These days, Mays, 57, feels vindicated because the 2013 Ford Fusion was a smash at the Detroit auto show, winning best-in-show raves from many critics. The car embodies Mays' long sought vision for a global Ford design language. The 2013 Escape shares that language. Lincoln has built a new design studio and new style with the 2013 MKZ.
What a contrast from the middle of the last decade when Mays' star seemed to be fading. He moved to London to take a more strategic design role over all Ford brands, which then included Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. The move was a promotion and Mays received a new, grand sounding title: chief creative officer.
But some critics thought Mays was being kicked upstairs for failing to deliver a hit in the home North American market. While Mays headed off to wrestle with Ford's unwieldy European luxury portfolio, vehicle design in North America seemed to be languishing.
Designs such as the Ford Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle crossover, dubbed "Stylefree" by some wags, seemed competent but bland and failed to catch on in the market. The retro Thunderbird, introduced for 2002, was a disappointment and Mays took the flak for it. Some critics thought he was being moved aside so Peter Horbury, brought in from Volvo, could ride to the rescue in his new capacity as head of North American design.
In 2004, Autoextremist.com, a blog noted for sometimes scathing criticisms of automakers, wrote that while Mays was "extremely bright and very talented," his fixation on retro designs had hurt Ford: "In embracing Ford's glorious history, J missed a golden opportunity to set a new, cohesive design standard for Ford, which in the end, was the one task the company needed him desperately to do. ... The real problem for J Mays came down to the fact that he never delivered a 'hit' vehicle for the masses for Ford."
Mays readily admits some of the cars from that period weren't Ford's best, but he says car design is a team sport.
"I don't want to push this onto somebody else," he says. "I don't think the Five Hundred or Freestyle was one of my brighter moments in Ford, but designing a car is not a solo effort and a lot of people have input on the kind of product they want. I've been at the company 13 years and I've been through five CEOs. Some of those CEOs have had more conservative tastes than others. And thankfully the one we have now lets me swing for the fences."
Mays is referring to CEO Alan Mulally, whose One Ford global product plan means that Ford is adopting a common family look around the world. One Ford gave Mays a free hand to bring the European designs he always liked to North America.
Ford is about to launch the 2013 Fusion sedan. As the latest interpretation of Ford's kinetic design language, the Fusion has drawn comparisons to luxury brands such as Aston Martin and Maserati. The Fusion, which is virtually identical to the Mondeo, as it is known in Europe, follows on the heels of the Ford Escape crossover, already a hot seller. Together, they embody Mays' ambition to bring beautiful design to the masses.
"Not since the '60s have we had such great looking cars on the road," Mays said during a recent interview at his Dearborn office. He still lives in London, but makes frequent trips across the Atlantic.
John Wolkonowicz, an automotive historian and a former independent design consultant to Ford, says of Mays: "He's got his mojo back. His talent was always picking the right people and he put together the right team. They've developed a noticeable design signature I'm very excited about. That's something Ford hasn't had for a while."
With its curves and creases derived from the European kinetic design, the 2013 Fusion moves away from the North American "red, white and bold" look of the outgoing model with bold chrome grille bars and a more slab-sided appearance. Mays says Ford's designs in Asia have been a "mishmash" and he's happy to see the company come up with a unified appearance.
Mays, who worked for BMW, Audi and Volkswagen before coming to Ford, says he was thrilled last January "when all the Volkswagen and Audi designers pitched up on the Ford stand with their mouths open trying to figure out how we made the Fusion look like that. I would argue that car looks as good as any German luxury design on the market today and it's a much better value."
Mays says American cars don't have to imitate European designs to achieve an upscale feel. For too long, the world has thought of American vehicle design only for classic vehicles made decades ago, he says.
"When the Europeans talk about American design, they don't talk about now, unless they're talking about Apple," he says. "So you've got to get a design out there that allows not only the American public but the rest of the world to understand we're capable of doing advanced design that's not fleeting but that's going to have some relevance."
He wants Ford and Lincoln vehicles to have "character."
"That is the elusive thing that most manufacturers have trouble identifying," he says. "And once they identify it they beat it out of the product before it comes to market."
How does a designer identify character?
"We talk to the customer a lot and we listen very, very carefully, but you have to be careful of which customers you listen to," he says. "If you try to make every single customer happy, you'll find that you've got the lowest common denominator design and that's not what we're after."
Mays says it is critical for Lincoln's new look to connect with younger customers.
"I suppose people are underestimating where we want to go with the Lincoln brand," he says. "We can make Lincoln a much more bespoke brand than probably most people are anticipating so that it has a slightly more exotic feeling to it as opposed to just our version of a German manufacturers' car."
Mays doesn't miss having to worry about Ford's stable of European luxury brands, which the company sold near the end of the last decade. With the closure of Mercury, Mays now has only two brands to think about instead of seven.
"I was designing a lot more cars in 2005 for a lot more brands than I am now. I was putting a different hat on literally every day, and kind of killing myself flying around the world trying to design luxury cars and coming back here doing F-150s and Mustangs. I wasn't spending the amount of time on the cars individually simply because of the sheer number and volume of cars we had to design for the individual brands."
During his tenure, Mays' studios have attracted some of the industry's best talent, such as Gerry McGovern (Lincoln and Land Rover), Henrik Fisker (Aston Martin), brothers Ian (Jaguar) and Moray Callum (Mazda and now Ford North America), Martin Smith (now head of Ford of Europe design) and most recently Max Wolff, who heads the new Lincoln design studio in Dearborn.
Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics who got to know Mays when the two were students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., says Mays kept Ford's huge design department on an even keel through turmoil and management changes.
"The job of the head of design is not just to draw cars; it's to manage the sometimes spectacular egos of automotive designers," Hall says. "The concept of trying to find a unified Ford design theme for the world and pickup trucks is not easy to do."
Hall says managing creative egos "is a very, very, very rare skill. Normally it's easier for the head of design to become a design tyrant."
Mays remains eager to bring new talent to Ford but says: "I'm pretty picky. I've got a very good black book. I know where everybody is and what they're capable of. It's not a very large world. There's a lot of car designers, but you can count on 10 fingers the ones you want to work for you."
One of those Mays and his team wooed was Wolff, an Australian who came from Cadillac in early 2011 to reinvigorate Lincoln design. Wolff didn't know Mays except by reputation, but came away from their first interview "feeling very refreshed by J's candor and directness, his sense of humor. He understood what it's about working in a large corporation and being a creative person."
Wolff arrived when work was nearly complete on the concept and production versions of the MKZ sedan, but he added a horizontal spread-wing grille that Mays liked immediately.
Says Wolff: "J's not afraid of getting his hands dirty. He certainly gets involved at the bigger picture level. As opposed to some of other senior management types, J's not afraid to come into the studio and lay tape on a car."
A native of the tiny town of Maysville, Okla. (population about 1,000), Mays has lost none his Midwestern bluntness despite nearly two decades living in Europe. It's a trait he shares with Mulally, a Kansas native.
Mays is crystal clear that he is not a fan of designs that polarize.
"We're not in this business to provoke our customers. We're in this business to seduce our customers," he says.
"The shorthand for polarization is not many people like it. I don't want people thinking about Fords like that. I want people saying, 'god I love those Fords. I think they look fantastic.' There's a shortage of beautiful cars in the world."