If a lie is convincing or benign enough, people tend to believe it. Hawaiian pizza has nothing to do with Hawaii, Yogen Früz is actually Canadian and Arizona Iced Tea isn’t made in Arizona. Just like everyone’s favorite gas station iced tea brand, the Lincoln by Vignale isn’t exactly honest about its origins.
First, let’s go back in time to early 1987, a time where yuppie culture is in full swing. Educated dual-income professionals are making a ton of money and they want everyone to know it. They’re skiing in Aspen, they’re trading in Manhattan, their consumption is conspicuous and European luxury car aspirations ridiculous. At the height of this craze, Lincoln was ready to cash in and had one luxury convertible in their crosshairs – the Cadillac Allante. Come again?
Yes, the Allante. Designed and coachbuilt by Pininfarina, the flagship Cadillac was an ambitious and expensive Italian-American hybrid. Bodies were shipped by air from Turin International Airport to Detroit in specially-modified Boeing 747s, then finished in Hamtramck. Everything about the Allante seemed radical, forward-thinking, sumptuous and European-derived. Needless to say, Lincoln was not about to get out-opulenced by Cadillac. Cue the Lincoln by Vignale.
The Big Lie
While the Lincoln by Vignale (also known as the Vignale Gilda) was a technological tour-de-force, it did have one small problem. Vignale hadn’t existed for almost two decades. See, Italian car company DeTomaso scooped up both Ghia and Vignale in 1967 and 1969 respectively. It turns out that DeTomaso wasn’t so great at keeping these two styling houses afloat, so the two were packaged up and sold off to Ford in the early 1970s. Suddenly, Vignale was superfluous and only Ghia remained in operation as part of Ford’s European design operations.
Okay, so Vignale doesn’t exist, but maybe the Lincoln by Vignale was styled by Ghia? Guess again. Styling of the Lincoln by Vignale came straight out of Ford’s North American Design Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Yes, this design is as American as the KFC Double Down. So where does Italy come in? Ghia built the body, and that’s about it.
But wait, that raises another question. If the Lincoln by Vignale was built by Ghia, why wasn’t it called the Lincoln by Ghia? Well, I can think of two possible reasons. The first is the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. This attractive little Beetle-based coupe is still what most Americans think of when they hear “Ghia.” The second is what Ford did with the Ghia name after acquisition. See, Ghia became a trim level, and that trim level was foisted upon Americans in the form of a posh Granada. The Granada was a poorly-built turd that Ford’s marketing team claimed looked just like a Mercedes-Benz. Not exactly the sort of vehicle you’d want associated with a flagship luxury cabriolet, is it?
Hey, That’s Pretty Sleek
Sure, the Lincoln by Vignale’s design may have been American, but you’d never be able to tell. From the ultra-thin multi-beam composite headlamps to the minimalist interpretation of the continental spare tire, this thing just oozes European restraint. Let’s start with the profile. Simply classy, clean and devoid of excess brightwork, the Lincoln by Vignale displays a sense of modernity not seen on a 1987 Mercedes-Benz SL. The Lincoln’s extremely low prow is a key differentiation from the Allante’s shoebox silhouette and is made possible by those aforementioned ultra-thin multi-beam headlamps. Four distinct elements in each lamp should provide ample illumination while allowing a wedge-like profile unspoiled by pop-up lamp assemblies.
Around the back of the Lincoln by Vignale, tri-color tail lamps frame a unique, minimalist take on Lincoln’s iconic continental spare tire. Instead of a protrusion in the trunk lid, this continental spare tire throwback is a simple arch on the back of the car. Very sleek, although not quite as show-stopping as the roof situation.
In posh, pinkies-out upper-class convertible tradition, the Lincoln by Vignale has two roofs, a hardtop and a soft top. However, that’s about where tradition ends. The hardtop is practically a fishbowl with three massive windows offering an expansive view of the scenery. The soft top stows under a long double-bubble tonneau cover that makes the R107 Mercedes SL’s simple slab seem as uninspired as heading to Guitar Center and playing Wonderwall on an acoustic demo guitar. Put all these elements together and you have a rather beautiful two-seater.
On Your Marks
Was the Lincoln by Vignale a concept? That depends on what you think a concept car should be. This Lincoln definitely isn’t some far-fetched show car with billionaire doors and laser beams for windshield wipers – a significant chunk of the interior is plucked straight out of the then-upcoming MN12 Ford Thunderbird, while one press photo shows an obviously tacked-on third brake light. Moreover, it’s widely reported that the Lincoln by Vignale shared underpinnings with the Thunderbird, so much of the heavy R&D should have been baked-in. Sure, there are some things conspicuously missing like a fuel door and side reflectors, but no missing exterior elements would have been terribly difficult to add for production.
That being said, the drivetrain is a bit of a different story. See, the Lincoln by Vignale was purported to spin all four wheels, a radical departure from any American luxury car, and the product of a collaboration between Ford and Porsche.
So what went wrong? Well, lots of things if I’m being honest. This article from Automotive News has a nice overview of the MN12 platform’s development, while Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry by Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White features a more in-depth look. To sum up, the head of the MN12 project, Anthony S. Kuchta, was given an impossible task: build a retail-grade coupe benchmarked against the best coupes from Europe. When the project came in over its cost and weight targets, people in the C-suite were unhappy. Tony’s team had made an amazing car, but Ford’s suits saw dollar signs rather than flagship potential. Engineering the MN12 platform for all-wheel-drive would have further exacerbated the project’s price creep, something Ford absolutely wouldn’t have allowed.
As for timing, the late 1980s wouldn’t have been a brilliant time to launch a high-end convertible. The Lincoln by Vignale debuted in 1987, just months before Black Monday. I know it’s easy to write off stock market averages as charts for the feelings of the rich, but The Dow Jones falling 508 points in a single day is a bad sign for people who want rich customers to pony up for expensive convertibles. Sure enough, a recession was just around the corner in 1990. While Lincoln probably could have sold a few Lincoln by Vignales, the zeitgeist just wasn’t right. Take a look at Cadillac Allante sales figures and you’ll see what I mean. Cadillac managed to produce just 21,395 Allantes over a seven model year production run, with roughly 22.5 percent sold in the Allante’s extended first year of production. Not exactly brilliant for something so astronomically expensive to produce. In contrast, Chevrolet made at least 20,479 Corvettes every year during the Allante’s production run.
So did the Lincoln by Vignale deserve to be a production car? I reckon it did. See, another typical expensive luxury cabriolet wouldn’t have been a brilliant idea, but all-wheel-drive would have been a game-changer. Subaru and Audi were making waves as purveyors of all-weather cars for the ski set, attracting discerning, university-educated, slightly left-field customers. The exact sort of customer base that would have helped Lincoln shake off its elderly white bread image. Across the oceans, all-wheel-drive was about to be deployed in a dramatic manner in the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 and Nissan Skyline GT-R, high-end performance cars that could be used all year round. They sold pretty well, too. After all, the greatest luxury in the world is time. Add in the Lincoln by Vignale’s devilishly good looks and you have a fantastic recipe for a unique, innovative high-end car. In fact, the biggest problem I see is where Lincoln would’ve gone after the Lincoln by Vignale. The Continental was just a Taurus with wood, the Town Car was a bit antiquated and no compact luxury sedan was on offer to entice younger buyers. Hey, if one forward-thinking flagship could’ve lit a fire under Lincoln’s ass, more power to it.
Lead photo credit: Ford Motor Company