To succeed, Ford must inject the cars with enough design pizazz to avoid the generic "econobox" tag that often forces the Detroit 3 to sell small cars at a loss.
Which is why Mays, 52, has been thinking about handbags. It is a sunny spring day in Soho, just around the corner from the office where Mays oversees Ford design while staying attuned to European trends.
Mays won't allow visitors in the office. There are too many product sketches lying around, he says. So we're chatting outside of Flat White, which serves Australian-style coffee in this trendy neighborhood just north of Soho's notorious sex shops.
"A discerning customer will easily pay $1,000 for a handbag, sometimes more," Mays says. "Then they won't eat properly for a month just so they can have the stylish materials and stylish colors and all the accoutrements that go with that particular handbag."
Automotive trendsetters would be the BMW Mini, the Scion xB and perhaps the Smart ForTwo. Now Mays wants to bottle that magic.
"We see B-cars as the automotive equivalent of stylish handbags," he explains. "An older generation only saw B-cars as cheap and cheerful - 'I really had to stoop to buy this car because I couldn't afford anything else.' The new generation of discerning customers are looking for a B-car that can be stylish, aspirational and desirable."
As Ford develops its B-car, it is paying close attention to the design expectations of its target customer. The company has even created a hypothetical B-car buyer.
In Europe, her name is Antonella, and she's a 25- to 30-year-old woman living with her parents in Italy. In the United States, she's a 20- to 35-year-old woman named Kristin.
"Their values and attitudes are very much alike," says Ford's global product chief, Derrick Kuzak, 55. "One element is the increasing expectations of all customers of their vehicles. Econoboxes don't exist anymore in most markets - certainly not in mature markets."
And that's why Ford killed the original plans for the U.S. version of its B-car, which was to have debuted this year. Too generic, concluded Ford's top brass.
To create a stylish B-car, Kuzak and Mays are counting on Martin Smith, 57, Ford of Europe's chief designer. Three years ago, Mays and Ford of Europe Chairman Lewis Booth lured Smith away from Opel.
At Ford of Europe, Smith has created a new look that he calls kinetic design. Vehicles with that look will use flowing lines to suggest a car in motion even when standing still.
At the 2005 Frankfurt auto show, Smith unveiled the Iosis, a coupelike four-seat sedan concept.
Now elements of Smith's kinetic design are turning up in production vehicles. The Mondeo sedan, which goes on sale this summer, is the first fully realized production example of kinetic design. The car got positive reviews when Ford first showed it last September at the Paris auto show.
The S-Max crossover wagon and the Transit commercial van - both predating Smith's kinetic vision - also have been well-received. The bottom line: Ford of Europe is making money again.
In 2006, Ford of Europe posted a pretax profit of $455 million. Ford sold 1.85 million vehicles in Europe last year, up 20 percent from 2002. Mulally considers Europe's turnaround as inspiration for a North American revival.
"They're winners," he said. "They were in trouble a few years ago, and they're on a really positive, profitable growth plan now.
It is a shining example of a well-run business."
In January, Mulally visited Ford of Europe's operation in Cologne, Germany, where he reviewed the product lineup, walked the assembly line, met top executives and gave a pep talk to 100 key employees.
After giving one admirer the Ford Blue Oval pin off his own lapel,
Mulally requested that pins be ordered for all 65,000 employees at Ford of Europe.
Mulally said Ford of Europe got its mojo back by staying focused on the customer. By moving more heavily into diesel engines and producing more variants of Ford's stylish small cars, the Cologne crew put its product lineup back into contention.
Ford's turnaround plan for North America shares similar elements: Shut down plants, slash the work force, trim raw material costs. But the key will be to put design back onto center stage.
Try, try again
All of this sounds good in theory. But Ford veterans know the company has previously tried - and failed - to create global cars.
In the 1990s, two Mondeo variants dubbed the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique debuted in the United States. They bombed.
The Focus was supposed to be a world car, too. But after the first generation, the U.S. and European markets ended up with different versions because U.S. product planners didn't want to invest in the same upgrades that European planners used.
The Ford 2000 restructuring of former CEO Alex Trotman was supposed to generate a portfolio of global vehicles, but that plan also failed (see story, Page 30).
It's Kuzak's job to make it work this time. Mulally, who calls Kuzak "our hero," picked him last December to be global product chief. Currently, Kuzak is trying to weave together the company's product plan. He says he will establish more global vehicle teams like the one set up for the B-car.
Once Kuzak figures out how to harmonize Ford's product plans, it will be up to two Brits - Smith and U.S. design chief Peter Horbury - to create a global look for the Ford brand. It could take as long as seven years.
"At the moment, you wouldn't know that the S-Max is related to the Ford F-150 truck," Smith says. "You wouldn't know that (a European Ford) is related to a Fusion. That's what Mulally is asking us to address."
For the moment, Horbury is sticking with "Red, White and Bold," a look that features the familiar chrome three-bar grille on the Fusion and Edge. Horbury has earned good reviews for the clean lines of the Edge crossover and the Flex not-really-a-minivan, which goes on sale in 2008.
But Horbury's Red, White and Bold has little in common with Smith's kinetic design. Smith says it's still early; they'll work it out. It's too early to say how kinetic design will influence the next generation of vehicles, he admits: "We don't exactly know how to do it yet."
Smith says the "overriding influence" on Ford's global vehicle programs will come from "the markets where that look is having a huge success." Ford's next generation of vehicles will be designed where they are engineered, he says. For small and mid-sized cars such as the Focus and Fusion, European designers likely will have a big say.
But different regions won't get identical cars. With the coming B-car, for example, Europe will get a hatchback while the United States and China get sedans. Like handbag designers, Ford will customize colors, materials and finishes to fit local tastes.
When the B-car debuts, it will provide important clues to Ford's worldwide design direction. Until then, Ford watchers will have to ponder a woman's handbag as if it were some sort of Zen aphorism.
You may e-mail Amy Wilson at [email protected]