For what seems like decades, American car enthusiasts have clamored for domestic automakers to make a serious effort to compete in the luxury-car segment. Brands such as Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial pretty much invented the full-size luxury sedan, but those U.S. brands have long since yielded to the German and Japanese. It has, in fact, been decades since Toyota upset the automotive apple cart with the Lexus LS400 in 1990.
Finally, Cadillac has accepted the challenge—and raised its sights even higher. Revealed in concept form last week, the $300,000 Celestiq leapfrogs the Lexus LS, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and BMW 7 Series to challenge Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Caddy’s battery-powered flagship will be handbuilt to customer specification at GM’s Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.
Of course, Detroit has tried to step into the ring multiple times since the LS400. In the past twenty years, the Big Three debuted a number of promising luxury concepts that positive reactions from consumers, dealers, and the automotive press. If not ready for immediate production, most looked quite feasible—that is, if C-suite executives had the guts. On second thought, perhaps that’s unfair to the people running the domestic automakers. As attractive as these cars were to enthusiasts, by the time some of them would have come to market, the business case had evaporated.
We’ll never know whether these high-class studies would have succeeded, but we can wonder, can’t we? Here are 12 concept luxury cars introduced by the American automakers that never made it off the display stand. While a couple of them might be better described as supercars, I think it’s safe to say that anything with a projected retail price in the six figures is a luxury item.
2001 Lincoln MK9
The MK9’s interior was trimmed in chocolate brown, with lipstick red leather and brushed aluminum. An aluminum console cascaded down the dashboard, flowing the length of the passenger cabin. In the early 2000s, lacquered wood finishes were quite popular with luxury automakers. The MK9 sports dark cherry wood floors and a white leather headliner with fiber optics that lit up like a starry nighttime sky. The seats were modeled after the famous Eames Lounge Chair, designed by the influential husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. The Eames met while attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Detroit, taught there, and their work has been popular with the Detroit design community. Just as the Eames chair comes with a matching ottoman, the MK9’s red-upholstered front passenger seat boasts a foot rest trimmed in leather and aluminum
Since it was based on a production vehicle, the MK9 was fully functional. When Ford conducted one of its periodic auctions of concept vehicles to raise money for charity in 2010, the MK9 sold for an impressive $101,750.
2004 Lincoln Mark X
By 2004, Lincoln had reverted to traditional names, and the Roman numeric Mark X (pronounced “Mark 10”) debuted at the 2004 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. It was a convertible take on themes introduced with the Em Kay Nine.
Also based on the Thunderbird, the Mark X swapped the T-bird’s soft top and removeable hard top with a folding metal roof with a panoramic glass insert. The Mark X’s interior was, per Ford’s press release: “dressed in Lime Sorbet with white Corian accents, polished aluminum, dark chrome, natural grain leather seating surfaces, plush sheepskin flooring and tailored tone-on-tone stitching throughout. Its four-spoke, power-adjustable steering wheel also is leather wrapped.”
Lincoln chief of design Marek Reichman was responsible for the exterior design, which did riff on some of the MK9’s themes. The waterfall grille, however, was replaced with Lincoln’s new egg-crate affair, a throwback feature from the 1960s. The Mark X was shorter than the MK9 by more than a foot, and had slightly smaller, 21-inch chromed aluminum wheels. A functional vehicle but, like most modern concepts, not street-legal, the Mark X was powered by a 280-hp 3.9-liter DOHC V-8 paired with a five-speed automatic transmission.
While it was close to production-ready, the Mark X was born into the wrong time: Sales of the Thunderbird were waning, and Lincoln decided that the market was then ripe for a traditional, personal-luxury car.
Speaking of brandnomenclature, the Mark X was not the first time that name was used for a Lincoln concept, at least phonetically. In 1992, Lincoln showed the “Marque X” concept, a convertible based on the then-new Mark VIII.
The Mark X was sold by Ford at the same 2010 auction as the MK9 and, in a remarkable coincidence, it fetched the same $101,750 price. Four years later, it changed hands for $129,250.
2002 Lincoln Continental Concept
The end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st saw a wave of nostalgia sweep across the auto industry. Retro( more properly, “retrofuturism” was in), and modern cars adopted a vintage look. There was VW’s New Beetle, Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, and Ford’s reissue of the Thunderbird. The Lincoln Continental Concept introduced at the 2002 Los Angeles Auto Show fit nicely into that ethos, expressing the look of the classic 1961 Continental for a modern audience. Perhaps the most eye-catching homage was the suicide doors, which opened a full 90 degrees. One thing the ’61 Conti didn’t have but the ’02 concept did was a powered trunk lid that opened vertically on a parallelogram linkage. Beneath it, a bumper-level draw slid out to reveal a bespoke set of Zero Halliburton luggage.
The interior featured indirect fiber-optic lighting for the headliner and door panels along with the use of LEDs, features that have since proliferated throughout the automotive world
Apparently two versions of the ’02 Continental concept were made, a display-only “pushmobile” used at some car show and a fully functional vehicle powered by a 414-hp V-12 engine (created by mating two Duratec V-6s, a trick that showed up on other FoMoCo concepts of the era), with a six-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, multilink suspension front and rear, and 22-inch aluminum wheels. The static display car sold for $15,400 in 2010 and again in 2014 for $27,500. The functional concept sold for $56,100 at that same 2010 sale.
Responses from the public and press were almost uniformly positive, but it would be more than 10 years before Lincoln introduced a new Continental. Thankfully, when it did offer the new Conti, it was available in a coach (or “suicide”) door edition.
2007 Lincoln MKR
Revealed at the 2007 NAIAS in Detroit, the MKR, designed by a team led by Peter Horbury, was introduced at a time when the Mercedes-Benz CLS and other swoopy “four door coupes” were becoming popular. Powered by a twin-turbo, direct-injection 3.5 liter V-6 with 415 hp that introduced Ford and Lincoln’s TwinForce engine branding, the MKR was supposed to presage Lincoln’s new styling theme, billed as “elegant simplicity.”
Exterior design, headed by Gordon Platto, featured a high beltline with a chamfered surface that ran the length of the car, a cantilevered roof that transitioned to a wide C pillar, full-width horizontal taillights, upward swinging doors, and 10-spoke, chromed 21-inch wheels. The most dramatic exterior styling cues were yet another new grille—the split “bow wave,” said to be based on that of the classic 1940 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet—and an expansive glass roof that integrated a structural Lincoln star. The tread of the MKR’s custom Michelin tires also bears the Lincoln star.
It’s possible that Platto’s team settled on a glass roof to show off the impressive interior, promoted as “guilt-free” luxury, filled with premium amenities that were environmentally friendly. The instrument panel is made from a piece of recycled black oak that extends from left to right, flowing down into a two-level center console. Ice-blue ambient lighting illuminated the interior, which feature self-standing “floating” seats made with soy-based foam, glossy exterior shells, and upholstered with cashmere leather tanned in an environmentally conscious chromium-free process.
2003 Mercury Messenger
While it wasn’t branded as a Lincoln, I’m including the Mercury Messenger concept because a grand touring sports coupe could have been part of Lincoln’s portfolio. (Also because I think it’s a very handsome automobile and deserves attention.) “In my opinion, it’s as good looking as any Ferrari,” concept vehicle collector Joe Bortz, who owns the Messenger, says. “This car could’ve saved Mercury.”
The Messenger was supposed to send the message that moribund Mercury was about to undergo a rejuvenation. Unfortunately, the brand would die just seven years later