In his latest self-aggrandizing book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, Maximum Bob Lutz talks about running into the inept, choleric Chairman of General Motors, Roger Smith, in a hotel lobby in Europe. Lutz characterizes Smith as “The man who locked GM into ‘all front-wheel-drive.” Talking about the then-forthcoming rear-wheel-drive Ford Sierra, Smith fumed that “The whole world is going to front-wheel drive. Everybody! The whole industry! You’ll be all alone, and the Sierra will be a flop!” Lutz goes on to say, “Well, the whole world didn’t, and the Sierra wasn’t...”
Unfortunately, Smith’s illogic about “all front-wheel drive” has found another unhappy home -- at Ford. I don’t know who the Smith surrogate might be. Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s Global Product Development chief? Alan Mulally himself? Someone must be responsible for the fact that there is no replacement plan for the Lincoln Town Car, and all Lincoln cars will henceforth be front-wheel-drive. This is, of course, a very bad idea. A decade or so back, there was an air-suspended puffed-up Taurus sold as the Lincoln Continental four-door. Didn’t last in the market, didn’t sell very well.
Our sister magazine, Motor Trend, notes in the August issue that “Ford brass knows Lincoln needs distinct product and a modern rear-drive platform...” but doesn’t think it can afford one. The solution is at hand, very inexpensively, but no one at Ford seems imaginative enough to do a bit of in-house hot-rodding to turn the fully-amortized, very satisfactory but obviously very ancient (1979) Panther platform into a profit center. Panther is the platform underlying the (highly profitable) Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car. If you haven’t examined one of these things recently -- there has been no PR work, no road tests, no technical articles concerning Panther for years -- you may not be aware that the front crossmember is a massive alloy casting visually entirely worthy of an Aston Martin, complete with a front-steer rack and pinion steering box. It is very solidly reliable in taxi, limo and cop car service, and has been from around 2003. The chassis frame is dirt simple, with parallel side rails that can be -- and were -- made in different lengths at essentially no cost. Yes, it’s a hunk of ironwork, but it’s cheap, cheap, cheap. And strong. And adaptable. And long-since paid for.
True, there’s no independent rear suspension. But there must be four or five fully-tooled IRS systems in the Ford warehouses. Mustang Cobra, Ford Explorer, Lincoln trucks, who knows what could be cobbled together quite easily from existing components, already paid for? There are any number of clever guys in Southern California, and plenty in Dearborn, who could put something together very quickly. I know, I know, separate chassis frames and bodies are so old-fashioned, only clunkers like the Corvette still using them. And there is another clue: Corvette chassis frames are made in both steel and aluminum, hydroformed inside the same tools as far as I know. Could A. O. Smith, manufacturer of the Panther chassis, make the same thing in alloy? Since GM does it, Ford can do it -- Ford has made a practice of following GM leads since the days of the fabled Whiz Kids in the immediate post-war period.
The most successful Ford product of the Henry II era was the Mustang, a re-jiggered Falcon that used existing parts to make an imaginative whole. It seems to me that the existing Town Car/Crown Vic platform could easily and cheaply redone with i.r.s., an aluminum engine from existing engineering stocks and a new, optimized body shell in the same way. It wouldn’t be breaking any new ground technically, unless a big effort were made to innovate in the structure of the body, but it would give Lincoln the front engine, rear-drive car it so desperately needs, and with some intelligent styling and engineering it would give Ford most of that taxi and police business it is throwing away with the abandonment of the Panther.
Sure, it’s old. So what? There’s a big market, it’s accessible for not much capital investment, and a suitable set of low-investment products could fatten up the bottom line of the company we all admire for not screwing the taxpayers with a fix-is-in quick-rinse bankruptcy. Ford has the hardware, the designers, the engineers and the need. Does it have the will? Does it have the courage to ignore eventual criticism about using a 32-year-old base for contemporary profits? I say there ought to be a 2013 Town Car, and they ought to get to work on it right now.