What’s in a name? For Lincoln, everything

Lincoln’s recent debut of the Nautilus SUV is not something we’d normally give much attention here at Hagerty. When we cover new cars, our focus is on historic nameplates, future collectibles, and fun-to-drive rides. You know, the kind of vehicles that fit our “For people who love cars” motto. Mid-size SUVs, no matter how attractive, generally fall outside of that categorization.

What’s significant about the Nautilus is the name. As in, a real name instead of alphabet soup. Like Continental and Navigator. The Nautilus is an update on the MKX, with revised front and rear styling plus a new eight-speed automatic transmission. But the switch from three letters to eight, the latter forming a word, is the biggest news from Ford’s luxury brand.

2019 Lincoln Nautilus maroon
The 2019 Nautilus will be available in early 2018. Ford Motor Company
lincoln mkx front grille
You know what I love most about my MKX? The name. Said no one ever. Ford Motor Company

“It’s something that was always unique to American brands. So we thought that was important to get back to it,” says Robert Parker, Director of Marketing, Sales, and Service at Lincoln. “We’ll be moving more in this direction and away from acronyms.” To put another way, Lincoln is going to start naming its cars again and get rid of the three-letter system. 

Those number and letter combinations for vehicle nameplates that automakers love so much come from a logical place. European automakers use the combination to denote the relative size of the vehicle and/or engine. The best example, at least historically, is BMW, which uses the first number to denote the series—3, 5, 7, and so on—and the second two numbers to denote the engine displacement. Bob Lutz claims he convinced his German bosses of this scheme’s eminent logic in his book, Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership.

1936 lincoln zephyr fordor coupe
Few of Lincoln's current customers remember the 1936 Zephyr. Ford Motor Company
2006 lincoln zephyr rear
The Zephyr name briefly returned in 2006 before switching the to current MKZ nameplate. Ford Motor Company

2017 lincoln continental maroon front office
2017 Lincoln Continental. That's right, Continental. Ford Motor Company
2018 lincoln navigator front turbine wheels
The only current model that never received a 3-letter designation, the Navigator is one of Lincoln's best-known vehicles. Ford Motor Company

But walk through any BMW dealer lot and you’ll see the classic numbering scheme no longer denotes actual engine size and is now a vague indication of where a model sits in the engine power hierarchy. It’s the same with Mercedes-Benz. But these two, as well as other automakers like Volvo, Infiniti, and Audi, still use a straightforward number or letter for the model name.

The attempt never worked for Lincoln (or Cadillac for that matter). Without knowing the cars already, could you explain where the MKC, MKX, MKZ, and MKT (RIP) sit in the lineup? Ditto for ATS, CTS, DTS, XT5, and CT6. Parker acknowledges the potential for confusion. “Unless you have a really intuitive strategy, it’s hard to manage.” What’s more, Lincoln sells a lot of cars in China, and according to Parker, “We found out pretty early in China it’s hard to pronounce [three-letter model names].”

lincoln town car 2001
Don't expect to see the Town Car name return to Lincoln showrooms. Ford Motor Company
lincoln cosmopolitan RM sothebys auction
The Cosmopolitan isn't in the plan for future Lincoln names. RM Sotheby's

Raise a cheer, then, for a return to common sense in the Lincoln showroom. But don’t get too excited if you’re eager for the return of classic Lincoln nameplates like Cosmopolitan or Town Car. Ford Motor Company filed a trademark application for Zephyr in 2016, but that could be to prevent other companies from stealing the name. Parker says resurrecting old nameplates isn’t part of the plan. “Most people go to that, but I think for us, that’s not the direction you’re going to see.”

Nautilus comes from the Latin word for sailor, part of what Lincoln says is a theme for being part of a journey. Considering Lincoln also offers the Navigator, it’s a theme that is tipping a bit too nautical. But it’s difficult to find a new name to trademark. For example, there won’t be a Lincoln Mariner, Pathfinder, or Trailblazer. Land Cruiser, Rendezvous, Escape, Venture, and Voyager are all taken, too, and Lincoln would probably prefer everyone forget the Aviator. And whether Nautilus brings to mind a mollusk or submarine, at least it makes you think of something. The same can’t be said for MKX.

lincoln nautilus name badge
Ahoy there Captain Nemo, your Lincoln is ready at the valet pick-up line. Ford Motor Company
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