The Ford of the Future: Longer, Lower, Wider
By DANNY HAKIM
American cars have to be lame? Some people are pretty sure the answer is
"I don't think the American auto industry lost
the market to the Japanese," J Mays,
the Ford Motor Company's top
designer, said this week in Detroit. "I think we simply walked away from
something we used to do very well."
This past week, when the world's automakers
convened in Detroit for the press preview of North America's most
important auto show, there were klieg lights, smoke plumes and deafening
music. Engines roared, pretty girls were posted like Christmas ornaments
around Ferraris and Porsches, and there were enough free liquor and
cappuccino to propel more than 1,000 journalists.
Just as it has been every year for the last
couple of decades, a subject of hand wringing among the executives and
reporters was the struggle of
Ford and Chrysler to make passenger cars that are credible alternatives to
Honda Accords and
For Toyota and Honda, cars and sport utility
vehicles are profit centers. The Big Three make money on S.U.V.'s, but
they lose money on cars. This state of affairs has something to do with
differences in the manufacturing efficiencies of Japanese and American
companies and the fact that the Big Three plants are unionized while the
American plants owned by foreign automakers are not. It has something to
do with differences in the reliability of American and Japanese cars,
though the gap at this point is mostly perceptual.
But much of the problem is that American cars
strike consumers as ugly or bland, both outside and inside, for no
Detroit executives have said lately, as they do
from time to time, that they are really, really serious about building
competitive cars. At Ford, Mr. Mays believes the best approach is to stop
making cars that look like lesser versions of Japanese designs.
For the more conservative buyer, he is developing
European-styled Fords, notably the Ford 500 sedan and the Freestyle wagon.
Both will go on sale next year, and both might pass for easy-on-the-wallet
Audis. (Mr. Mays came to Ford in the mid-1990's from
he reinvented the Beetle and also worked as the top designer at VW's Audi
And then there are the Fords conceived in Mr.
Mays's signature style, which he calls retrofuturism and which re-imagines
the past with a glossy, updated veneer.
Mr. Mays's first retrofuturistic Ford was the
Thunderbird, a car that had become so ugly that "it looked bad from any
angle," as Ford's finance chief, Allan Gilmour, said recently. When Mr.
Mays had his team go back to the Thunderbird's 1950's roots for its 2001
redesign, the car became an instant hit.
At the auto show this week, he offered two more
vehicles in the same vein. Both are rear-wheel-drive, a feature of
American muscle cars of the 60's.
A new version of the Mustang, the GT convertible,
recalls the version Steve McQueen drove in "Bullitt," augmented with a
kind of Vin Diesel, Gen-X-on-steroids aesthetic. The Ford 427, a long,
boxy four-door sedan with smoothed-over edges, seems ideal for a remake of
"Longer, lower, wider" is Mr. Mays's description
of the 427, which is most sharply characterized by six chunky chrome bands
that stretch horizontally to form the grille. "That massive chrome grille
on the front couldn't be German if it tried," he said. "It certainly isn't
the generic Japanese model of what an automotive sedan should look like.
"It recalls the golden age of American automotive design."
While the 427 is a prototype that may or may not
see the light of day, the Mustang will be completely redesigned for next
year, and the version displayed in Detroit "is within spitting distance of
the production vehicle," Mr. Mays said. Neither car is meant to be made in
the biggest volumes, as the 500 is expected to be. But they could get
people into Ford showrooms.
Ford certainly needs some fresh blood. The
company's car sales fell 11 percent last year, compared with a 7 percent
overall drop in sales of its S.U.V.'s, pickups and minivans. Ford's car
problem has reached an almost tragicomic state in a new ad campaign
featuring the aging Taurus, perhaps best known to many a trudging traveler
who has rented it through Ford's Hertz division. In one television
commercial, an executive type unwittingly gets into the back seat of a
Taurus. It's his chauffeur's car, his own car being in the shop. He sizes
up the back seat, sees that it has a center armrest — an armrest! — and
looks surprised, even impressed.
"Look again," the ad urges.
FORD offers buyers the most generous incentives
in the industry on the Taurus, financing plans in which the buyer pays no
interest over three, four or five years.
"If you can give people something different that
they want to have, maybe you can get their attention away from price,"
said Stephen Girsky, an auto analyst for
"J Mays stuff works. It's just a question of, `Can you get this stuff
delivered on time and at a competitive cost?' "
Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, a former child
psychologist who consults with the Big Three on consumer tastes, contends
that in general, cars "all look the same."
But that's not true of the 427, in his view.
"This one is different," he said. "It has an identity. It's square, strong
He is less taken with the Mays Mustang because he
believes that it is not linked clearly enough to the original.
Brad Barnett, 23, a Mustang enthusiast in
Birmingham, Ala., who runs a fan Web site (http://www.themustangsource.com/mustangs),
said that traffic on his site had risen from an average of 1,400 hits a
day to about 15,000 since he posted pictures of the new Mustang.
"It's a love-it-or-hate-it design," he said.
"Most of the older people I've talked to love how it looks like cars they
dreamed of as a kid, but with new suspension and engine technology and
without the mechanical problems a 35-year-old car would produce. Younger
guys don't want to look like their parents, and they want a Mustang on the
cutting edge of performance and styling."
So what does he think?
"I'm 23 and love it," he said, "but I grew up
around classic 'Stangs and still love looking at them."