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Profiles: Chris Theodore: Keeping Performance Alive

The CEO of ASC and Saleen sees this time of higher gas prices and tighter emissions regulations as the perfect opportunity for domestic automakers to grab the imagination of the next generation by increasing their reliance on niche manufacturers.

One of the last times that I saw Chris Theodore-the newly named CEO of American Specialty Cars (Southgate, MI; www.ascglobal.com) and Saleen, Inc. (Troy, MI; www.saleen.com)-was in 2003, before he retired from Ford. The setting was a media introduction of the 2005 Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle (now Taurus and Taurus X). Showing a fellow journalist the capacious rear compartment of Ford's new premium sedan, Theodore exhibited remarkable restraint when said journalist blurted out: "Wow! This'll make a great taxi cab!" But Theodore's mind was on his next project-and, as it turned out, his last at Ford-the Ford GT, a car that never could be mistaken for a taxi cab. Though insiders say Theodore's 2004 departure from Ford was driven by internal political intrigue, it's a subject which he sidesteps easily. "I tried retirement for about 10 months," he says, "did-and still do-some teaching at the University of Detroit, and played with my toys, but I've been a car nut since I was four. I couldn't just sit still." Offers from various suppliers were considered, but Theodore-an avowed "total car guy with a heavy emphasis on powertrains"-didn't want to take a position just so he could keep his hand in. If he was to come out of retirement, it would take an opportunity that would give him a chance to express his creativity, something that working for a commodity supplier wouldn't accomplish.

"The OEMs are going to be focused on meeting a set of fuel economy standards that probably will be relaxed when it's too late," he says. This is causing a major refocusing of cycle plans, and forcing automakers to redirect their performance efforts toward more mainstream concerns. "This creates a tremendous opportunity for us," he says, especially with the next generation of car buyers. Describing car lust as "an anthropological thing that goes in cycles," Theodore believes domestic automakers have an unequalled opportunity to connect with the Millennial generation as traditional youth-oriented brands like Honda have "aged with the people they attracted to their fold in the first place." What will appeal to this new generation of buyers is uncertain, but developing products like the Sky Slider roof and going directly to the consumer for their reaction, he says, is both faster and less expensive than following an OEM's normal approval process. It also is less risky as it is easier for a supplier to react to changes in demand or introduce new products based on customer feedback.

Despite the fact that the Saleen facility is a former AMT model factory-"We had all these tiny rubber tires coming down from the rafters when we remodeled the place!"-with the only low-volume paint facility in North America (the Dodge Viper's body panels are painted there), an engine shop, a supercharger shop, and a fabrication and composites shop, the four-year-old that still lives inside the man still has dreams of building his own car-"No true car guy goes through his life without having that fantasy."-a dream that is closer with his ascension to the CEO's slot at both ASC and Saleen. Will it be the Saleen S5S Raptor, a mid-engined sports car in the mold of Ford's GT, or something less predictable? "Before I left Ford," he recounts, "I wanted to do a new version of the Mustang I concept car of the early 1960s." His preliminary layouts showed a turbocharged version of the Escape Hybrid powertrain situated transversely behind the driver and passenger, and side-mounted radiators like the original. It was an ethical sports car, he says, and one in tune with the desires of younger buyers. "After all," he intones, "no matter how 'green' anyone purports to be, they just want to have fun." 

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