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Forgotten Ford concept cars rescued by collector: Remember the Ford Libre?

Mark Phelan

Rescued by a collector, three nearly forgotten concept cars provide a window into Ford Motor Co.’s hopes for its three core brands at the dawn of the 21st Century.

The trio are the:

  • 2003 Mercury Messenger, a gorgeous coupe sport developed in a last, desperate attempt to save the midprice brand Ford would kill in 2010.
  • 1998 Ford Libre, a European-engineered subcompact convertible developed to  pique American interest in small cars.
  • 2001 Lincoln MK 9, a big luxury sedan created during German executive Wolfgang Reitzle’s  reign at Ford’s since-disbanded Premier Automotive Group of luxury brands.

There’s no way to calculate the concepts’ worth. Unique by definition, they’re literally worth whatever someone will pay for them. Joe Bortz, a Chicago-area restaurant and night club developer, probably has the world’s largest collection of privately owned concepts.

The Mercury Messenger concept car was a hit at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The Fords are a departure for Bortz, who previously focused on concepts  from the 1950s, including a legendary group a Detroit-area junkyard owner had saved when General Motors ordered them destroyed.

“It was a unique opportunity” Bortz said when he acquired the MK 9, a big luxury car forecast as the new face of Lincoln when it debuted at the 2001 New York Auto Show. “When I saw the Lincoln, I was amazed. It’s right up there with the great concept cars of Harley Earl,” the iconic General Motor designer who created the whole idea of concept cars, far-out dream-mobiles that presented a vision of the look and technology a brand might offer in the future.

The Lincoln MK 9 concept car was designed by Gerry McGovern.

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Bodies by Gerry

The MK 9 and Messenger were both the work of designer Gerry McGovern, who oversaw Lincoln and Mercury design briefly before returning to his native England and becoming head of Land Rover design in 2004.

“McGovern’s a true artist who wants his vehicles to be perfect,” Bortz said.

The MK 9 was created during one of Lincoln’s many dalliances with different naming systems, when the brand considered reviving its series of numbered “Mark” cars. That plan went astray and Lincoln went with the confusing and recently abandoned MKZ, MKC, MKT, MKS and MKX names.

The MK was a big luxury coupe that used the running gear of Lincoln production vehicles circa 2000. In addition to long, low looks, it had lots of chrome trim and seats modeled on the classic Eames chair: cherry wood and red leather.

Like many concepts, the MK 9 was not a running car, but unlike many, it was built on the chassis of one of the brand’s production models.

Bortz enjoys looking at beautiful cars, but he loves driving them, so he had the MK 9 fitted with an air suspension and production Lincoln V8 engine and transmission. It’s fully drivable.

Also designed by McGovern, the Messenger was one of the stars of the 2003 Detroit auto show, introduced in an elaborate presentation where the car was dropped from the roof as Ford’s then-design product chief Chris Theodore and design boss J Mays rhapsodized about the classically proportioned Messenger as the flagship for a reinvigorated Mercury brand.

J Mays, Ford design chief reveals the Mercury Messenger concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, January 6, 2003.

'A little Ferrari'

Like the MK 9, the Messenger was not a functioning car. The concept had a little electric motor so it could be driven across the stage at an auto show, but not much more than that. Bortz had it equipped with modern batteries and a powerful electric motor. It now cruises comfortably at 35-40 mph. Bortz is confident it could approach 100 mph, but bits and pieces of bodywork designed for static display would probably fly off well before then, so he takes it easy.

The Ford Libre concept car debuted at the 1998 Chicago auto show.

Not so the little Libre. Bortz says its tuned version of a late '90s Ford of Europe four-cylinder engine “sounds like a little Ferrari." A tire-squealing video of the Libre revving and zipping about a parking lot supports that claim.

Bortz acquired the Libre from another collector this year. It debuted at the 1998 Chicago auto show.

Built on the platform of the Fiesta subcompact Ford sold in Europe then, “it goes like hell,” he said. “It’s got rear suicide doors so there’s room for four people to get in, even though it’s tiny.”

In the late '90s, Ford was studying how to use its European unit to create small, sporty and fuel efficient cars for American buyers. The Libre never made it to production, but the next-generation is sold here, including a sporty ST model.

Bortz’s collection isn’t open to the public, but he frequently takes concepts to classic car shows. Nothing’s scheduled, but keep an eye open for the cars at leading shows in 2020.

The Bortz Collection’s website includes photos of his current vehicles, cars Bortz owned in the past and a page dedicated to photos of Bortz’s dogs with members of his family and favorite cars.

Follow Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan on Twitter @mark_phelan.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford, Mercury concept cars rescued by collector: Libre, Messenger, MK9