Avoidable Contact #128: How to fail by building a vault-safe car that lasts a million miles

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Lambert appeared like a ghost on the corner of 6th and York; I caught a familiar silhouette in the back corner of my left eyeball and turned to see the mirror-polished black Lincoln already motionless in the appointed spot. The long rear door pulled open with the slightly flimsy click familiar to me after almost three years of personal MKT ownership, and I tumbled in, clutching my RedOxx AirBoss bag and surveying the spotless rear seat with eyes already acclimated to the spotlit dark of an early Tribeca evening.

“LaGuardia, Terminal D?”

“Affirmative,” I replied. “Say … how new is this car?” The last year for the 208-inch Lincoln wagon was 2019; by then, most of them were outfitted like Lambert’s, with the livery package and an exterior color called, sans irony, Black Velvet. My 2018 Reserve Elite is powered by a 365-horse twin-turbo Ecoboost six, but the commercial cars are almost entirely equipped with the 3.7-liter unblown Duratec. Lambert’s was no exception.

“This is a 2015.”

“How many miles?”

“Ah, let us see … 383,511. But,” Lambert continued in the musical accented English of his native Kenya, “this is nothing for the MKT. My car is young, you see! I know many people with well over one-half million miles. At least one of them may have a million now. I have not heard of him changing cars. And,” he continued, “I am all original here! No change to the powertrain, no major services. I am the owner since new. Never a problem.”

“Some of that,” I suggested, “must be due to your driving style.” Lambert had just nimbly slipped through a white-dotted-line gap between two swerving cabs without changing his throttle position. His thumbs rested on the wheel and his hands were admirably slow. Ninety-nine percent of the “pro racers” polluting YouTube with their shuffle-steer hysterics could learn something from watching Lambert pilot an automobile. He expended no visible effort, but we were perceptibly faster than everyone around us and never stayed in a lane for more than a few moments. “I just had to put a driveshaft in mine, at the 63K mark.”

“Ah,” Lambert considered, “but surely you own the turbocharged model. There is no room for the turbo in this business. Here, both driver and vehicle must be reliable.” His wrists flexed slightly and we shot between two Priuses the way I used to split the weekend warriors on the entrance to Mid-Ohio’s Thunder Valley. My phone rang; it was our Vice President of Media Operations calling to ask a few follow-up questions from the day’s meeting.

“Listen, you’re raising a few important issues here,” I said to the caller, “but I’m in the middle of a fascinating conversation here and I’m going to need to call you back.”

“What about?”

“Front-wheel-drive livery cars from Ontario.” There was an exasperated sigh on the other end of the phone. She’s heard things like this before.

“Fine, call me back.”

I returned to the conversation inside the MKT.

“That could certainly happen,” I allowed, and leaned forward in the Lincoln’s Bridge of Weir leather seat, which looked as new as the rest of the car. “How long,” I inquired of my driver, “are you going to keep this thing?”

“Well … you have seen the Aviator Livery? It is remarkable. However, the price is quite … considerable. I am accountable to myself here, of course, on the money I spend, against the profit I can make, and I have a son whom I would like to see finish a pre-med degree. So … there is much more life in this one.” I thought back to a fall day at Waterford Hills a few months ago, when my wife had trail-braked my blue MKT into Turn Six from just over 100 mph, laughing like a child as the overheated “severe service” brake package gave up hope and we sailed towards Turn Seven with two wheels in the dirt. Shortly after that, the Lincoln had started making an anguished noise at speed that has been partially, but not totally, addressed with the replacement of a driveshaft.

“Yours,” I suggested, just a bit of sorrow in my voice, “will outlive mine.”

“None of us,” Lambert suggested, “will share exactly the same destiny.” He’s right, of course—both generally speaking and with regards to the star-crossed Ford D3 platform. History tells us that D3 was a complete and total failure, with one exception to be discussed later, but why? As the investor community likes to say, the fundamentals were sound, and the execution was almost without fault, yet the D3 platform also presided over the death of the passenger car at the North American branch of the Ford Motor Company. It’s a puzzle, truly.

Just based on the resume, D3 was a winner and then some. The recipe worked like so: Start with Volvo’s highly-regarded and extremely safe P2 platform, as seen in the first-generation Volvo S80, but re-engineer it to use high-strength steel chassis components in place of aluminum. Oh, and make everything a little thicker/stronger so it can support the polarizing Ford Flex and massive MKT, the latter being 18 inches long and a full ton heavier than the donor Volvo. The most common engine was the 3.5-liter Duratec V-6, which at the time was smoother and more powerful than the competition both domestic and foreign. The transmission was initially a star-struck CVT in most applications but changed quickly to the GM/Ford transverse six-speed. A power takeoff unit made a sophisticated, if slightly slow-witted, AWD system possible.

D3 was available as a big sedan (Five Hundred and Montego, later Taurus and Sable, plus the Lincoln MKS) a mostly conventional wagon (Freestyle, later Taurus X), and a pair of wacky-looking crossovers (Flex and MKT). All of them boasted a high hip point, which Ford had identified as a key selling point for people who would otherwise buy a truck-based SUV. Six years after the D3 products arrived, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 appeared in the Taurus, MKS, Flex, and MKT. The hilarious possibilities of a turbo Freestyle, or a turbo Montego GT, were cruelly ignored.

Your author attended the press previews for the second generation of these cars in 2010 and 2011. They were faster, quiet, roomier, and more sophisticated than almost everything else out there. It’s easy to forget this a decade on, but the center touchscreen and sophisticated second-generation SYNC systems made the D3 platform feel awfully space-age compared to, say, a 2011 Impala. Even the Accord and Camry of the era seemed instantly old-fashioned by contrast. The Lincoln MKS and MKT had full-wallop sound systems that were positively shocking at the time; Ford ended up dialing some cost out of them as time went on, a notorious company practice as old as the Model T. My 2018 MKT can’t play the DVD-Audio demo disc provided at no charge to 2011 MKT owners.

There was a lot to like about the D3 products, from outstanding interior space to best-in-class safety rankings. The Flex and MKT, in particular, topped the crash-test rankings for years, a legacy of their strengthened Volvo inheritance. The naturally-aspirated models were swift enough, and the turbos could be borderline frantic; both Flex and MKT Ecoboost could dust a Benz ML55 AMG at half the price. And as time went on, it became apparent that Ford had finally figured out how to make a long-lasting modern FWD automobile. The D3 has just two serious flaws baked into it: the Duratec water pump is a plastic nightmare that is nestled into the engine block the way the zoster virus sits at the base of a human spine, and the power takeoff unit, or PTU, is simply not up to the challenge of EcoBoost duty.

If you stay ahead of both the above issues, or avoid the latter by purchasing a non-turbo, the D3 cars can last … well, nobody seems to know how long they’ll last. The majority of Flexes for sale nowadays have 200,000 miles or more. In livery service, as discussed above, the MKT is essentially immortal; it’s more reliable on a daily-use basis than the “Panther”-platform Town Car that preceded it. A quick tour of your local pick-and-pull junkyard will yield a dozen ancient D3 cars that look almost brand-new but were either crashed or lost their water pumps. There’s nothing else that puts them out of service. People always talk about how the General Motors W-body cars are “cockroaches” that can’t be killed; the Ford D3 lasts just as long and looks better doing it.

And yet the customers stayed away from the moment the Five Hundred and Montego hit the showrooms. Why? I can think of a few reasons. These were big cars that cost a lot more than the products they replaced. This was particularly true in the case of the sedans, which were expected to cover an audience that had been paying giveaway prices for 2003 Taurus fleet-spec units. A lot of American buyers didn’t like the Volvo-esque seating position or the electrostatic-touch controls. The driver footwall was small and oddly shaped. The doors were built “aircraft-style” with almost no sills; they looked weird, gathered mud, and confused the buyers. Fuel economy from the 24-valve Duratecs was always fairly dismal. A 2013 Accord could be expected to return 38 mpg in regular freeway use; the same usage of a Taurus would return 22 mpg. The EcoBoost was supposed to have “the power of a V-8 and the economy of a V-6,” but instead it had the power of a V-8 on a turbo-boost lag delay and the economy of a V-8 towing a yacht.

If I had to sum all of it up, I would say that D3 was a victim of Ford’s millennial Europhilia. The firm thought people would flock to buy cheaper Volvos, but what people really wanted was an Accord built to the same scale as a 1980 Cutlass sedan, and since they could get exactly that from their local Honda dealer they never bothered to check out the Ford products. The Flex and MKT don’t have true SUV proportions or ride height, so female buyers hated them. Also, they looked weird.

There are plenty of smart people at Ford, so they eventually figured out a way to make D3 pay: they made an Explorer out of it. I personally think the D3 Explorer is the worst to ever bear that badge; it still has the odd footwells and doors, it doesn’t have as much space as a Flex or MKT, and the proportions are painfully awkward. Just put the ungainly front-wheel-drive D3 Explorer of 2013 next to the svelte and determined-looking rear-wheel-drive Explorer of 2020 and you’ll see what I mean. But it sold pretty well and probably ended up pulling the whole platform program into the black. Plus the cops loved it. Supposedly Ford expected their police program sales to be split 50/50 between Taurus and Explorer, but it ended up being something like 10/90. As a cop car, the D3 Explorer has a lot going for it, including that Volvo-derived safety. It’s a good car in which to have a bad crash.

The D3 Explorer was the only car from the platform to have an actual replacement. Taurus, Sable, Freestyle, Flex, MKS, MKT: their segments all died with them. (Some people think the Lincoln Continental was an MKS replacement, but it’s considerably smaller.) It’s one thing for a platform program to have bad results; this has happened with vehicles as diverse as the W210 E-Class and the ninth-generation Civic. It’s another thing for a platform to salt the earth so no successor can grow. That’s the rather terrifying legacy of D3.

Upon seeing a (not really) dead Falstaff in the last act of Henry V, Shakespeare’s Prince Hal ruefully admits that he could have better spared a better man. Ford’s 15-year misadventure with D3 showed us that the American automobile buyer feels the same way. Make a list of everything people say they want in a car: power, space, features, durability, safety. The D3 cars had all that and more, but the customers pulled the lever for objectively worse vehicles time and time again.

There are, of course, a few people out there who recognized the D3 virtues and embraced them. There is a genuine market out there for Flexes and MKTs; they aren’t hard to sell and the prices were rising even before the current market shenanigans. My brother briefly considered selling his 200,000-plus-mile, 3.5-liter, FWD base-model 2011 Flex a while ago, and he was surprised at the immediate interest from his friends and neighbors. The Freestyle and Taurus X have a small but devoted following.

Last but not least, there are all of those Town-Car-badged Lincolns doing yeoman work in the Big Apple. When you catch a glimpse of their Black Velvet bustleback silhouettes in traffic, it’s possible to get a sense of what New York must have looked like in the ’40s. All those tall and serious dark sedans with their vertical trunklids. It’s something every automotive enthusiast should see at least once. I know you might not want to visit New York at the moment. Don’t worry. They’ll still be there when you make the trip, whether it’s next year or 10 years from now. I can think of one in particular that is almost certain to be in service. Want to see it? Call one of the “black car” services. Ask for Lambert.

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