Ford Motor Co. is banking on irresistible new products to get the company back on track. And design chief J Mays shoulders much of the responsibility for making that happen. Mays, 48, who joined the company as vice president of design five years ago, has overseen the release of the Lincoln Navigator, Ford Thunderbird, Ford Focus and others. But the vehicles yet to come - such as the 2004 F-series pickup and the 2005 Freestyle sport wagon - will have to hit the bull's-eye if Ford is to reach its profit targets. Mays spoke with Automotive News Staff Reporter Richard Truett at last month's Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas.
We've heard Robert Lutz say General Motors will make better interiors a priority. It appears you already have made them a priority, with the Navigator and Range Rover.
We are two years ahead of General Motors on our interior program. We identified interiors as a competitive advantage about four years ago. The Navigator, Aviator and Range Rover are really the first fruits of that labor. You will see in the new F-150, when it comes to market (in early 2004), that we've actually managed to bring that quality down into the mass markets as well. And we will trickle down that same type of quality into our other mass-market vehicles, like Mustang, Ford 500 and Ford Freestyle. So I feel strongly that it wasn't luck or something we got lucky on with these vehicles. We put a very disciplined process in place four years ago, and we've been very committed to delivering a much higher quality of materials.
The Range Rover's interior has received rave reviews for its style and high-quality materials. How will you capitalize on that?
We'll use that same design DNA in the new Discovery and new smaller Land Rovers we bring to market over the next few years. That will be a brand characteristic.
Does CEO Bill Ford come to the studio often to look at future designs?
Bill comes to the studio about four times a year. I see him and talk about cars more often than that. But he's got other worries. I've got quite a few people I take through the studios. I take (COO) Nick Scheele through; I take (Ford North America President Jim) Padilla through. I take Mark Fields from PAG (Premier Automotive Group) through the studios. I have a whole list of characters that are interested in seeing what's going on in pre-product development before we get to Bill.
Do you and Bill get along well? Is he a car guy?
Bill and I have had a great relationship from the very start when I came here five years ago. And he has left me alone to get on with my work. And that's a compliment to him. He is a car guy. He's very enthusiastic and passionate about great products. When I show him some of the things I am working on, he can delineate between flash-in-the-pan fashion and something that is going to move the brand forward. He saw the Navigator and Aviator interiors back when they were just a gleam in our eye and realized - as did a lot of the other management - that this was going to be the right thing to do.
When the SEMA show is over, do your designers come back to Dearborn inspired by what kids are doing on the streets to sport compacts and trucks?
Sometimes, it's really very positive for them, particularly the truckers and what I inevitably end up calling the "rice rocket" guys. They see what's here and they incorporate it into their designs for the next generation.
When you walk the SEMA floor, what catches your eye?
I am looking at long-term trends. I'm interested in what's here this year that wasn't here last year and what was here last year that's not here this year. It helps you identify things that have life and things that don't.
I'll give you one really good example. The rap industry is having a major influence on the automotive industry, particularly in the aftermarket parts catalogs. You would have thought that rap music would not have lasted. But not only has it lasted, it's flourished. Now it's having an over-reaching effect on other parts of our culture. With sport-utility vehicles and how they are kitted out, you can draw a direct correlation to rap artists and their music.
A Lincoln LS show car has a chrome "Lincoln" script from the 1950s on the rear.
We've done that in the past. We applied the same script to the Thunderbird. I think a script just absolutely portrays a slightly softer, different period of time. Block letters or block nomenclature tends to be a bit more cold and businesslike. So there's an appeal there, sure. But it is not right for every vehicle. It is just another choice.
What was the most fun thing you did this year, car related or not?
The most fun thing was to mush a dog sled in Big Sky, Mont., earlier this year with my son and my wife in the front. I actually turned it over. They were such good troopers, they helped me right it, and we kept going. It was just an absolutely great experience, a real kick. It's a real sense of accomplishment when you can unleash 10 dogs and control them.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.