Ford’s J Mays: 49er and Retro

by Bill Sharfman

J Mays wields the definitive pen in Ford Motor Company’s styling studios, and about this time last year, he walked into a virtual media disaster. The place: the Detroit Auto Show. The event: the introduction of his team’s efforts at Internet-interwoven vehicles, a range of blocky concepts collectively called 24.7.

Reaction by the press was instantaneous — and mostly negative. “High tech without style is nothing,” declared TheCarConnection in our after-show Best and Worst of Detroit 2000 assessment. Worse yet, while Ford was preoccupied with futuristic vehicles for coming technology, other carmakers were knocking out styling home runs by going “retro” — the Chrysler PT Cruiser and its various spawn being only the most obvious example of dipping into a company’s styling past for present-day inspiration.

This year in Detroit, Mays presided over the introduction of the Forty-Nine, a retro-themed concept (Mays and other Ford executives cringe at the label, preferring the term “heritage”). From reaction by journalists and show-goers alike, Mays’ interpretation of 1950s-era Ford cues is paying off handsomely: the Forty-Nine is being called one of the show’s best concepts by some of TCC’s editors and by other critics. Is the Forty-Nine truly a retro effort – and will it help steer Ford to a future populated by more heritage designs? TCC’s Bill Sharfman cornered Mays at the Forty-Nine display for more insight:

TCC: Let’s talk about the difference between “retro” and references to the past, a distinction overlooked or not understood at all, and one that’s relevant to your Thunderbird introduction and the Forty-Nine.

MAYS: It’s a subject that doesn’t go away, and I understand why, because of the lack of the understanding of the word — which is just a word. I don’t consider it a negative in any way, but it becomes a wet blanket that gets thrown on anything that has a heritage. It was lumped on the Beetle, it was lumped on the PT Cruiser, it was lumped on the Thunderbird, and it was lumped on [the Forty-Nine]. All of them have certain elements of retrospective design views in them, which is one of the reasons people like them.

Ford Forty-Nine Concept
Mays' Forty-Nine concept drew critical praise in Detroit, but will it ever need a real gas pump?

TCC: [Is it a] play between familiar and different?

MAYS: It goes beyond that. Yesterday, I said that we as a company like advanced technology and advanced design just like everyone else, but that’s not all the world is made up of. And there are companies in this building who will tell you that’s all it’s about, advanced, advanced, advanced. I don’t agree with that. As things change into the future, it’s as much about what we decide to keep as what we decide to change.

If advancement is so great, why isn’t everyone wearing a digital watch? There are beautiful antique watches, from Rolexes to all kinds of chronometers that people would love to own, because they have meaning, they’re collectible, they’re wonderful, and they add to our quality of life.

TCC: And they make you feel good.

MAYS: And they make you feel good, and that’s what life is about, feeling good. So if we’re going to be innovative, it’s understanding how to give our customers that better quality of life, and not force-feeding some designer’s ideas down their throat. If you pick out a house, someone wants a colonial in Bloomfield Hills, someone else wants a cube with minimalist underpinnings, very modern, or an aluminum structure, like Richard Rodgers might create, or homage to a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Isn’t it wonderful that we’ve got all those choices?

The Forty-Nine, or the Thunderbird, or the Mustang, or the Mondeo, they’re choices. To give the customer choices is one of the most innovative things we can do. Rather than just saying our company’s going to be about innovation, and trying to [innovate] constantly, with every concept car or production car that comes out, to do the unknown, to do the avant garde, [that’s] just arrogance, to think that everything you’re going to touch will be gold.

Ford Forty-Nine Concept
The Forty-Nine's seats slide on invisible rails.

TCC: What about the Thunderbird is retrospective and what isn’t?

MAYS: Certainly the underpinnings or architecture, there’s nothing retrospective at all. It’s based on the Lincoln LS and its 3.9-liter V-8: thoroughly modern, automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, superior driving dynamics tuned by Richard Parry-Jones…[it] couldn’t be any more modern. The overall shape of the car, while it retains the negative wedge of the original car, is actually pretty clean and modern, very simple, very linear in its look. The only retro cues are the portholes, the after-burner tail lamps, maybe the egg-crate grill, those are just a few visual signals that say to the customer [it’s] a little tongue in cheek, a wink, not too serious: “Hey, we had a little fun with this, it’s a Thunderbird.”

TCC: Why would you bring out a Thunderbird here, and a Forty-Nine at the same time?

MAYS: They’re very different takes on the romantic values of a passionate time gone by. The Thunderbird is a romantic look at what a two-seat roadster could look like. This is applying the same values to a large coupe. They’re very different — they might be the same buyer, might not. [There’s the] possibility to have romantic or passionate vehicles like this under the Ford oval, probably room for four or five of them.

TCC: Would you produce both?

MAYS: I don’t know if we’re going to produce this or not. I would like to. There’s a segment of the blue oval I call living legends: Mustang, Thunderbird, cars like this one, GT 40, Cobra, things like that, which made Ford fanatics.

TCC: A stable of referential vehicles?

MAYS: Yes, but they shouldn’t be caricatures, they should be collectible, have incredible meaning, and have a great story around them, and if you combine those three things in a vehicle, you have a success, something that’ll be collectible in 25 years. I don’t see that there would be any problem producing this one, too, although there’s been no business case at this point, and the Thunderbird is a production vehicle that’ll be on the road this summer.

Ford Forty-Nine Concept
The Forty-Nine's wheel and
steering-mounted controls
frame a single gauge.

TCC: What’ll allow this one to be produced?

MAYS: Enthusiasm this week, a number of front pages, some great resonance from the customers that come to the show, Jac’s own enthusiasm that he’s convinced.

TCC: Is it potentially a four-door car?

MAYS: I love it as a two-door, I think it’s more elegant that way, but the absolute same language could be applied to a four-door. As a four-door it would still fit into the cluster of cars I call living legends, a romantic vehicle. There is a lot of enthusiasm for this car inside the company, as it sits, and I don’t think there’s any overlap with the Thunderbird, they’re two different vehicles.

TCC: The person who would spark to it is a different one?

MAYS: Not necessarily, but a two-seater locks a lot of people out of the market, but a lot of the people who aspire to that two-seater would be very happy with a coupé. If you make 25,000 or 30,000 units of something I don’t think you’re going to have too much overlap in the market. But I have to emphasize that for now that’s speculation....

For all our coverage on Detroit 2001, click here.

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