Freeman Thomas: The Ford brand needs to transcend all social classes.
"It's as pure as a white T-shirt and a pair of blue Levis," said Freeman Thomas, 47, who joined Ford as director of strategic design on June 1. "Everybody fits into that."
Thomas is charged with improving Ford's fit with car buyers through better design.
He arrives at Ford after stints at the Chrysler group and Volkswagen, where he once worked with Ford design chief J Mays.
Thomas reports to North American design director Peter Horbury and will split his time between Dearborn, Mich., and Irvine, Calif. He will work on both production and concept vehicles. Thomas spoke with Staff Reporter Amy Wilson.
It seems that you've been charged with breaking new ground with more cutting-edge design.
Yes. I think I have a fresh outlook coming into a company where they're looking for fresh outlook.
I've been spending a lot of time with the key people within Ford like (product development chief) Phil Martens. Because once I get their support, I have a lot of horsepower behind me.
When you look at the current lineup, what is your opinion of Ford styling?
There's a little bit of everything. When I look at Ford trucks and the Mustang and the Ford GT, I say to myself, "Ultimate Ford."
The Ford brand needs to transcend all social classes. There's not a more youthful image in America than the hot rod. So I see a little bit of hot rod when I look at the GT, the Mustang and the trucks.
The other vehicle lineup that will do very well is the new (Lincoln) Zephyr, (Mercury) Milan and (Ford) Fusion. They're very nicely designed. Those are already good elements to start to build a foundation with.
The other area in which Ford is on the leading edge right now is interior design.
What about vehicles like the Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle?
I experienced the Five Hundred and (Mercury) Montego. Again, the interior I really like. The exterior design is competent.
But does it have enough reach for me? No. But I have seen the next facelift, and it does go a long way in that direction.
Is it now recognized within Ford design that you need to be more aggressive, even in mainstream car segments that typically have more conservative buyers?
Yes, I think so.
Volvo is great example. It used to be the impression that Volvo buyers were very dull professors that cared nothing about cars.
Through design, Volvo was able to not only make this professor really happy but also people who are looking for more dynamic design.
At Chrysler, you were credited for a concept that evolved into the Chrysler 300. Can Ford do a look as bold as the 300?
Absolutely. When I was at Chrysler, the only reason I was able to do that was not because of some process at Chrysler. (It was) because I was able to sit down with (design chief) Tom Gale and talk over strategies, and I got his support.
I'm doing the very same things now at Ford, by being able to talk to the top people in the company, including Bill Ford and Phil Martens.
We have to create a foundational trust and say, "All right, we want to start to get more reach out of our products. We're going to give you the support."
The 300 back at Chrysler went through a lot of rocky periods. It was only through the substance of the concept and the research that it survived.
It was almost killed off a few times because it was so different from anything they had ever done. There was a real polarity within Chrysler, this love-hate thing with the idea.
Now that it's out on the market and obviously doing well, that's also given me a lot of credibility within the system.
Does Ford need a big, iconic sedan, something that says, "Hey, I'm an American sedan, and you're going to pay attention to me?"
I think that's definitely one of the things that we would want to look at. There's a great history. A few years ago, there was a great concept that came out from Ford: the 427. That is a still a pretty valid idea.
Is that something you're taking a fresh look at?
Yes. That's one of the things.
Out of the three domestic brands, Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, which needs the most attention right now?
They all require my attention. The brand I would like to focus on first would be the Ford brand. Because the Ford brand is the halo brand. Without Ford, there is no other brand.