Q&A: Minivan pioneer did a lot more
Although Ford Motor Co. missed opportunities with minivans and front-wheel-drive vehicles, Sperlich, 73, remembers the company as having a knack and willingness for innovation.
Sperlich should know. He spent 20 years at Ford before being fired in 1976 and moving to Chrysler Corp. in 1977.
It was at Ford that Sperlich conjured up the minivan. Even though Henry Ford II rebuffed that idea, Sperlich made significant contributions at Ford.
Sperlich led development of he Mustang; the Fiesta, Ford's first transverse front-drive car; and the Fox and Panther programs, platforms that were the basis for Ford's mid-sized, full-sized and luxury cars during much of the 1970s and 1980s.
Sperlich was a casualty of the bitter dispute between Ford President Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II. He spoke with Ralph Kisiel.
What makes Ford special?
I spent 20 years at Ford - more years than I did with Chrysler. I have a lot of friends there and a lot of great memories. It was a company that was willing to innovate. With the exception of the two big failures - the failure to move into front-wheel drive when they had an opportunity, and secondly, the minivan.
We did a tremendous number of things. We did the two-way tailgate. We had sequential taillights. Just lots and lots of features, to the point that Ford even created this "Ford ... has a better idea" campaign. We put together the AC Cobra roadster. Ford was a big participant in NASCAR, which gave it a certain personality.
That was the character of Ford that I found attractive. It was that willingness to innovate. Ford hasn't been doing any innovating in the last few years, have they? So these things come and go.
What is your favorite Ford vehicle?
I was always partial to the first Mustangs, since I was a key guy.
I worked on so many fun vehicles.
What do you want to be remembered for that you generally are not associated with?
The press has hung a label on me - "the father of the minivan." There's a lot more to my career. I worked on just about every vehicle that Ford did from the early '60s through the time that I left. Then all the things we did at Chrysler trying to salvage that beast. I think there's a lot more to me than just father of the minivan.
I was a key instigator, if not the key instigator, in terms of making two vehicles happen - the first Mustang, and then the first minivan. Probably most people would look at those as among the top 10 product events of the century. If you look at segments today, to have literally created two segments of the dozen or so, I feel pretty good about that.
Why did Henry Ford II decide against the minivan?
We showed him an actual model. We had interior prototypes. It didn't take a lot of imagination to see what we had in mind. It wasn't like we were trying to ask anybody to look at it from a sketch or something.
I remember sitting in my office over at the design center where, as vice president of product planning and research, I was trying to take him through the thing.
It worried him. He was worried about the company so he wasn't in any mood to spend any money. I don't think he was ever very enthusiastic about the concept. He just never got interested in it. At that time, the battle between Henry Ford and Lee Iacocca was also running pretty good.