Thai-Tang oversees the car he idolized
BY JOHN PORRETTO
Photo's by Motor Trend's Matt Stone & David Freers
As a boy growing up in war-torn South Vietnam, Hau Thai-Tang peered in awe at the all-American muscle car known as the Ford Mustang, which at times was part of the setting at USO shows for homesick GIs.
The car embodied much of what Thai-Tang had come to associate with America. It was bold and powerful, meant for open spaces, very different from the small, French-made Citroen his family drove on the crowded streets of Saigon.
"We'd never seen anything with the proportions of the Mustang, the long hood and short deck, the big V8 engine," he said.
Thai-Tang could barely imagine driving such a car, much less building one. Yet 30 years later he finds himself steering production of Mustang's fifth generation, the latest version of the iconic sports car that turns 40 this month.
Ford will mark the milestone this week in New York, where the Mustang made its debut April 17, 1964, at the World's Fair. The automaker will throw a party Wednesday in conjunction with media preview days at the New York International Auto Show, as well as introduce a 440-horsepower Mustang racing concept GT-R.
Another, larger celebration featuring Mustang owners from around the country is scheduled for April 15-18 in Nashville, Tenn.
The Mustang has become perhaps the industry's best-known nameplate. These days, as Ford tries to increase profits and stem declining market share, it's also a critical element of the company's ongoing turnaround bid.
Ford, the world's second-largest automaker behind General Motors Corp., made $495 million in 2003 after losing $980 million in 2002 and more than $5 billion in 2001. The next-generation Mustang is one of five new or redesigned cars that Ford plans to launch this year, the largest such launch in company history.
Some analysts have criticized Ford for having a soft car lineup in recent years. The aging Mustang was the only one of Ford's six cars to post positive sales numbers in 2003, up 1.4 percent, Autodata Corp. reports.
"Ford is almost defined by how good the Mustang is," said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. "You've got the Explorer and F-150 on the truck side, the Mustang on the car side. It's their halo vehicle."
Thai-Tang, Mustang's chief engineer, certainly understands the car's importance to Ford's revival. "I don't know that I feel as much pressure as excitement," he said. "This car's been around for 40 years. Eight million people have owned one. It's going to spearhead our 'Year of the Car' push. I think the greatest pressure for us collectively at Team Mustang is delivering on those expectations."
Ford executives and observers say Thai-Tang, whose family fled Saigon before its fall in 1975 and eventually settled in New York, was a logical choice to oversee the new Mustang's production.
Since joining Ford as a trainee in 1988, the mechanical engineering graduate from Carnegie-Mellon University has helped develop and launch Mustang GT, V6, Cobra and Bullitt models.
Engineering stints with Ford Racing, he said, taught him important lessons he's employed in his latest endeavor: data-driven decision making, meticulous preparation, adhering to tight deadlines.
"You have races every weekend," said Thai-Tang, 37. "Deadlines don't move. You learn to be quick and nimble. I've been able to relay that mind-set back to the production environment."
Chairman and chief executive Bill Ford unveiled the new Mustang in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Production is scheduled to begin later this year in Flat Rock at a plant jointly owned by Ford and Mazda. The base price is expected to start at less than $20,000.
The new car's design has received accolades from analysts and Mustang enthusiasts for effectively marrying design cues from the 1960s with modern enhancements. The three-element taillights, for example, harken back four decades. But the new 4.6-liter, 300-horsepower engine has more than 50 percent more power than the V8 in the classic 1964 model.
"It has enough retro to make it retro without looking bizarre," Spinella said.
Jack Roush, the legendary racer and NASCAR team owner whose first car was a 1965 Mustang, said a great deal of Mustang's success stems from the automaker's aim of creating an affordable performance car and then marketing it properly.
The car was the brainchild of then-Ford division chief Lee Iacocca and product manager Donald Frey. The first editions sold for roughly $2,400.
"The early Mustang was nothing more than a Ford Falcon in different sheet metal." said Roush, a Ford engineer from 1964 to 1969. "Yet when they created the image, they made it appealing not only to performance enthusiasts but also to young girls who worked in secretarial jobs."
Ford hopes to create and sustain a similar buzz when the first 2005 models roll off the assembly line. There's probably only one person more eager than Thai-Tang to get behind the wheel.
"Mr. Ford sent out a note asking for the first one," Thai-Tang said. "But I've got my order in."