Lincoln may try to resurrect its legendary Continental model as part of a restructuring program that will also see a sharp reduction in the number of Lincoln dealers around the continent.

Many Lincoln dealers were, until last spring, Lincoln-Mercury dealers. But now that Ford has killed off Mercury, dealers find themselves, shall we say, lacking in high-demand merchandise. Ford CEO Alan Mulally hopes to change that, but to save the Lincoln dealers he plans to destroy about 500 of them.

It always sounds strange when car manufacturers say that to grow, they need to reduce the number of dealers. Various justifications are offered. In Lincoln's case, the rap on many existing dealers is that they run a down-market operation that stacks up poorly against the competition -- namely, Lexus, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

At a closed-door meeting with Lincoln dealers yesterday, Mulally reportedly showed videos of customers of Lexus, BMW and so forth talking about why they like their cars and how they are treated at the dealership. Some of the customers also had a few things to say about Lincoln, some of them not so complimentary.

The problem seems to be two-fold: a. Many Lincoln dealerships are in less-than-choice locations and don't present an image as upscale as their European and Japanese competitors; and b. Many consumers associate Lincoln with the aging Town Car, popular with limousine services but basically a dolled-up Ford Crown Victoria.

Well, not to worry. Mulally made it clear that the Town Car is on its way to the history books -- along with those 500 or so dealers. Although no details were offered, Ford said its design teams are hard at work on new sedans, SUVs and maybe even a pickup truck.

Meanwhile, dealers were told that if they want to remain on board, they need to make a serious financial commitment, including upgrading their showrooms and service departments to the level that luxury car purchasers have come to expect. Walking into a European or upscale Japanese dealership these days is more like visiting a spa than a car showroom. You never see anyone walking around with a greasy rag sticking out of his pocket, not even in the service department.

Lincoln today has about 1,200 dealers, about 500 of them in the 130 largest urban areas. Those urban areas account for about 85 percent of all luxury vehicle sales in the United States, so you have to wonder what those other 700 dealers are doing with their time.

One place Lincoln might start to rehabilitate its image is to do something about its vehicles' propensity to spit out spark plugs -- a failing that runs in the Ford family.

"The spark plug spit out in my used 1998 Lincoln Navigator with a big 5.4-liter V-8 engine causing over 4,000 dollars of damage," said Kevin of Chicago.

Eliminating Ford/Lincoln's bothersome penchant to burst into flames would also go a long way with motorists like Diane of Murrieta, Calif.

"At or around 2am on April 11th, my husband awoke to a loud noise in our garage. He opened the door to the garage to see that our 2001 Navigator was on fire in our driveway. The fire department arson expert told us about this problem with Fords and Lincolns. Before that morning, we had never heard of such a thing. We've owned the car since early 2003, and have never been notified by Ford or Lincoln of a recall, or any problems with the car," Diane said.

Salvaging Lincoln may be Ford's last chance to keep a toehold in the luxury market. It has already sold off Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo, saying it needed to concentrate its resources on its mass-market Ford brand.