Oklahoma born and bred, J Mays, Ford's vice president of Design since 1997, left home after an unsuccessful stint studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma ("Unlike a lot of people, being useless at it stopped me from pursuing journalism as a career," he says pointedly.), and headed west to California. After graduating from the Art Center College of Design in 1980, he went to Europe with the intention of spending two or three years learning about the European auto industry. Fourteen years later, including two as design director of Audi, he returned to California as a freelance designer before getting the call to join Ford.
"I'd been doing sort of German elitist cars, having had some control over them for seven or eight years," Mays recalls, "and could draw Audis out until the year 2010, which isn't very stimulating, by the way." Obviously, a change was needed. Moving to Michigan had little appeal, but the lure of reengineering the design department for every brand in Ford's portfolio (Volvo joined the mix just after Mays signed on) was too much to ignore. "It turned out to be a pretty good deal," he says, "even though I spent the first two years designing the design department instead of the cars."
Now that the heavy lifting is behind him, Mays is setting the tone for the Fords of the future, even though some of these hearken to the past. The non-retro models will emphasize craftsmanship–crisp body creases, clean shapes, tight gaps, tactile materials–and carry a conservative but upscale aura in an attempt to relate quality, solidity, value, and purpose to buyers. "My expertise is in overall craftsmanship," he says, "and I brought all of the expertise that I could muster from Audi and VW, and put the processes in place globally to replicate that type of quality at Ford." The new Mondeo–the first Ford out of the blocks designed under this process–has met with a favorable response in Europe. Lincoln's Navigator and Aviator–the first American market vehicles to get this treatment–will determine whether this ethic will play in Peoria (or Oklahoma City).
If nothing else, a cohesive look and feel for the Ford brand will eliminate the multiplicity of design themes that currently beleaguer the company. (i.e. Ovoid. Edge. Traditional American. Quasi-European.) This lack of visual unity creates the impression of a car company that doesn't know who it is, or what it stands for, which troubles Mays. "Until recently, there was a contingent within Ford which thought that, because we're so big, we have to be all things to all people," he says. "That diluted both our point of view, and the customers' understanding of what we stood for." Realigning the Ford brand around "tough trucks", "hero cars", and great "mainstream transportation" brought the understanding of what makes a Ford a Ford into perspective.
On the car side, that vision is found in renderings of the Ford Five Hundred, a "tall sedan" that shares its platform with the coming CrossTrainer crossover, which falls under the "mainstream transportation" column. There's no doubt when looking at the Five Hundred that Mays wasn't kidding when he said the car would, "pick up from the Mondeo." It shares that car's grille shape and texture, silhouette, detailing, and simple flanks with pronounced wheel arches and character lines. These hallmarks first appeared on VWs and Audis.
The trucks will marry this look with a more rugged personality, and can be seen in the beefy Mighty F-350 Tonka concept, which is an over-the-top interpretation of the next F-Series. Buyers will recognize the Tonka's side window kick-up, crisp edges, and imposing stance in the F-Series, but be spared the cartoon-like size and power tool-inspired interior. The current Expedition and Explorer, on the other hand, set the tone for Ford's future SUVs, including the next-generation Escape and the CrossTrainer.
Then there are the "hero cars", which include the GT40, the next Mustang, and–if Mays has his way–the 49. "Somehow, I'm going to get that car into production," he vows, acknowledging that the 49's reliance on the Thunderbird's architecture should make it a relatively simple addition to Ford's Wixom, MI assembly plant–if the company can find the money to engineer and develop it. "If I got really sappy and sentimental," he says, "I'd do a '32 Ford, a '33 five-window, and get lost in dredging up the past." Instead, he has chosen four vehicles (including the T-Bird) that establish a tie to Ford's cultural identity. He hopes this will resurrect an understanding of what "American" means when it's applied to cars, and show there's still a passion for producing "wonderful cars" at Ford. According to Mays, "This business just doesn't have enough cars that are retrospective love affairs," even though his critics say Ford will soon have too many.
Though these icon cars will have little effect on production volume, Mays expects Mercury to fill a role maximizing the production volumes of the main Ford lineup by producing modern, contemporary designs on high-volume American platforms. "That market isn't being addressed at the moment," Mays claims, "though the Mountaineer is serving that purpose in the SUV segment." Summing up his view of what works in the automotive world, Mays looks away for a second, then makes perfect eye contact before stating: "It isn't about the technology, it's about how it makes you feel. That's the true test of whether a car will be successful or not." Ford has a lot riding on his feelings being right.