U.S.: JMays has his ways with wheels
By Earle Eldridge, USA TODAY
One evening, he humors the art world at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington with a speech on car design. The next day, he banters with gear heads at a classic car show in Carlisle, Pa., where scores of fans wait for an autograph.
J Mays, 48, vice president of vehicle design at Ford Motor, has become a celebrity — at least among auto enthusiasts. It's largely because of his breakthrough work on the Volkswagen New Beetle, his oversight of the redesigned Ford Thunderbird and his early embrace of retro car design, which puts body styling from hot models of yesteryear into an updated package.
But with sales slowing for several Ford brands, Mays is under pressure. He must deliver stylish vehicles to attract buyers while Ford cuts billions in costs.
Mays — whose parents named him just J after his grandfather SJ Mays — grew up in Maysville, Okla., a rural town established by his ancestors and where his brother still runs a cattle ranch.
As a child, Mays loved to draw cars. But he studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma before deciding he really wanted to be a car designer. He was accepted into the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., one of the nation's premier auto design colleges, graduating in 1980.
"He stood out because he was talented," says Richard Pietruska, one of Mays' instructors at the Art Center. "He tries to experiment with design philosophy. It's a whole different approach."
After graduation, Mays went to work for Volkswagen and Audi in Germany, where he made his name with the design for the New Beetle, successor to the iconic little car that millions of Americans once drove. Mays went out on a limb pushing Volkswagen to revive the Beetle. The gamble paid off. Volkswagen's annual U.S. sales, down to about 49,000 in 1993, have grown to more than 300,000 since the New Beetle became available in 1997.
"My job is to visually connect to the emotional world of the customer and to do it with sheet metal," Mays says. "I'm interested in dreams and aspirations, because that's what people hang on to and that's what they want in the products they buy."
He considers himself among a new breed of car designers who want to not only style a vehicle but help create marketing, advertising, even its display in dealer showrooms.
With Mays, "it's not just the car design itself, but the presentation, the marketing and the message being sent out about the car," says Chris Theodore, vice president for advanced product creation at Ford.
Competitors say Mays is a perfectionist.
"I have the utmost respect and appreciation for what J and his team are doing in this extremely competitive environment," says Wayne Cherry, vice president of design at General Motors. "He is very good at articulating design's role in our culture."
Freeman Thomas, vice president of advanced product and design at DaimlerChrysler who calls Mays a longtime friend, says he is able to articulate his design philosophy to car sculptors, car lovers and boardroom executives.
"I saw him when he was a young guy first starting out, frustrated with management and trying to get their attention," says Thomas, who helped Mays develop the New Beetle at Volkswagen. "I saw him begin to manage a lot of people with a lot of different viewpoints. He knows how to take advantage of the brainstorming and ideas."
Like designers at other automakers, Mays has to walk a fine line between developing breathtaking car styling and developing cars that will boost sales volume.
Often, designers choose a more conservative look for a vehicle when a company hopes to sell more than 100,000 annually. The thinking is that the less offensive the product, the better the odds of higher sales, says Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief of Automotive Design & Production.
At Ford, "the challenge for J is retaining your current customers without offending them and attracting a younger buyer," Vasilash says.
Keeping the brand honest
Mays isn't among the gear-head designers who also love to tinker with cars. His interest is in the curves, lines and flow of a vehicle, and how the product carries on the history of the brand.
But maintaining a brand's history with new products can be challenging. Mays has design oversight for all of Ford's diverse brands — Ford, Mercury, Lincoln, Volvo, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Jaguar — each with its own identity.
Not all Mays' designs have been hits. He takes full responsibility for the short lifespan of the Lincoln Blackwood, a luxury pickup aimed at wealthy Westerners who wear designer boots, creased jeans and custom cowboy hats.
He says the $51,000 Blackwood was his idea. But he says its lack of four-wheel drive and its limited-use pickup bed — it was carpeted and covered — might have made it less appealing to buyers.
"I learned a lot from the Blackwood," Mays says. He says he doubts Lincoln will do another pickup anytime soon, even though rival Cadillac sells a pickup version of its popular Escalade sport-utility vehicle.
Mistakes aside, for car buffs, the personable Oklahoman knows how to make hot cars.
Trent Chesler, 26 of Sterling, Va., drove his 2003 Mustang Cobra for two hours to stand in line for a Mays autograph during the annual Ford Nationals show and swap meet in Carlisle. "He has designed some hot cars," he said.
"I wish I could drag him out to the parking lot to sign my car," he said.
(Photo) J Mays, Ford's design chief, aims to deliver stylish vehicles, including the GT concept car.
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.....