A Daydreaming Designer Looks At How Rebadging Might Have Saved Some Automotive Failures

Topshot 24a

It’s great to know that buyers typically don’t choose cars based upon the badges that are displayed on it. Generally speaking, automotive consumers look at the specific merits of a car regardless of the perceived status of the brand that makes it. It’s offensive to even imagine that they would be so superficial in their thinking.

Yeah, just kidding.

Car buyers are often obsessed with the status associated with the make of a car, and sad number of buyers purchase cars based on brand alone. In fact, it is amazing to see how many really good to great cars get overlooked because of the fact that they are badged as a brand that is too commonly associated with more proletarian cars or with buyers that are just not cool enough for the potential consumer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these cars that a few minor design changes and sticking on a few logos of a higher end brand wouldn’t cure; the basic car would stay exactly the same yet it would sell far better.

Would such changes have improved the chances of any overlooked rides over the years? I’m not suggesting some magic where, say, a Kia Stinger can become an Audi and gain the love of buyers. I am referring simply to cars within corporations where they could easily have rebranded these market failures as more compatible sister brands or a captive import make.

Let’s try this theory out by Photosloppy sketching on a few decent cars that died in the marketplace but could have been easily rebranded by their parent companies as worthy additions to their other brands and see what you think.

 

Lincoln Mark I LSS

The Scorpio was the flagship sedan of Ford of Europe in the late eighties, and the Blue Oval rightly decided that it might have a place in the American market. A rear drive layout with a hatchback that didn’t really look like a hatchback, it was a valid and versatile German sports sedan at a reasonable price. The trouble was the US division realized that a near-BMW-priced BMW competitor couldn’t show up in the same showroom as a Ford Escort Pony.

883d2es 960

source: drive2

Ford’s solution was to make a new brand with the how-do-you-pronounce-it name of Merkur (German for ‘Mercury’) to be sold in Lincoln-Mercury dealers. The car (along with its XR4Ti stablemate) tanked in the market with buyers not sure of what the hell it was.

So why didn’t they just brand it as a more upscale Lincoln, say call it a Lincoln Mark I LSS (Luxury Sport Sedan)? My guess is that marketing thought that yuppie buyers would shy away from something with the badge of an ‘old person’s’ car on it, and they might have, but then these target buyers totally avoided anything with the weird ‘Merkur’ badge anyway. Plus, some of those ‘old people’ in the traditional Lincoln crowd might have been tempted to buy the Mark I (instead of the Taurus-based Continental) from an ‘American’ car dealer. In general, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Tumblr 57d7c0194625ee70c7acd46281395dec 801c5c8d 1280

source: Cars & Bids and The Bishop

Oddly enough, Ford had considered something like this before with the Scorpio’s predecessor (but went with a dolled-up Ford Maverick instead). Feast your eyes on the original concept for a Lincoln Mark I, based on the new-for-1972 European Ford Granada. A tasteful Bentley or Daimler style grille might have worked nicely, but of course they just scaled down the Continental grille and went full-on Superfly pimptastic on the nose and added the US-required round sealed beams:

Screenshot (117)

source: Mac’s Motor City Garage

For the Scorpio Mark I, using a modern toned-down Lincoln grille replacing the large-mouth-bass face of the Scorpio doesn’t look too bad on the thing, just as it didn’t on Lincoln’s Mark VII LSC (first car with composite headlights in the US) you see below:

Screenshot (97)

source: Mecum

Could the chrome nose have made the difference? Are buyers really that shallow? I think you know the answer to that question.

 

Jaguar Mark II

There had long been an untapped market for a small Jaguar ever since the cool Mark II saloon went away in the late sixties and the XJ6 became the only sedan offered. It’s not like Jaguar had resources to offer a mid sized or small sedan anyway, but with Ford’s acquisition of the brand in the nineties they had the ability to rebrand or rebadge existing Fords (or Mazdas) as Coventry cats. Ultimately, they released rebodied Lincolns (S Type) and even Ford Mondeos (X Type) which received lukewarm reception at best. Sadly, there was a car in the years before that was under the big Ford umbrella that deserved better than it got, and could likely have done better for Jaguar.

1992 Mazda 929 Frontside Ma929921 505x375

source: kbb

The Mazda 929 was a ‘large’ sedan sold by Mazda, and in 1992 the ultra-boxy predecessor was replaced by a shockingly lovely looking new version. However, releasing a fancy sedan with a badge associated with sports cars like the Miata and little economy sedans is a recipe for disaster. Still, since Mazda was related to Ford at the time, and the Jaguar acquisition under way, could things have been different?

With a sculptural looking leather lined interior, this rear drive, six cylinder powered car bridged the line between sports sedan and luxury car, which was something that nobody seemed to do at the time, or could sell…except maybe Jaguar.  Also, the 929 was a bit cramped inside and had a few other quirks as well, but that’s just ‘character’ with the Jaguar badge. These Mazdas are essentially extinct now, and I had forgotten how pretty they really were.

Mazda

Untitled 1

sources: Japanese Nostalgia Car and Hagerty and The Bishop

Sacrilege? Maybe, but as a mini-Jaguar, I don’t think it would have been a discredit to the name; at least not any more so than the Ford pretenders that came later. If nothing else, it would have been more reliable than any of them.

 

Porsche Stuttgart

Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech was supposedly an intense taskmaster that got what he wanted, even if what he wanted was a car that, among its other things, had to be capable of being driven all day at 186 mph with an exterior temperature of 122 °F whilst maintaining the interior temperature at 72 °F (my guess is that you would have been stopping for gas a LOT if driving in such a manner).

Piech’s staff pretty much succeeded in getting him the car that he desired, which he promptly took and placed on the badge of a brand of cars associated with Golfs and Beetles. That’s right- this six figure uber-sedan was sold on the showroom floor with sub-$20,000 cars, though ‘sold’ is a relative term. It is more accurate to say that the Phaeton kept the showroom floor from blowing away.

197479 Front 3 4 Web

source: Barrett Jackson

Still, this highly impressive sedan seems like it would have made a decent offering for VW’s excellence-was-expected brand of Porsche. Renamed the Stuttgart with a new nose and maybe a ‘coupe’ style hatchback roofline. We can modify the flanks with a softer profile and rocker trim like the Cayenne.

Vw Phaeton 3.0 V6 Tdi 4motion (2. Facelift) – Frontansicht, 20. Juni 2014, Düsseldorf

source: BBC  and The Bishop

In back, 968-style taillights would replace the big-Jetta light clusters but we’d still keep it pretty conservative. I’m showing it as a subtle fastback hatch-equipped format, but a notchback version could have been offered.

2006 Volkswagen Phaeton Sedan V8 R Oem 1 1280x855 2

source: Edmunds and The Bishop

This car would have predated or even replaced the ‘somebody-stepped-on-my-Carrera’ Panamera. Actually, it could even have been sold alongside the Panamera, considering that the Stuttgart would have been a more of a traditional large sedan/hatchback to compete with the 7 series/S Class, and the Panamera was (and still is) really just a stretched 928-style GT car with limited passenger and cargo space, despite being as long and wide as the Phaeton. Damn, these old Panameras look like Photoshop comps now:

Porsche Panamera 4s Front 20100428

source: Wikipedia

Porsche would likely have offered a Turbo S model of the Stuttgart that might have been a second faster to sixty but also had an elephant skin leather shift knob and a sticker price as much as three ‘base’ model Stuttgarts. I’m kidding. No, I’m not.

If we accepted a rebadged and tweaked Touareg, couldn’t we have accepted a more upright Porsche sedan?

 

The world’s nicest house would be worthless in the wrong neighborhood, and sadly it seems that same is true with brand-conscious car buyers. Are there any other examples you can think of that really deserved better than what they got, within their own corporate family?

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40 Responses

    1. By far my favourite of all these ideas. The curves of the 929 really work well with the imaginary Jaguar restyling. The Lincoln/Merkur doesn’t really make sense since the European styling was the whole point of the Merkur sub-brand (and Lincoln feels too American to make an European rebadge work), and although I like the rear of the Porsche-ified Phaeton, that fascia will never look good with 4 doors in my opinion.

  1. Merkur was supposed to be a fresh start, to allow Ford to sell luxury cars to the young, urban, professional Baby Boomers who were otherwise going for Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and, to a certain extent, Volvos and Saabs, the folks who cringed at the idea of something with button tufted seats, hood ornament, acres of fake plastic wood, and a vinyl roof – but, at the same time, there were still loads of WWII and Korean war veterans who were still of car-buying age, with lots of disposable income, and who absolutely LOVED all those features. They wanted to hold on their their lucrative existing older market at Lincoln, but also get an “import” brand to bring in younger buyers.

    The original plan was to actually buy a foreign brand – Ford investigated acquiring BMW, but were rebuffed by the Quandt family, so Merkur was created instead as a fake German brand for German-built Fords. When it sort of crashed and burned, they tried to buy Rover Group off the British government (which would have gotten them Rover, MG, Mini, and Land Rover), but the Thatcher government was under pressure to keep the company under UK ownership, and so rejected Ford and arm-twisted British Aerospace into buying it off them instead. Finally, Ford successfully bought Jaguar Cars in 1989, which they, initially, hoped would give them the prestigious, “real” import brand they wanted all along, with mixed results.

    1. The whole “how do you pronounce Mare-coor/merker” thing was the source of a lot of jokes back then, but that wasn’t really the problem–no one balked at buying an ow-dee even if some people called them awe-dees. The real problem was trying to split the baby by selling these new vehicles through LM dealers. Well, that and the exchange rate. The Japanese brands showed (with varying degrees of success) that it was indeed possible to launch a new luxury brand, but you couldn’t do it through the sales channel that didn’t understand the car or the market.

      The product itself was pretty compelling, overall, though it suffered from comparisons to the much, much cheaper but visually sort-of-similar Mercury Sable sitting on the same LM showroom floor. Driving them back to back there was no doubt the Scorpio was the nicer car, but the Sable was pretty nice by itself and the Scorpio didn’t really offer that much better performance on paper.

      I wonder about whether a more compelling product (like a V8, or maybe the SHO engine, or the later Cosworth engine) would have moved the needle. I want it to be true, but I doubt it. I think you’re right that the Jaguar deal coupled with the challenges of selling through LM dealers coupled with the worsening exchange rate really put a stake through Merkur’s heart.

      It’s too bad. The Scorpio was a fantastic car, and in hatchback form it was insanely practical and utterly unique in the market at the time.

      1. JST- if I recall the powertrains were a weak part of both Merkurs sold. The Scorpio was not particularly powerful for a ‘sport/performance’ sedan and the XR4TI (ex-rah-tee) had its European driveline replaced with the rather clunky turbo Pinto motor setup.

        1. Yes; the 2.3L turbo in the XR4Ti was…not great, though more powerful than the engine it had across the pond. And the 2.9L Cologne V6 was barely adequate for the Scorpio. Long-legged and a great highway cruiser, but sluggish around town. It was especially embarrassing compared to the engine in the new for 89 SHO.

          That SHO V6 in either the XR4Ti or the Scorpio would have been the stuff of legends, though ultimately I’m not sure it would have saved either car.

    1. Mikan- I noticed the same thing once I stuck that nose on there. Kind of Citroen C6 like too. The back ended up sort of like a 1992 Grand Prix of all things.

      It’s not a thing of unparalleled beauty, that’s for sure, but then I look at that early Panamera (or Cayenne) and those things made me laugh when they first came out until we got used to them….sort of. It would certainly be more useable than the Panamera..the thing always reminded me of that Corvette America where they grafted two Vettes together to make a four door:

      https://gmauthority.com/blog/2020/01/rare-four-door-corvette-america-for-sale-at-california-dealership/

      yikes…

  2. The Mazda Xedos 6 which I think never came to the US would have made an even better Mk II style Jag.

    On the Mazda/ Jaguar theme I always wondered why in the late 90’s Ford/ Mazda/ Jaguar never made an ‘F Type’ out of the FD RX7? The rotary would have to go but something like the Duratec V6 with a supercharger could have provided the power. It would also need some styling changes and a plusher interior but the bones were there.

      1. I didn’t realize til just now, the sedan Scorpio didn’t debut til 1989, the same year the Merkur brand was discontinued. Surprising even for Europe as some markets do (or did) like a sedan, moreso in larger cars.

        Could’ve changed things, but wonder if it would have considered it too close then to a Mercury Sable, and/or it would be too close in concept to the 1988 Continental that was much more modern despite its faults.

        1. greatfallsgreen- at least the Scorpio hatch sort of tried to not look like a hatch. I think the hatch would have been a differentiation point between it and the Taurus Continental. That Continental, by the way, was pretty floaty/boaty even on its firmest suspension setting (relatives had one) and would never be confused with the Scorpio. I think that could have coexisted even if they would have been priced similarly (I know at one point the Lexus ES300 and IS300 were similar in cost when available simultaneously but one appealed to you and the other to your grandma).

      2. 365daytonafan- yes, I think you are correct. Hatchback seems to be death for big sedans in the US, or even fastbacks like the ill-fated GM mid sized cars of 1978-80. It’s kind of odd how so many of the few remaining sedans availble now are fastbacks (yet they have dinky trunk lids instead of hatches).

  3. As much as I like your Porsche Stuttgart, it does not actually solve the problem that VW faced. In defense of the Phaeton, it exists because of the way VW is structured. VW group is very siloed (like GM of the ’60). Niedersachsen is home turf for the VW brand. Niedersachsen owns a substantial share of VW. If you are politician or other well off resident of Niedersachsen who owes your fortunes to the VW brand…you are expected to support the home team and that means something with a VW badge (not Audi, not Bentley, not Porsche). The Phaeton exists because people in Lower Saxony with money and influence wanted a VW that was less pedestrian than the Passat. It seems silly to the rest of the world, but locally it makes sense. It would be like rolling around Auburn Hills in a Maserati with a stars and stripes paintjob and a Dodge badge.

    1. Nerobergstr- yes, we forget that culturally there are many places where a flashy car is seen as crass or, in some areas, can get you kidnapped or killed.

      The Phaeton was an amazing car that was truly overlooked. It’s too bad that the related Audi A8 also was a bit of a sales disappointment compared to 7 series and S Classe, likely because the Four Rings don’t have the cachet with Americans that the Roundel and Three Pointed Star do…also an excellent car that deserved more attention.

  4. My guess regarding the Porsche Phaeton is that Porsche would have been diametrically opposed to using the Phaeton’s Audi-like engine-forward layout, which would have seemed pretty unathletic for a pedigree sports car maker.

    Never mind that it was good enough for the Bentley Continental GT/Flying Spur and never mind that Porsche is using just such a layout these days, with the MLB-based Macan and Cayenne.

    Still, they were just coming out with the Cayenne and probably weren’t willing to dip their toes *that* far into the VW corporate structure with another heavily VW-related car.

    1. kyree- I totally agree. Porsche took enough heat then for being a pioneer with the Cayenne (who’d a thunk we’d eventually have a Ferrari SUV?). My main question was would this thing have sold better as a Porsche in the US than a VW Phaeton…I believe the answer is ‘yes’.

      1. JDE- yes, it was pretty bad. Sadly, however, pretty much ANY high end VW/Porsche/Audi product (other than a 911) becomes economically unfeasible to drive after about ten to fifteen years unless you can do your own work since the values drop like a stone and the repair/parts costs do anything but. If I recall, even Mercedes Streeter gave up on a Phaeton.

  5. I like the Mazda 929-to-Jaguar idea.

    Of course at that time, it would never have happened given that when that gen of 929 came out, they were getting ready to launch Amati… their own luxury brand.

    1. It certainly would have been remebered for reliability far more than the Lincoln LS based cars, hell they could have even used it as basis for the XKE for drivetrain and Mazda handling I would say.

  6. Ford knew they were in trouble with Merkur branding in the spring of 1987. This, from a lede in a May 20, 1987 New York Times article illustrates a “Hail Mary” pass by Ford to coax recalcitrant buyers to make the leap to an unknown automotive commodity: “At Ford, A Resale Guarantee.” They even enlist Edsel B. Ford 2d (NYT spelling), Hank the Deuce’s son to make a fevered pitch.

    “In an effort to woo buyers of high-priced European cars, the Ford Motor Company is introducing a new marketing tactic with the debut of its Merkur Scorpio model: a guarantee on resale value. Ford is guaranteeing that the car, which officially goes on sale Thursday, will not depreciate at a faster rate than the Mercedes-Benz 190. If it does, Ford will make up the difference. Scorpio is the second model to be marketed by Ford under the Merkur brand since it was established in 1984. Like the first model, the XR4Ti, the Scorpio is made by Ford’s subsidiary in West Germany and is sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers.”

    “One of the characteristics of such high-priced European cars as Mercedes-Benz and BMW is their high resale value. According to figures supplied by the importer, 1984 Mercedes-Benz 190E models are selling at about 75 percent of their original price, compared with about 65 percent for a typical 1984 American model. Ford’s marketing program ties the value of the four-door Scorpio to the Mercedes-Benz 190 model and in the process tries to associate the relatively unknown Merkur with the prestigious German auto maker. When the original buyer of a Scorpio trades it in, the dealer will consult the used-car prices published by the National Automobile Dealers Association. If the Mercedes has a higher retained value, Ford will make up the difference.”

    ”If the Mercedes retains 50 percent of the value and the Scorpio is only 48 percent, then you get 2 percent of the original price,” said Edsel B. Ford 2d, the marketing manager for Lincoln-Mercury. Under the terms of the plan, the car must be traded within two to four years of its purchase and any reimbursed amount would apply only to the purchase of a new Lincoln, Mercury or Merkur.”

    “The marketing plan for Scorpio, which includes delivery, road service and loaner car programs, is an effort by Lincoln-Mercury to insure that the car does not suffer the same fate as the XR4Ti. Although derived from the Sierra, one of Ford’s best-selling models in Europe, the XR4Ti never achieved the company’s projections of 20,000 sales a year. Sales totaled 8,794 in 1985 and grew to 14,315 last year. But this year only 2,656 had been sold by the end of April, or about 8,000 on an annual basis. Ford officials have been unhappy and perplexed by the car’s poor sales in this country, although they concede that they misjudged the kinds of colors and interiors wanted by Americans. They also said that as a turbocharged, rear-wheel-drive coupe with a double spoiler – two horizontal wings – on the back, the car did not fit cleanly into any category in this country.”

    “Mr. Ford, the son of Henry Ford 2d, Ford’s former chairman, said today that the Scorpio would compete with such models as the BMW ”5” series, the Volvo 700 series, the Saab 9000 and Audi 5000S. With a base price of $23,248 ($57,337 in 2021 dollars), it will cost less than most of its competitors.”

    ”People who buy these cars look on them somewhat as investments,” Mr. Ford said. ”They want to be able to get out of them without losing too much. So we’re saying the Scorpio has the quality and lasting value of a Mercedes-Benz, and if it doesn’t, we’ll pay the difference.”

    “Even though the the Mercedes-Benz is the stated target for the Scorpio, Mr. Ford suggested that the Audi 5000S might be the real target. The Audi model has been the subject of extensive publicity because of reports that it is subject to unintended acceleration.”

    ”We have to educate Audi 5000S buyers about what Merkur is,” Mr. Ford said. ”We’ll tell them, ‘If there is any doubt in your mind, come see us.’ ”

    One can only imagine what this “guarantee” on a failed brand attempt cost Ford Motor Company’s treasury.

      1. In perfect hindsight Ford clearly should have branded it as a “sporty” Euro-Lincoln, particularly given the low (20,000 unit) annual sales target they contemplated. The mild Mark I LSS front end refresh you photoshopped would have been perfect actually. In its day, the Mark VII LSC two door coupe was a very popular selection for aspirational executives and I believe the LSS variant could have pulled a few younger sedan buyers into the upscale market. Certainly, it could not have performed worse than the ill-advised Merkur misadventure. Interestingly, cross town rival GM did not learn from this debacle. A decade later in 1997 they launched the Cadillac Catera “the Caddy that zigs,” a rebadged variant of the European Opel Omega B (GM V platform). This model enjoyed modest success and moved 95,000 units over five years. By Big Three standards this is rounding error. After the psychic pain had subsided, there were probably a few chuckles in Dearborn at GM’s expense. Detroit has always struggled in its attempts to lure that elusive European customer. Culture clash methinks.

    1. automobiliaobsessive- I didn’t realize that Ford guaranteed the resale value on the Scorpio to be equal to Mercedes (as long as you trade within 2-4 years on a new Lincoln or Mercury or Merkur). I bet they lost their assess on that.

      1. When automotive cost accountants engage in knock-down, drag-out fights with engineers to take pennies out of key drive line and suspension components, the thought of four-figure subventions by their captive finance arm must have given them the dry heaves. Without question, each unit sold left thousands, maybe in excess of ten thousand for all we know, on the table.

    2. Wow, I had seen a blurb about that resale guarantee recently when I was perusing an old Merkur brochure (clearly I belong on this website). But the brochure did not have the fine print. It’s interesting that they indexed it specifically to the Mercedes 190, which although it enjoyed typically high Mercedes resale value, still would’ve had the *lowest* resale value of any Mercedes. Not to mention the fact that the 190 was in a different class than the Scorpio (Compact vs Fullsize/Midsize).

      Note to The Bishop: I agree with all of your suggestions here! The Lincoln Mark VII was already a Euro-flavored Lincoln, and it sold quite well, and it helped to modernize the image of Lincoln (at least to a non-customer like young me). If nothing else the Mark VII proved that a sportier Lincoln could co-exist on the showroom floor without repelling the old — I mean *traditional* — Lincoln buyers. I think a Lincoln Scorpio would have done quite well, and at the very least it could not have done worse.

    3. it had a lot to do with just being ugly, and not well disguised as the big brother to the Ford Escort. I think if they had capitalized on the 85-86 turbo capri’s, it would have likely been better received. Minor tweaks and movement of the tooling form England might not have cost too terribly much either. I think the SVT4 cylinder turbo in an 1987 Mercury Capri Mk III would have been a real head turner in the US.

  7. The Lincoln image wouldn’t have really fit the Scorpio like you said, but creating new brands was certainly “in” in the 80s to get around those brand perceptions. By the 90s they were trying to rehab those images, so fast forward ~10 years and…GM did exactly as described taking a larger Euro family car and selling it as a Cadillac in the U.S. to try to make the brand younger and more hip. Even the concept was called Cadillac *LSE*!

    The Jag is an interesting idea since they had the Kensington concept in 1990 designed by Italdesign, who also designed the first Lexus GS/Toyota Aristo which debuted around the same time as that 929 and technically a competitor as a mid/large premium RWD 6-cyl car. So it would be competing against almost their own design, almost-kinda-sorta.
    If the failed Amati launch meant those cars (Millenia) got rebadged elsewhere in the Ford portfolio – that would have been interesting too.

    That Porsche…made me think of the Chinese-market VW Lamando.

    1. So funny. I came here to say the same thing regarding the GS destined for Jaguar. I think rebadging the Xedos/929 would make a lot of sense. Certainly better than anything else at the time or what ensued with Lincoln.

      1. Could have changed the whole X-Type trajectory.

        Guess a Jag-Mazda combo is kind of like the Rover-Honda partnership, and the failure of the Rover 800 as the Sterling in the U.S. might have been a deterrent.

        But now I’m wondering how a Eunos Cosmo-based XJS replacement/XK would have turned out…

    2. Counterpoint, the Lincoln Scorpio, or something similar, should have been the 89 Continental. Lincoln had recently been testing the waters of performance luxury with the Mark VII LSC, but the live axle Fox platform could only take that vision so far, and the planners would never risk alienating the older clientele. The Continental went FWD with a pushrod V6, and a revised (but still bloated) fox platform went under the Mark VIII.

      I’m not saying it DEFINITELY would have worked, but a 4 door Lincoln on a modern chassis would have at least had a shot at chasing the Germans.

      1. ffoc01- that is why I called it the ‘LSS’, since it would be sort of like the ‘Touring’ series and later V series that Cadillac did to signify the different subset of the division more catered to European tastes. Even the top Euro brands offer series aimed more at performance instead of luxury (M cars, AMG Benz).

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