One of the biggest innovations in American automotive manufacturing over the past 20 years has been the reduction in time between concept and production. The advent of CAD/CAM design techniques, along with increased competition from overseas and the pressure to get fresh product into the marketplace in a timely manner, have forced automakers to get new vehicles from the drawing boards and into driveways in a timely manner.

One of the techniques used to make this happen is the concept vehicle. In years past, many of these prototypes were sequestered from public view until a production model could be developed. Today, concept vehicles are regularly put on the auto show circuit to judge public reaction. If the reaction is positive, the concept can very well become a production model. A good case in point is the Lincoln Blackwood.

First debuted at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and later at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the Blackwood became an instant hit with not only show attendees, but with Lincoln-Mercury executives. "We were so pleased by the public's enthusiasm for the concept Lincoln Blackwood, we knew we had to build it," commented Mark Hutchins, president of Lincoln-Mercury.

Lincoln's black beauty is slated to debut this fall in dealer showrooms across the country. Chances are, by the time you read this, the waiting lists will have already formed because less than 10,000 units are slated to be produced.

But is the Blackwood nothing more than Lincoln's version of the Ford F-150 SuperCrew? Hardly. In fact, Lincoln-Mercury execs already tout the Blackwood as a different kind of cat that they claim will set the standards in America's newest class of vehicles -- the luxury truck market.

"The Lincoln Blackwood is American luxury because it breaks all the rules about luxury vehicles," adds Jim Rogers, Lincoln-Mercury general marking manager. "It completely erases the lines between luxury cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks."

Trunk vs. Bed
The old saying "If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck; chances are it's a duck" came to mind when we saw the Blackwood. It's a crew-cab pickup -- plain and simple. But Lincoln refers to what most truck enthusiasts call the bed as the trunk. The trunk (bed) is unique to the Blackwood with a composite construction covered with a photo laminate to create the wood panel effect which was genuine African Wenge wood on the concept vehicle.

At a shallow 15.9 inches deep and slightly more than 4-1/2 feet in length, the Blackwood's trunk features a hydraulically actuated hard tonneau and two swing-out Dutch doors instead of the standard tailgate. The tonneau is equipped with sensors that reverse the motor if an obstruction is encountered and an electric pull-down mechanism (similar to that found on car trunks) secures the latching process.

As was the case on the concept truck, the inside of the 27-1/2-cubic foot bed (trunk) is finished in stainless steel and trimmed with special neon-like strip lighting along with flush chrome tie-downs. Storage bins are built into each side while additional open bins are located in the Dutch doors.

Navigator with a Bed?
There's no mistaking the Lincoln Blackwood's shared lineage with Lincoln's Navigator SUV, especially when looking at the front sheetmetal, the headlights, and the foglamps. It also shares the four-door platform and 138.5-inch wheelbase of the Ford SuperCrew with several important differences. The Blackwood has a 2-1/2-inch lower ride height than the SuperCrew and is 1-1/2 inches lower than the Ford Harley-Davidson F-150 pickup.

While all three trucks share the independent short-and-long A-arm front suspension, the Blackwood uses a hybrid set of leaf and air springs that improve both ride and handling. The Blackwood monoleaf rear springs are designed to handle unladened weight and eliminate the abrupt spring rate transitions common to conventional leaf spring designs. When payload or passengers are added, the pressure within the air springs increases and automatically adjusts ride height. Staggered shocks at the rear and added lateral links improve traction and eliminate axle hop. Rolling stock is uniquely Blackwood with 18x8-inch alloy wheels wrapped with 275/55R18 all-season Michelin tires.

Underhood is the Navigator's 300-horse, 5.4L 32-valve dual overhead cam V-8. The aluminum multi-valve motor cranks out 300 hp at 5,000 rpm and 355 lb-ft of torque at 2,750 rpm. Backing up the 5.4L is a standard four-speed automatic and 3.73:1 final drive ratio, giving the Blackwood an 8,700-pound tow rating.

Inside Story: Lap of Luxury
As is the case with the Navigator, comfort is king inside the Blackwood. Four leather-wrapped, climate-controlled buckets and front and rear center consoles are standard, as is rich, dark-stained wood trim. Each seat is power adjustable and is fitted with a special climate control system that breathes through the perforated leather.

Other standards include a seven-speaker Alpine sound system, complete with a subwoofer, four-12-volt plug-ins, an overhead console, and an obstacle-detecting reverse sensor system that activates when the truck is in Reverse. In fact, the only option offered on the Blackwood is a console-mounted GPS satellite navigation system. The system uses a CD data system and displays the information and maps on a 5-inch display screen in the center console.

Behind the Wheel
The DNA link between the Navigator and the Blackwood is more evident once seated behind the wheel since you're surrounded by leather and wood. The 300-horse version of the 5.4L V-8 has more beans than its F-150 counterpart and breathes harder in the higher rpm range. The standard 3:73s out back help to get things rolling more quickly as well and make up for the taller 18-inch wheel and tire package. Ride and handling are what you'd expect from a Lincoln -- smooth, quiet, and precise.

And the price? If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it. While pricing hasn't been announced yet, it's rumored to be in the $50,000 range. So who is going to buy a $50,000 pickup? Lincoln-Mercury believes its target buyers are well-off and own several luxury vehicles. They are also looking to get the functionality and towing capacity of a pickup combined with the comfort and elegance of a luxury car.

The Blackwood will be produced at Lincoln's Kansas City assembly plant in Claycomo, Missouri, and will come standard with a four-year, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty along with complimentary scheduled maintenance, including oil changes and tire rotation, for the first three years, according to Lincoln-Mercury.