Chrysler design star bolts for Ford
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
"One of the most important things in a design team is chemistry and respect," Freeman Thomas says.
• Age: 47
• New title: Ford North America's director of strategic design, effective June 1
• Previous work: Co-designer of Volkswagen's New Beetle; designer of the Audi TT roadster; at DaimlerChrysler, vice president of advanced product design strategy, head of Pacifica design studio, designer of Tomahawk motorcycle concept, helped develop the "Noble American Sedan" philosophy that spawned the Chrysler 300.
Freeman Thomas, former chief of Chrysler's influential California design studio, is moving to Ford Motor Co. as director of North American design strategy.
The move reunites Thomas with J Mays, Ford's group vice president of design and chief creative officer.
Thomas and Mays worked together for Volkswagen AG's Audi brand and designed the concept vehicle that led to the development of VW's New Beetle.
Thomas will be charged with bringing long-term vitality to the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands, which have lost sales ground to Asian and European rivals.
The 47-year-old Thomas, who also conceived the design for Audi's TT roadster, will report to Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of North America design and another longtime friend of Mays'.
"One of the most important things in a design team is chemistry and respect," Thomas told The Detroit News on Sunday. "That creates design leadership."
Along with Martin Smith, who also worked with Mays at Audi and left General Motors Corp. to join Ford of Europe eight months ago, "a good portion of our original circle is back together," Mays added.
"It makes for a pretty irreverent working environment," Mays said. "We are easily the most rambunctious group of design directors in the business. But at the same time, we are also some of the most critical. There's not a guy on the team that is shy about voicing their opinion."
The move comes as Ford enjoys success with the redesigned Mustang while suffering from criticism directed at its new Five Hundred sedan. Mustang has been widely praised for tapping into the American psyche with its aggressive stance and sporty interior, while the understated Five Hundred has been overshadowed by Chrysler's boldly styled 300 sedan.
Thomas also was responsible for the Dodge Super8 Hemi concept car that debuted at the Detroit auto show in 2001.
"Freeman is a very creative guy," said John Wolkonowicz, an analyst with Boston-based Global Insight, who also worked with Mays as a con******t on the Mustang and Explorer. "He's one of the most creative designers out there today." With its U.S. market share falling, Ford is under pressure to come up with attention-grabbing designs.
Thomas needs to help make Ford's American brands more marketable, Wolkonowicz said.
"Ford needs to stop chasing the Japanese and deliver a real American design for people who want to buy Fords," he said. "Those people have had a dry plate for a long time."
Thomas said the challenge isn't as simple as it appears.
"I don't think there is one American design," he said. "What is American food?"
It could be a hot dog, but it could also be a chargrilled rib-eye.
"Art deco is America, and so is pop culture," Thomas added.
Thomas is the ninth designer Chrysler has lost in recent months. Both sides characterize his departure as a business decision, while Chrysler denies there are morale problems among its designers.
"Nobody stays anywhere forever," company spokesman Sam Locricchio said, adding that Chrysler design chief Trevor Creed worked for Ford early in his career.
As quality and reliability evens out across the industry, automakers need to differentiate themselves in new ways. "Design is the best way to do that," Locricchio said.
"Chrysler's always been known for its design. So if you're going to look somewhere to recruit, you're probably going to do that at somewhere like Chrysler."
The Auburn Hills automaker recently enticed designer Jon Gaudreau to leave GM. Gaudreau started with Chrysler last week.
Longtime Chrysler designer Kevin Verduyn, who designed the Plymouth Prowler, will replace Thomas at the automaker's Pacifica studio.
Thomas' move marks the fifth time in eight months Ford has recruited a high-profile designer from one of its competitors. The recruiting drive is consistent with Mays' relentless desire to build creative muscle.
"Every one of them not only has experience in various countries, but a good portion of them have gone in and turned brands around that were brands that had nothing to do with their country of origin," Mays said.
Thomas, an American, enjoyed success in Germany, while Horbury, who is British, is credited with injecting Ford-owned Volvo with new spirit. Steve Mattin, Horbury's successor at Volvo and a fellow Brit, is credited with designing the highly regarded Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
The addition of Thomas is "going to round out what is already, what I consider to be one of the top teams in the industry," Mays said. "And it's just going to add that much more spice to the working environment. And that's exactly what we thrive on."