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Q&A: Fordís J Mays

Fordís chief designer talks controversy, the process of redesigning designers, and, well, masturbation.

by TCC Team 2/3/2003

DETROIT-Feelings about whether an automotive design chief is doing a good job or poor job is a highly subjective assessment. In the case of Ford's chief designer, J Mays, opinions swing in both direction. Whether critics think the new Ford F-Series and Mustang are winners, or the 427 concept is clever stuff or derivative retro is as debatable as an argument over whether Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams was the better ball player, or arguing whether Brando or McQueen was cooler.

One thing is for certain, J (never Jay or even J.) Mays, with fifteen production and concept cars on the recent Detroit auto show stand, is on the hot seat in Dearborn as Ford tries to regain its profit footing by mid-decade through aggressive cost cutting and a generation of new product. Is Mays really the man capable of holding the design strings on Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover all at once? TCC spent some time recently talking with Mays about the challenges, what he has been doing at Ford and how he has been getting along.

TCC: It's been quite a year. The CEO who hired you was let go later last year. Bill Ford inherited you and as talked about little else but the "product-led" recovery. There has been lots of criticism this past year about a product pipeline that is thin. And at this Detroit show, Ford shows three times as many vehicles as it normally shows. Was there extra pressure to deliver more to this show to make a point?

MAYS: Perception is reality. When I came on five years ago, I was given the task of starting with what was a pretty big mess in Europe, and so European product was made a priority. The first couple of years were dominated by the Mondeo, Fiesta and the Fusion. At the same time, I spent a lot of time not designing cars, but designing a brand-new design organization. It was a big job to put together a disciplined learning and teaching process to get people who were here and all the new people to look at the world, and at Ford, differently.

TCC: Did you have any apprehensions about your future when Nasser was forced to retire?

MAYS: Sure. But I got a call from Bill Ford the morning he was going to tell employees and the world about what was happening. He said. 'Don't worry. We think very highly of you and we want you to be around for a long time.' I don't think I was ever seen as "Jac's boy." I made a distinct effort not to merely attach myself to Jac's coattails, but to extend myself to everyone in the company. That paid off for me, I think, better than it has for some others who came into the company at the same time I did. We had a similar situation last year when Wolfgang Reitzle left. I was very close with him. But I think I have a very secure position at Ford as long as I don't drop the ball as a designer.

The Mondeo was the first car that had my influence. And it had to be done in a very short time, because they had designed a car that I was very unhappy with. I said give me two months, so I can redesign it. I did a lot of that myself. Chris Berg helped bring it into production when he came in from Audi. The Fiesta and Fusion were from clean sheets of paper after that.

TCC: Are you responsible for all the brands now, or is PAG design operating outside your direct influence?

MAYS: I have it all. The design directors for each of the brands are my operating heads. We meet six times a year, usually in London. There was such a need to concentrate on Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, though, that last year I made Peter Horbury an executive director at PAG. I was killing myself going to London once a month and spending one day a piece at each brand studio. Too much was falling through the cracks. So we took Horbury out of Volvo and made him a deputy at PAG. Especially with Wolfgang (Reitzle) gone as of a year ago, I needed someone minding the shop to make sure we are spending the money in the right place. That's enabled me to channel a lot more energy into blue oval (Ford), Mercury and Lincoln. And I think that has paid off based on the number of vehicles we've been able to do.

TCC: You worked at Audi for 14 years, as well as doing one year at BMW in 1983. In the two years before joining Ford, you were independent, and counted Ford among your clients. It was easy to keep your hands around what Audi was doing, but is it very difficult to manage all these brands at once?

MAYS: I think that's why there is such a detail orientation on Audi and BMW because you have the time as designers to do it. I've had to train the design staff to be my eyes. I can't be everywhere. There is still a lot of stuff falling in the cracks across the brands, but, my God, we are better off than we were five years ago. These days, I've got 25-30 programs a year working around the world. And at Audi, we didn't have any trucks to worry about at all. At Audi, it was a piece of cake to keep your hands on everything that was important all the time, because there were only a few projects going at once. At Audi, there was one old truck product we worked on, but it wasn't much. At the Simi Valley Volkswagen studio, Freeman Thomas and I worked on a cool Range Rover-style SUV for Audi using the Audi V-8, but it didn't get made. I never worked on a truck until I got to Ford, but my Dad had Ford trucks on the family farm, so I know about trucks, and how an American truck should look and feel, especially a Ford truck.

TCC: Do you find designing trucks and SUVs as exciting as designing cars?

MAYS: You have to find your fun. I think I am a pretty optimistic person. My cup is always half-full. I can get incredibly excited about designing the interior of a minivan. With the Navigator facelift last year I didn't have a lot of money to do much with the exterior, but I set out to do the best interior in the SUV segment, and I think we did that, or came very close by anyone's measure.

TCC: Did Ford take interior design seriously when you arrived.

MAYS: Not only did we not take it seriously, we were about to hand it over to suppliers to do. So was GM. At that time we had a design language that I refer to as the 'stirred marshmallow' look." It was in the current F-Series, the Taurus, the Lincolns. It was all about, 'Here is a crazy clay shape, and let's throw some plastic and leather over it.' It was heading down a dangerous path and the people had lost track of what the goal was.

There were about 400 people in Dearborn, and I started getting people talking and arguing. At Audi, we used to damn near break out in fistfights over a line or an edge or the way a seam was going to fit. That passion just wasn't here. But it's what creates so much perceived value and perceived quality in Audi products even when the actual reliability isn't as good as a lot of other brands. I asked our design people, "What companies do we want to emulate?" And they said Chrysler and Audi. I asked, "Why aren't you doing that? And they said, 'Well, we're locked into doing it this way." I said, No, we aren't. And we had a series of what I would call therapy sessions to establish where we're going and how we we're going to get there.

At first, I was seeing a lot of emulations of Audi that were too close, with no depth of creativity and not a lot of integrity. So we had some work to do about design in terms of borrowing principles, but doing what was right for our brands and establishing what our brands really mean. We had to work on the disciplines of how you make geometric forms and components come together to create the smallest gaps and margins and feeling of solidity and integrity in the design that doesn't look as fashionable as what we were doing before. I think the design staffs have their heads around that now, but it was a three to four year process.

When I arrived at Ford we weren't doing the finished interior work in terms of making complete prototypes-data control models. It's only by doing that, which Audi has long done, that you can achieve the precision of design and ultimately manufacturing. Without it, and by just working in clay and turning it over to suppliers after that, a lot of precision is lost, and a vague quality creeps in and takes hold of an entire interior. I started us down that road as soon as I got to Ford and we have been doing it for more than three years. It's a process that GM has just started.

TCC: Are you feeling a lot of pressure?

MAYS: I'd be crazy not to feel pressure, but I think everyone at Ford feels pressure, and rightly so. But it is a good kind of pressure. Bill Ford is creating the right kind of atmosphere so that it is a productive pressure, not an oppressive pressure. As far as my staff goes, we have to get these designs right. I think the F Series sets a new standard. The packaging of the truck is very important, and we have done something that will be very hard for people to follow or copy. The Mustang seems to be very well received, and we think we got it right. We would have been up on charges of heresy if we hadn't. The Five Hundred and Freestyle have people talking in a good way. We can't afford the kind of mistakes on big products that went before.

TCC: Like what?

MAYS: Certainly the Taurus redo wasn't well received and had a lot of problems. The Contour was too watered down and didn't have staying power. Even the current F-Series, which had sold great obviously, was, I think, a bit too nice and rounded.

TCC: What's the biggest change to the design staff and system to guard against costly mistakes?

MAYS: When I got to Ford, we had a process that led the design staff to spend 75 percent of its time masturbating. Any wild idea they had they could pursue. And only 25 percent of the time was spent getting the work done. And they would hit a wall where they said..."Hell, we have to get this project done!" And they would get it done, but not with any degree of integrity. This was so on its head. We reversed the process. Now, we spend about one-quarter of our time just being creative, and the other 75 percent of the time refining. It all has become much more fun.

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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.

My next Ford.....
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