Ford Takes New Design Direction

September 18, 2005

2005 Frankfurt Auto Show Index by TCC Team (9/12/2005)




Is the iosis the shape of things to come from Ford? The sleek and muscular gull-winged concept car Ford unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show last week isn’t likely to hit showrooms anytime soon, company officials caution, but it’s likely to have a serious impact on a company often accused of falling back on boring design.


“There will be no more timid cars” from Ford, the automaker’s chief operating officer, Jim Padilla, told during a discussion in Frankfurt. That message was echoed over and over during interviews with senior Ford managers, including the carmaker’s design director, J Mays.


In a candid assessment of the work done since he joined Ford seven years ago, Mays admitted his team “has made some mistakes. We’ve been too conservative, and as a result, we’ve been criticized for being too bland.”


In terms of styling, the work done on products like the full-size Five Hundred sedan “definitely doesn’t deserve an ‘A,’” though critics would probably question the “B+” Mays then assigned himself. Quibbles aside, Mays made it clear he’s heard critics’ concerns, and will be pushing closer to the edge of the envelope over the next few years.


Missing the mark


Exactly why Ford has missed the mark isn’t quite clear. When Mays joined the automaker, it was putting its bets on the striking, if controversial, “New Edge” look, introduced in the form of the last-generation Mercury Cougar. The crisply angular appearance generated plenty of looks, but after a brief spurt, sales collapsed. And with top officials, including Chairman Bill Ford, increasingly worried about the automaker’s weakening bottom line, the emphasis shifted to safe, if bland, shapes.


“You can’t totally blame design, if that’s what management was asking for,” cautioned Jim Hall, senior analyst with the consulting firm AutoPacific, Inc.


Unfortunately, the been-there-done-that look of products like the Five Hundred and Freestyle crossover vehicle has failed to capture the public’s imagination, even though the vehicles have received overall praise from the automotive media.


In an increasingly crowded market, there is no choice but to try to stand out, emphasized Mark Fields, currently head of the Premier Automotive Group, and the man slated to take control of Ford’s core Americas operation next month.


"Design will absolutely be a differentiator in the years ahead," said Fields, in Frankfurt.


Drinking buddies


With this new mandate, Mays has gone back to his roots. First, he shifted his base of operations to Ford’s global design studios in London, not far from where he first made a name for himself. Mays joined Ford soon after Volkswagen launched the New Beetle, on which he was lead designer. Mays also was a key participant in the development of such well-received vehicles as the Audi TT roadster.


But during those days in Germany, he worked closely with the brilliant Freeman Thomas, who then went off to work for DaimlerChrysler. Mays recently lured Thomas and several other former colleagues over to Ford, including Martin Smith. The British designer is often credited as the “pen” behind the Audi Avus, often billed as one of the most beautiful concept cars ever developed. Smith was also the man in charge of Audi’s transformation into an industry leader in interior design.

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