impression the last item is important to him, as long as it doesn't override function.

A graduate of Coventry University and the Royal College of Art, McGovern worked at various car companies, although he is best known for the work done at Rover in his native England. "I was the chief designer of the Land Rover Freelander," he says, "and the Range Rover was designed by my team while I was there. Before that, I did the MG-F and various show cars." But McGovern is probably best known for his hair: long, tightly curled, and perfect. Combined with the deadly serious pose he strikes in official photographs, it makes him look like the pretentious prima donna you expect a car designer to be. Yet McGovern is also hilariously, profanely funny, often at his own expense.

"I actually consider myself to be a designer, not a stylist," he deadpans. "I may look like a bleeding hair stylist, but I believe that a vehicle should be beautifully engineered, very functional, capable, and promote an emotional connection with the driver and passengers, often through these characteristics." As a result, McGovern and his team work closely with Lincoln engineers–a unique group within Ford assigned to the luxury division that's responsible for protecting the brand's DNA–to define the package in terms of space, capability, craftsmanship, and–of course–cost. Of these, space is one of the most important characteristics of an American luxury vehicle.

"America is about space, Yankee ingenuity, risk taking, a can-do attitude," McGovern says. "These principles and characteristics must be blended with Lincoln's heritage, and used to create a modern design concept for the brand." For the Continental Concept this meant utilizing a long wheelbase [136.6-in.] and trim overall length [214-in.] to optimize interior room in a relatively efficient package. Yet space for space's sake was never the goal of the exercise. "Lincoln's must embody a clever use of space," he says, "and innovative approaches to utilizing it." Though only a four-seater, the Continental provides plenty of hidden storage space (built-in laptop computer tables store in the center console, briefcase holders are built into the front seatbacks, umbrella holders are in the doors, etc.), and the seats on the right-hand side of the car can be arranged to create a bed.

Luxury should not come at the expense of clarity, however. The Continental's instrument panel spans the width of the interior, and is built around reconfigurable displays. "I'm a great believer in simplicity," McGovern declares. "The interface should be logical and intuitive, and the effect jewel-like." He leaves the impression that the detailing and design of BMW's 7 Series would pass muster, but the interfaces would need a complete overhaul. "We really have an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from everybody else," he says. "No one does it like I know we can."

The first vehicles to benefit from the work McGovern and his team have done to define Lincoln's DNA won't appear until 2005, though a lot of detail work will be carried out on the current offerings before then. Front lighting units are converging on a common theme (twin round lights under a clear cover) as are wheels (a "wagon spoke" design with flush rims), badging, and in-teriors (newer vehicles like the Navigator and Aviator sport a combination matte black instrument panel/upper over satin-nickel trim–just like the aforementioned pen). "Some journalists say I haven't done anything yet," he laments, then lets out an expletive before continuing, "Concept-to-production takes four to five years–and that's once you've decided what vehicles you are going to produce! And before I can start new vehicles, we have to work to establish the brand's DNA, and apply this to the vehicles we already have."

Despite his contempt for certain journalists–a trait he shares with his boss, J Mays–McGovern has an even greater amount for some of his contemporaries. "A lot of car designers do themselves a disservice when they talk about the things that supposedly inspired them," he begins. "You know, stuff like: ‘This fender has this curve in it because I was inspired by a leaping frog, and the rear drops this way because of a waterfall I saw while on holiday.' Don't they realize people are much smarter about this than they think? They either like it or they don't."

Which brings us to a meeting McGovern had with the top brass at Ford after his group finished its research into the brand. After setting out the background, and presenting the roadmap Lincoln would follow, McGovern finished with a quote from Domenico De Sole, CEO of the Gucci Group. It said: "To build a real luxury brand, you have to walk away from revenues." And though he meant to show that profits would come as a natural consequence of getting all the right pieces in place, not everyone understood what he was trying to convey. One exec. did, however. "I showed that to Jac Nasser, and he agreed with it," McGovern says with a twinkle in his eye. And with perfect comedic timing he delivers the punch line: "You might have heard he doesn't work here anymore. Maybe that's why.