DETROIT -- For J Mays, the Detroit auto show was a coming-out party.
Ford Motor Co.'s design chief unwrapped concept and production models that were well-received by journalists and analysts."Ford had to prove they were alive to Wall Street, prove they were alive to the consumer," said AutoWeek Editor Dutch Mandel. "And I think they did that."
Under the bright lights of Detroit's Cobo Arena, Mays and other Ford executives unveiled:
Mays' strong performance at last month's Detroit show is good news for Ford Motor Co. as it tries to convince a skeptical Wall Street that it can create a generation of popular and profitable products. But the hard work is just beginning. Mays must transform concepts and future products into distinct, must-have vehicles for Ford Division, Mercury and Lincoln.
More risks ahead
"Can we become more self-confident in the design direction that we take?" Mays asked in an interview. "Oh hell yes we can, and we're going to.
"You're going to continue to see more aggressive designs from us. I don't mean aggressive in a brutal way. You're going to see more risk taking now because we have the knowledge to do it without goofing it up. It is a learning process."
By contrast, this year's Detroit show had quality and quantity.
"This show more than any other was a watershed for Ford for a couple of reasons," Mandel said. "First, it was the (Ford) centennial and they had to come out swinging. Second, it was the first year after Bob Lutz had the opportunity to really affect changes (at General Motors), and Ford had to come out swinging.
"The Mustang sucked your heart away - it is just breathtaking. Freestyle was an exceptional vehicle that got kind of pushed off to the side by the Mustang and the 427."
With the 2004 F-150, Ford "may have just raised the bar" for interiors, Mandel said. "It is that good."
He also liked the Aston Martin concept and Ford 427 concept.
Mustang's broad appeal
Senior transportation design students at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit awarded the Mustang the "Designer's Design Award." The prize is given to the car that "the designers would personally lust after," said Imre Molnar, the college's dean. That suggests it will resonate with young buyers, not just baby boomers, he said.
What impressed Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power and Associates, was the wide range of attractive designs Mays presented at the Detroit show.
"I think if you look across all the various vehicle types (that were introduced), it showed that Ford is not pigeonholed into one type of style or design," Schuster said. "They kind of related, but they all weren't one particular type of style that was essentially replayed over and over. I think (the concepts) did give Mays a vote of confidence."
Mays' awareness of each vehicle's heritage is mining an opportunity other American automakers are missing, Molnar said. For example, the Pontiac G6 concept unveiled at the Detroit auto show was a "beautiful stand-alone design, but any firm could have done it. There is no lineage."
On the hot seat
The pressure is on Mays because an impatient Wall Street is waiting for the automaker to deliver $7 billion in pre-tax profit by 2005.
Since 2001, when CEO Jacques Nasser resigned, Ford's design chief has been working under a new team of executives.
It's tempting to conclude that Mays' creativity was unleashed after Nasser was forced to resign in October 2001.
Not true, Mays said.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that Jacques and Wolfgang (Reitzle, chairman of the Premier Automotive Group) impeded me from getting the job done," Mays said. "I think what you are seeing is that the cycle plan that we had when they were here was basically all in Europe, and that is where I was concentrating most of my time."
The North American cycle in the past several years has concentrated on redesigning Ford's SUV and pickup lines, while generally ignoring the Ford and Mercury cars. In Europe, Ford redesigned the Jaguar XJ and Range Rover, and developed the Volvo XC90.
Mays, 48, said that when he joined Ford as vice president of design in 1997, his first priority was not redesigning cars and trucks, but redesigning the design studios.
"I had to essentially come in and retrain our designers how to design," he said. "It took me a couple of years to do that. We worked very hard to put the right people in place who are able to look at design in (terms of) longevity, sustainability and not just the latest trends."
It can take up to 15 years to turn around a brand, and success lies in understanding and articulating the brand's roots, Mays said.
"The great brands that have lived with a lot of integrity have always been very evolutionary with a very strong point of view," he said.
While Mays had a good showing in Detroit, the hard part is putting great product in showrooms. Here is a summary of the design challenges for each major North American brand.
Mays has yet to create a striking look for Lincoln. And the company missed opportunities to create designs last year.
For example, the exterior of the redesigned 2003 Lincoln Navigator is nearly a carbon copy of its predecessor. The smaller 2003 Lincoln Aviator is nearly a 7/8ths-scale clone of the 2003 Navigator. While millions of dollars were spent re-engineering the 2003 Lincoln Town Car and the 2003 Lincoln LS sedan, it takes a trained eye to distinguish those models from the 2002 versions.
"Let's face it, one of our issues is that every one of our Lincolns is new," said Darryl Hazel, president of Lincoln Mercury since August. "But every one of them looks an awful lot like the one it replaced. So we are working on that. But it is a fairly long gestation period."
The Lincoln Navicross drew mixed reaction at the Detroit show. The all-wheel-drive concept is aimed at shoppers who want a sporty sedan with the functionality of an SUV. The flat sides of the sheet metal and front-end styling are influenced by the Continentals of the 1960s. The vehicle was developed off the next-generation Lincoln LS platform.
"The Navicross didn't work for me," Mandel said. "It took all of the elegance of the Gerry McGovern-designed Continental and bloated it." The proportions are terrible, he added. McGovern is Lincoln Mercury's design director.
Molnar said the Navicross is not appreciated by industry watchers.
"Navicross is a very elegant, Lincoln-esque piece of design," he said. "Lincoln has a more restrained and sophisticated (design) heritage than Cadillac."
And Lincoln Mercury's Hazel wants the Navicross for the Lincoln product line.
"The sweet spot for us is still in the sedan market," Hazel said. "We need to continue to work at our sedan business and do a better job of putting character and distinction into the Lincolns from what we have today."
Mercury design is a work in progress. Mercury executives must decide what the brand stands for and then create a look.
The Messenger concept, a two-seat coupe introduced at the Detroit show, hints at the design direction. But don't expect anything too radical for Mercury. Ford Motor's top executives have said new Mercury vehicles will be reworked versions of existing models in the Ford stable. The company can't afford separate platforms for Mercury.
The 2004 Monterey minivan, which will replace the Villager, will be unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show next week. The Monterey is based on the re-engineered 2004 Windstar replacement. The Monterey's styling represents past thinking about Mercury and not the styling direction of the Messenger concept.
Ford Division has poured money into its popular truck line. Now it's the cars' turn.
The Mustang concept is within spitting distance of the 2005 Mustang and was one of the big hits of the Detroit auto show.
So was the Ford 427 concept, a high-performance sedan. Ford executives want to build the powerful rwd car, which would put the division in an up-and-coming segment. Ford wants to attract well-to-do baby boomers who are eager for a taste of muscle car performance of the 1960s.
The Freestyle FX is based on a new car architecture that will finally put Ford into the growing sport wagon market. The concept signals the look of the 2005 Freestyle.