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An Open Letter to Dearborn

*This is the complete and unabridged text, including significant additions to the original column appearing in the printed version of AD&P's February 2002 issue.Dear Bill:I haven't a lot of room here, so I'll have to be brief.Times are bad, and Ford is in big trouble.

*This is the complete and unabridged text, including significant additions to the original column appearing in the printed version of AD&P's February 2002 issue.

Dear Bill:

I haven't a lot of room here, so I'll have to be brief.

Times are bad, and Ford is in big trouble. The Australian bought just about every car maker GM hadn't tied up, or that wasn't part of the Daimler blitzkrieg - with board approval, I might add. Now you're stuck with a bunch of high-line nameplates that need as many development dollars as your aging bread-and-butter vehicles, and that don't even begin to fill your volume needs. Yes, the profits may be there, but will that continue as everyone and his brother enters this market, or as nameplates like Jaguar become less "premier"?

Speaking of Jaguar, its F1 team is sucking money out of the coffers with little to show, at a time when Mercedes- and BMW-powered cars are winning races. Why do you own the team? Supply engines and leave it at that. Also, X-Types are stylish Mondeos for roaming suburban cul de sacs, but its price is almost as ridiculous as the F1 effort.

Volvos…What are Volvos anyway? The S60 looks cool, and the Cross Country appeals to the exurban gentry, but that's about it. It's Mercury with more of a product line. Again, you need to offer more content for the same money. The image-conscious '90s are over. Customers are also looking for value for the dollar.

Then you have Mazda, which has the Miata, RX-8 and new Mazda 6 to its credit, plus a decent - if uninspiring - small SUV in the Tribute. (Note: Do something about the front seats in the Escape/Tribute. They're horrible!) Don't kill Mazda's spirit, but decide whether it's a volume player competing against you, or a maker of affordable sporty vehicles that grab a different demographic. Oh, and "Zoom, Zoom"? It Sucks, Sucks.

Aston Martin isn't Ferrari, no matter what Mr. Reitzle may think. I doubt it will add much to the bottom line, though I'm glad it's still alive. But if you wanted engineering savvy, you should have bought the company that engineered the Vanquish for you.

You have big quality problems, and with Land Rover you have even more. Join it with Aston Martin and make them a showcase for Ford's suppliers. Make these two an incubator for new production and construction methods so you can get something of value from the purchase.

Next, if anyone talks about "American luxury" in your presence, hit them. Hard. It's a pejorative that means Americans don't understand luxury. I say the Europeans, with their growing layers of questionable technology, don't get it. America needs a sophisticated hot rod Lincoln, Bill, a truly handsome Town Car with an independent rear suspension and a torquey V10. The LS? It's nowhere near as good as it should be. Navigator is a follower, not a leader, and a potential threat to the brand. Blackwood is a designer's conceit, not a vehicle. Kill it.

Ford is a truck division, and now the world has caught on and caught up. Friends who've been Ford buyers for life have deserted the company. "They don't build anything I want," they say, and I agree. Taurus is too big and fat, the Crown Victoria too old. The Mustang? Cheap fun? Cheap thrills? Nope. Just cheap. And Focus needs to spawn a bigger brother and more variants.

Some of those variants should wear the Mercury badge, and have a higher trim level than you can get in a Ford, but lower than you'd find in a Lincoln. But Mercury, like the rest, shouldn't fill every gap. You only compete with yourself if you try, and the consumer gets confused.

And I'm certain you find yourself staring at the staggering array of plants, engine families, gearboxes, suspensions, climate control systems, platforms, etc. and wonder what to do. Relax. You have to make the best of what you've got while planning for a starkly different future. Let Nick Scheele and Jim Padilla sort out the near-term troubles. They're good men with a strong track record, and will get the quality, reliability, and efficiency levels up. You have longer term concerns to face. How you handle them will determine whether the Ford Motor Company will be around in 25, 50, or 100 years.

As you may have heard, suppliers and vendors talk about how difficult it is to work under Ford's rules and deal with the Ford culture. (I used to work for a vendor. These folks aren't saying anything I haven't thought myself.) You're a fair man, but your company is not a fair company. I know of one supplier that produces…well, let's just say it's stuff that goes into an assembly plant. They work with everyone except Ford. Why? Once everyone agrees on the price, your guys tell them they won't get paid for at least 180 days after the equipment is installed, and they want a discount on top of that. Why should they carry all of the cost during design, development, and installation, then give Ford a loan and a discount? Beats me. The price is the price. If you don't like it, walk away, but don't haggle like you're knocking a penny off the price of dried fruit in some Middle Eastern bazaar. Teach your people that they can be tough, fair, and polite. Oh, and reasonable too.

Then there's Ford's inability to track or control design changes. How many times does a project have to go through a major change? (Don't answer that. It's a rhetorical question, but the answer would shock you.) This costs Ford and its suppliers tons of money. Why does this happen?

Simple. No one is in charge.

Like any Detroit-area auto company, Ford has convinced itself process is the answer to all of its problems. Make a list, check a box, and stand back because something great is going to happen. And it never does. The ground is always shifting, people are jockeying for position, and new initiatives replace old as the company works to shorten design cycles and cram trendier product out the door. It doesn't have to be this way.

First, forget Internet speed. That's a tertiary response, not a primary need. Ford needs to determine its various product needs and decide on basic component sets that will meet them. Demand that platforms be designed for 10-year lifecycles, and that their replacements retain the basic fixture points of their predecessors. You waste a lot of money tearing up the body shop with each changeover, and lose untold units of production. Have one basic gauge cluster for each division, and swap the gauge faces and colors, surround materials and shapes to get some low-cost variety. Revamp your powertrains, but cut down the number of unique engines. Differentiate them with unique heads, pressure charging options, and tuning. Then you can create a few special designs without breaking the bank. You'll find you can do more, much more, with less.

Finally, look beyond production processes and facilities as they currently exist. Stamp-and-weld isn't the answer to everything. Revisit Charlie Haddad's Contour/Mystique concept. Look at Rod Trenné's design for the Mosler MT-900 chassis, and think about what it could do for your SUVs. Be inquisitive. Be curious. And remember that product is as important as what Wall Street thinks is unimportant to Ford's long-term success. Gotta go.

Chris 

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