Is Ford's Big Investment All About China?

When Ford (NYS: F) began downsizing its portfolio of brands a few years ago, some observers wondered: Were any of the Blue Oval's brands -- other than its namesake -- safe?

Not that there weren't eager buyers for some of them. Jaguar and Land Rover were sold off to India's Tata Motors (NYS: TTM) , which has leveraged the luxury brands' cachet to enter growing markets like China's. Sensing a similar opportunity, Chinese automaker Geely bought Volvo. Aston Martin went to a private consortium, with Ford retaining a small interest. The controlling stake in Mazda was sold.

That flurry of sales left only Ford's "legacy" brands, Mercury and Lincoln. Mercury was shuttered last year, its offerings deemed too duplicative, an expensive distraction from the "One Ford" global product strategy.

Only Lincoln, Ford's ancient luxury brand, remained. And that's where the story got interesting.

A big investment for a niche player
Ford decided to keep and invest in Lincoln, hoping to revamp it into a credible entrant in the higher-margin luxury-car market in the United States. While Lincoln represents only about 4% of Ford's U.S. sales at the moment, those sales are high-profit ones -- and Ford clearly thinks that there's room for growth.

I say "clearly," because Ford's investment in Lincoln isn't a trivial one -- in fact, it's big enough to have been somewhat puzzling. Ford has promised seven "all-new or significantly refreshed" vehicles for Lincoln through 2014, including its first compact. The company spent $150 million to consolidate its dealer network and is driving upgrades in services and amenities at the remaining dealerships. And to ensure that future Lincolns have a unique stylistic identity separate from Ford's, the company established a separate Lincoln-only design center, with a dedicated staff of 200.

That's a lot of effort for a brand that is a bit player in the U.S. market and practically unknown overseas. But its' a serious one: A probably close-to-final version of the first of those seven new models, the MK Z Concept sedan, was shown in January. True to Ford's promise to make Lincoln distinctive, while the MK Z Concept shares underpinnings with the upcoming new Ford Fusion, it looks very different -- striking and timeless, with soft lines.

In fact, its soft lines are somewhat reminiscent of those of Audi, Lexus and Buick -- three upscale brands that, despite their differences, have something in common: They've all been successful in China.

Is that where Ford's really going with all this?

Is China the key to the Lincoln revival?
While General Motors (NYS: GM) has been loud and clear about its plans to establish Cadillac as a "global" brand, Ford has been coy about its intentions for Lincoln outside the United States. CEO Alan Mulally said last fall that "there's going to be tremendous pull from China" to get the upcoming new Lincolns, but a Ford spokesperson was quick to point out that the company has not announced any plans to launch the brand in the Middle Kingdom.

It's no secret that Ford is expanding in China, though -- the company is spending $1.6 billion to build four new factories there and plans to triple the number of models it offers by 2015. Ford's still a small player in China, selling just a fifth of the vehicles GM sold there in 2011. But Ford's sales growth in China has been outpacing that of the overall market, and the company is expanding aggressively, as China is key to Mulally's goal of increasing Ford's global sales by 50% by 2015.

Establishing Lincoln in China won't be easy. Toyota (NYS: TM) has had success with Lexus, Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) with Audi, and Mercedes-Benz and BMW have done well -- but so far, despite the General's strength in the country, Cadillac sales have been slow. That may be about styling as much as anything else -- Cadillac's brash and angular "Art and Science" design language doesn't wear well everywhere -- but at minimum, it suggests that the road for Lincoln in China won't necessarily be an easy one.

Is Lincoln a part of Ford's plans in China? And if so, is Ford up to the task of launching an American luxury brand in the crowded and turbulent Chinese market? The odds seem long, but Ford hasn't failed at much in recent years. If it can be done, Ford will probably do it -- but we'll have to wait and see.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorJohn Rosevearowns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by@jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford Motor and General Motors, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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