Hau Thai-Tang is at the Nashville Superspeedway on a sunny day in April. No, he's not there for a NASCAR Busch Series race. And the cars that are speeding along on the road course aren't part of an SCCA event. It's Mustang. All about Mustang. And for Thai-Tang, the chief engineer for the Mustang program—the program that will bring the world the 2005 version, the fifth generation in the year that mark's the brand's 40th anniversary—being at the speedway as the Mustang Club of America is holding a multiple-day celebration for the original pony car is part and parcel of how he and his team have been working on developing a vehicle that, as he puts it, "stands for everything great about America." With hundreds of Mustangs on display and thousands of true believers of the brand milling about the track, it is clear that getting it right—more than the long hood, short deck, C-scoop on the side, forward leaning grille, and tribar tail lamps—is essential. While there have been some less-than optimal Mustangs in the past, this one is a true icon not only for the multitudinous fans, but for the Ford Motor Company, which describes 2004 as the "Year of the Car." And at the speedway no less than Ford president Steve Lyons describes the Mustang as being as quintessential to the U.S. scene as Disney, Coke, the Yankees, and the Cowboys. Evidently, Thai-Tang and his team had a huge challenge in terms of delivering an important product for the renewing Ford portfolio. This car matters.
Thai-Tang says that they started thinking about the new Mustang in 1999. He was the engineering manager for Mustang at the time. They were doing a major refreshing. In 2000, they did what they call "buzz products"—the Bullitt and Mach1 Mustangs, which is characteristic of the type of extensions that have helped keep the vehicle relevant, even if there are typically long periods between totally new cars. "We bookshelved the learnings we gained from these," he says, anticipating the new model. Formally, the '05 program got underway in late '01.
Thai-Tang says that there are a few advantages that he and his team had when undertaking this program. One is the fact that there is the 40-year heritage. Another is that there are Mustang enthusiasts that permitted them to "have a sense of what the customers want and what the Mustang needs to be." And last but certainly not least from an engineering perspective: "One of the neat things about Mustang is that it attracts the best and the brightest. I often meet people who tell me that they came to work at Ford to work on the Mustang." In fact, he recalls that when he went to Japan when they were launching the Lincoln LS there (the last major rear-wheel drive Ford did prior to this Mustang; he was the vehicle dynamics supervisor and vehicle engineering manager for the 2000 LS), even Japanese Ford employees told him they decided to work at Ford because of the car. (From a sales perspective, the Mustang, it's worth noting, is essentially a North American product; for the '05, for example, there will be "small volumes" sold in the Middle East, Venezuela, Central America, the Caribbean, and, yes, Japan.)
"We joke that there are two types of engineers at Ford: Those who work on Mustang and those who want to work on Mustang," he quips.
Its iconic status notwithstanding, Thai-Tang says that they had "no relief" when it came to making a business case. "We did not do Mustang just because it is an image car. It needs to be profitable." Which raises a number of challenges, such as the fact that while pricing hasn't been announced yet for the car, it has been publicly stated that a version of the car will be available for less than $20,000. "The biggest challenge for Mustang is that it has so much market coverage that it's a mixed blessing." That is, Thai-Tang explains, on the one hand they had to create a car that could be profitable at the sub-$20K figure yet be sufficiently capable to being transformed into an SVT performance version that might have a sticker of $55K or more. It's about having a scalable vehicle, yet one that is essentially cost-effective. He continues, "The challenge is not to encumber the base car with any more than it needs. Everything else that you would need from a performance perspective needs to be bolted in." So what they did was not only consider the car as a single unit, or even as just a coupe and the convertible to follow, but as a platform to create a series of models—such as, say, the aforementioned Bullitt and Mach1—all while keeping cost efficiency in mind.
Another important source of efficiency, Thai-Tang says, is the AutoAlliance International (AAI) plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, where the Mustang will be built. AAI is a joint venture established by Ford and Mazda in 1986. Currently, the plant is producing the Mazda6—the sedan, sport wagon, and the five-door—and offering various powertrain combinations and trim levels. The Mustang is being added to the mix. "Flat Rock is one of the most flexible plants in the system," Thai-Tang (understates). Recognize that with the Mustang, now AAI personnel are dealing with front-wheel and rear-wheel drive vehicles, and additional powertrain combinations. The Mazda6 and Mustang will run on separate lines in the body shop but the same trim, chassis, and final lines. "We didn't make the footprint of the plant any bigger," he says. Which helps, undoubtedly, with making the financial numbers.Speaking of platforms, Thai-Tang is asked about what the platform the Mustang is based on. And he simply answers, "We don't share a platform." Which is not to say that they aren't making an extensive use of the Ford parts bin. He says that is one of the ways they achieved efficiencies in engineering the vehicle. "We didn't constrain ourselves by asking, 'How many parts off of the Lincoln LS can we use?' Rather, it was, 'What from the Ford portfolio can we reuse?'" For example, he cites the engines. There are two, a four-liter V6. It is also used on the Ford Explorer and Ranger. Then there is the V8, a 300-hp SOHC, 3-valve-per-cylinder engine. The bottom of that all-aluminum engine is used for both the Mercury Marauder and the Aviator. The top half, with the three valves and variable cam timing, is used for the F-Series truck. And they're using fuel systems, climate control, radio control heads, and other elements from existing Ford family products. That said, Thai-Tang points out that what's important to note is that in the context of Mustang, it's different: "If you look at the Mustang, it's an all-new car. The customers will say, 'I've never seen any of these parts before on a Mustang.' But by the same token, we were able to get a large amount of efficiencies by reusing parts."
When asked about lessons learned, about the things that he will share with other engineers on programs, he says that there are really two key points:
About the first, he states, "When you understand your customers and their requirements, when you have a crystal-clear focus on what your car needs to be, your job is much simpler." As for the second, he remarks that they established solid working relationships of all interested parties—from the design studio to the manufacturing plant—so that "the synergies have been fantastic. We've all had very strong alignment. Part of it is because we know what this car needs to be. But also because this corporation needs to be profitable."