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Public taste for luxury cars aids Lincoln-Mercury sales

By Charles E. DoleAutomotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 1982



Gordon MacKenzie plays a mean set of drums. He's also the head of the Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford Motor Company.

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Mr. MacKenzie took over the wheel at Lincoln-Mercury in May 1980 and since then has been beating a steady drum roll on dealers to sell more and more cars in a bad market. In the mid-1970s he headed up the sales crew for Ford of Europe.

Clearly, his musical genius, as well as his ability to stir up the dealers who sell his cars, is paying off.

''I play my drums quite often,'' he admits with a grin, ''including a lot of dealer meetings.''

So far this year, car sales at the Lincoln-Mercury division are up about 1 percent over 1981 in contrast to the industry's being down in total more than 13 percent.

''We just had our dealer council in Detroit, and you would have thought it was 1978 because of the enthusiasm.'' Few car dealers are smiling these days.

While it probably isn't MacKenzie's drums that are making the difference, it is the public taste in big cars, including luxury cars.

Luxury cars are a growth market in the United States as motorists continue to spend big dollars on US-built models rather than imports with prestigious names. The sale of American-made luxury models are up nearly 14 percent while foreign models are up only 5 percent from 1981.

''Top-of-the-line, high-quality products have been a growth market for several years, and that is just as true for luxury cars as for any other consumer product,'' asserts Philip E. Benton Jr., vice-president of sales operations for Ford Motor Company.

Two of the big gainers are the all-new Lincoln Continental and the front-drive Cadillac Cimarron. Lincoln sales are up 27 percent; Cadillac sales, 9 percent.

Mr. MacKenzie, however, says that his car division is doing ''reasonably well all across the board.'' Both the Mercury Lynx and Marquis assembly plants, for example, have been working overtime all year, he reports, at a time when many other auto plants have been shut down repeatedly in order to reduce inventories and keep car-production figures in line with sales.

''Our image for years has basically been that of a big-car producer,'' says the division chief, ''and our big-car image helps even our smaller cars.

''We're getting 5.3 percent of the market versus 4.6 percent a year ago.''

Next fall a new Mercury Marquis will hit the road, followed by a new Cougar in January. In the spring the Lincoln-Mercury dealers will get the new Mercury Topaz, a mid-'83 replacement for the mid-size Zephyr. Then the new Mark VII bows in during the fall of '83 as an '84 automobile.

''I think the new Mark will do what the original Marks did for us,'' Mr. MacKenzie says. ''It will be the leading edge of style in the industry. There is not a car like it being built in the US today. Some of the lines are from the Concept 90 car'' - a futuristic lookahead by the Ford design staff.

Meanwhile, he says, ''there is no question that there is a gap between the perception and the actual quality of the cars that we're building. But time is on our side. We didn't get into this position overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight.''

The Ford executive continues: ''We admittedly were behind the Japanese and Germans, but we're just about even to them now - even in fit and finish. We're going down to 5-millimeter margins and that is a Mercedes kind of margin.''

One of the tricks in the automobile business today is to get lean and stay lean, Mr. MacKenzie asserts. ''And that's what we're doing.

''We've already cut out a lot of the fixed costs, and we're continuing to cut costs. Instead of massive layoffs, we're doing it with more efficiency.

''Despite all of the economic problems of the corporation (a $2.7 billion loss in the last two years), we have not stopped any of our product programs. With what I have now and what I have coming, I can't ask for anything more.''

Except, perhaps, more time to play his drums - just for fun.