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Image: 1979 Lincoln Versailles

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Lincoln Versailles

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Image: 1979 Lincoln Versailles features

Talk about a roller coaster ride. From the moment it was first envisioned, to the moment the last one was sold off a dealer's lot, the Lincoln Versailles was up one minute and down the next. 1979 was one of the Versailles' finer moments. In fact, it would represent the best sales year ever for the car, an achievement that took a lot of work. But this moment of glory would not last long.

Introduced late in the 1977 model year, the first year Versailles' got off to a good start. Sales were strong for a late year introduction, and were comparable to those of rival Cadillac Seville's first year on the market, also a late introduction. But something happened in 1978, as Lincoln saw sales of the Versailles slip badly. The car was so cold in the market place that Lincoln knew immediate steps would need to be taken to save it.

As Lincoln's first smaller, compact luxury car, the success of the Versailles was critical to the company, as it was about to transition to smaller cars for 1980, and the Versailles was supposed to introduce Lincoln's customers to the idea of a new Lincoln that was smaller, more efficient, yet still every inch a Lincoln. There was a lot riding on the acceptance of the Versailles by the public.

The Versailles was built to compete with the luxury imports which were gaining popularity during this time, as well as the Cadillac Seville, which beat Versailles to market by two years. The Seville was the result of a rush program at GM, initiated after the oil crisis of 1973. The Versailles was also a rush program in response to the Seville. Both Cadillac and Lincoln looked to smaller platforms within the parent companies to serve as a basis for the new models. Cadillac used the Chevrolet Nova, and Lincoln used the Mercury Monarch. And while the Seville had all new exterior sheet metal, the Versailles did not, and therein lies the problem.

Lincoln's customers were reluctant to spend the money on a Versailles, given that the popular Continental Mark V had a similar base price. Given the choice between an upscale Monarch and the Mark V, customers were choosing the Mark.

Sales of Cadillac's first generation Seville peaked in 1978, and began a slow downward decline in 1979. A new body style introduced in 1980 was controversial, and not as popular. The Seville would never again reach the same sales level as it had in 1978. In 1979, due to new styling rushed through at the last minute, the Versailles had a new look, as well as its best sales year ever, but sales would be lower than ever the following year.

Versailles' new look for 1979

Mid-way through the 1978 model sales year, it was obvious something was very wrong, as customers weren't purchasing the Versailles. Dealer inventories were high across most of the country, and since sales of other cars were good, Lincoln knew it would need to take action quickly, or risk another bad sales year in 1979. Top executives at Ford personally got involved, as they knew how important the Versailles was to future Lincoln products. Deciding a fresh perspective was needed, the executives approached Heinz Prechter, founder of American Sunroof Corporation (ASC) personally. They asked Prechter to identify the issues with the Versailles, and come up with some suggestions on how to address those issues for the 1979 model year. To say this gave ASC a short time frame is an understatement.

Immediately, ASC did marketing to determine areas of styling that needed to be addressed. While most of the people in the test had no issues with the size, interior comforts, ride qualities, handling, or performance of the Versailles, the one area of concern was the styling. The front and rear were instantly recognizable as a Lincoln, but the profile appearance seemed to be the main issue. The car just didn't look enough like a Lincoln, and looked too much like a Mercury Monarch. And when the questions became more specific, it became apparent that Lincoln would get the most impact with a new roofline.

Image: 1979 Lincoln Versailles Coach LampTo accomplish this, the rear section of the roofline was resculptured and extended by eight inches. A larger rear door opening was provided, and the stationary rear door vent pane was made larger and squared off for a more formal appearance. A rear half-vinyl roof treatment with a brushed stainless steel wrapover molding gave the car more distinction, and a new Coach Lamp design (shown at left) on the center pillar featured a matching brushed finish applique. Two vinyl materials were available for the new rear roof covering, standard was Lincoln's traditional Cavalry Twill with a simulated convertible top theme, which was becoming popular at the time. Also available as a no cost option was Valino Grain Vinyl. A smaller, more formal rear window was included in the redesign, and a color-keyed padded vinyl applique was applied to the Continental-style deck lid (shown below), another move designed to increase awareness that the Versailles was a Lincoln, and to further distance it from its lower-priced siblings.

The Versailles script was moved to the roof sail panel from the lower front fender, bringing it closer to eye level, and the Premium Bodyside Molding which had been standard up until now, was made optional at no charge. This was done because some of the marketing indicated customers felt the appearance of the car was too heavy with the molding, and its removal gave the car a much cleaner appearance. It was still required when Dual-Shade paint was ordered, as it served to separate the two colors from each other. Early in the model year, the Premium Bodyside Molding was a no charge option, but trends seemed to indicate Versailles' without the moldings were selling faster, so late in the year Lincoln began charging extra for it, perhaps in an attempt to discourage dealers and customers from ordering the option. Many of Lincoln's promotional photos showed the car without the moldings, and the car did look a bit leaner without them.

The intent was to give the Versailles a fresh appearance, without spending a lot of money, and to do it in a very short time frame. ASC worked long hours to come up with a prototype design, and when it was completed, Heinz Prechter himself drove it to the home of Ford design chief Gene Bourdinat, who it just so happens was having a party at the time. Other top Ford and Lincoln executives were in attendance, and all loved the new formal look. The design was approved on the spot.

Image: 1979 Lincoln Versailles deck lid detailLincoln also focused on refining the standard equipment and colors for 1979. Five new paint colors were introduced, and they were Light Champagne, Medium Turquoise Metallic, Medium Gray Metallic, Dark Champagne Metallic, and Dark Turquoise Metallic. To complement the new paint finishes, four new vinyl roof colors were introduced: Medium Turquoise, Light Champagne, Silver, and Dark Champagne. Two new interior trim colors, Turquoise and Champagne, rounded out the colorful new choices. New standard items included Lincoln's state of the art electronic AM/FM stereo radio with Quadrasonic-8 tape, which could be superseded by an AM/FM stereo radio with stereo 8 track tape or a new cassette tape player, for a credit.

The 1979 Lincoln Versailles was the first domestic automobile to come equipped with standard sealed-beam halogen headlamps, which provided a whiter light with less electrical current load than conventional sealed-beam headlamps. A new electronic voltage regulator had no moving parts to wear out, improving the performance of the charging system. An improved ignition lock was modified to increase its resistance to theft, and new rear seat reading lamps with rear compartment switches added a classic Lincoln Continental touch to the Versailles.

The end result was sales that more than doubled for the year, in fact a whopping 235 percent increase! Lincoln's traditional customers as well as conquest customers, which are customers trading in competing makes, began snapping up the new Versailles in record numbers. ASC had succeeded in meeting Lincoln's requests, and the new formal look gave the car a refined town car appearance that luxury car buyers appreciated.


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