Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co. CEO Bill Ford Jr., center, introduces the 600-horsepower Cobra Concept car along with J Mays, right, his group vice president for design and Carroll Shelby, former racer and the creator of the original Shelby Cobra.
Ford design boss endures barbs for style restraint
J Mays to leave Dearborn to assume additional duties in London as Ford's chief creative officer.
By Daniel Howes / The Detroit News
Morris Richardson II / The Detroit News
J Mays' 2005 Ford Mustang is on the way to being a home run, even more so considering the sticker price. "Nothing hurts me more than to be sitting at home and reading that J Mays' designs are too conservative," he says.
DEARBORN--J Mays hears the sniping.
He knows people who care enough to talk about such things say the best of his work at Ford Motor Co. is "retro," which isn't necessarily a compliment. Think Mustang (hot), Thunderbird (not) and the GT supercar (unattainable for most mortals).
As Ford's group vice president for design, he concedes the "Teutonic" rap on his designs, a vaguely negative allusion to his years as an Audi designer. Bavaria still influences his vision -- the new Ford Five Hundred, its gussied-up twin, the Mercury Montego, and the aging Mondeo mid-size in Europe, each of them derivative of a past-its-prime VW Passat.
Worst of all, he hears the "there's no there there" murmurs.
For a guy who's been Ford's widely touted design boss since before Jacques Nasser became CEO, Mays, 50, doesn't have much to show for it all -- even if that criticism isn't necessarily true or fair. Consider that Mays' portfolio includes all nine of Ford's brands, not just Mercury, Lincoln and the Ford blue oval in North America.
"Nothing hurts me more than to be sitting at home and reading that J Mays' designs are too conservative," he told me during a long chat in his Dearborn office. He'll be vacating it soon and moving to London to assume additional duties as Ford's chief creative officer, whatever that means.
One interpretation of J's European vacation: He's getting sent away from the Mother Ship in Dearborn so he doesn't muck up the passion transfusion that Ford's North American brands so badly need.
A smarter interpretation: For all the guff (some of it deserved) that Mays takes for delivering boring cars to Ford's American-brand showrooms, he's assembled a team of hot-shot design directors.
They quarterback the look and feel of everything from Lincoln cars and Ford trucks here to Aston Martins and Jaguars in Britain, Volvos in Sweden, Mazdas in Japan and an entirely different Ford lineup in Europe.
He coaches the quarterbacks. He doesn't draw the sketches, shape the clay or work the software as much as they do and should. The idea, at least, is for him to use Ford's studio in London's trendy Soho to work with his designers in crafting long-term visions for each brand -- and keep from getting sucked deeper in the corporate morass of Dearborn.
That, again, is the idea.
Still, it's absurd to suggest that everything coming from Ford's brand portfolio these days is dull and boring. The Aston Martin DB9 may be the sexiest new sport scar on the planet. The latest Land Rover, the LR3, follows in the footsteps of the sleek BMW-influenced Range Rover.
The Mazda 6 is probably the best looking Japanese mid-size on American roads today. And the Ford Focus, whose original styling was pre-Mays but has since been influenced by him, continues to be one of the freshest looking compact cars plying European roads some six years on.
Mays isn't credited for any of those, at least not widely. Whether he even should be is debatable, because one price of being the boss is letting the people who do the work - Henrik Fisker at Aston Martin, Geoff Upex at Land Rover, Ian Callum at Jaguar and his brother, Moray, at Mazda -- get the credit.
Same for Peter Horbury, the father of the contemporary Volvo lineup, whose broad, notched-shoulder look is derived from Sweden's 19th-century door and window arches. For his accomplishment, Mays and his bosses rewarded Horbury with the single toughest design job inside Ford -- North American brands.
"I have input on everything," Mays says. "I design nothing."
He does, however, have the ultimate responsibility for how Ford's new products look, how their (vastly improved) interiors feel and how it all goes together. Three years or so into the North American turnaround, the results are decidedly mixed.
The all-new F-150 pickups, bolder on the outside, more tailored on the inside, set a new standard. The Mustang is on the way to being a home run, even more so considering the sticker price. Others are potential problems.
Is the Five Hundred boring?
"It looks a little too Teutonic," Mays admits. "We've gone back. We've looked at it. By the way, I don't think it's going to hurt sales. They're the most conservative buyers there are."
What about the Freestar, Ford's minivan?
"It has not been a success. The car has languished, and we're aware of that."
To talk cars and design with Mays is to be refreshed. His self-critical candor is exceedingly rare in the global auto industry, particularly in the macho Detroit arena and particularly when his candor hews so closely to reality, not corporate talking points.
Is the new Jaguar XJ sedan, the British marque's flagship all-aluminum sedan, too conservatively styled? Probably, and too traditional.
Has Ford been too slow to inject passion into competent but otherwise uninspiring cars? Yes. "I don't think we got American enough soon enough," he says. "We were so obsessed with getting quality right that we may have gotten too Germanic, that is conservative."
But he adds: "We're six years into what I hope will be 10 years where people will say that Ford's lineup is really cool. And I don't just mean Blue Oval, I mean all of them."
Ford's not there yet.
In today's cutthroat market, where Detroit automakers simply cannot afford colossal flops, competent quality is not enough. Saying it's OK for the Five Hundred, the Montego and the sibling Freestyle crossover to be boring (and, might I add, dull to drive) because their would-be buyers don't care about sportiness is fine if you're Toyota.
But Ford isn't. Its cars, especially, don't have the bullet-proof quality aura of Toyotas and Hondas, where boring is an acceptable exchange for competence. If Fords and Mercurys for the masses (not Mustangs and GTs) need passion, they need it now.
Dan Neil, auto critic for the Los Angeles Times, called the Mercury Montego "profoundly geriatric ... like it was built with a swollen prostate. To drive this car is to feel the icy hand of death upon you .... There is no soul to this car, and it's about as sexy as going through your mother's underwear drawer."
You get the idea. Does the gossip, the withering reviews, the speculation that Mays may be past it, make him defensive?
"No, I could get that way. I don't take my job so seriously. I'm not a brain surgeon. I'm a bloody car stylist. There are huge egos in this industry. I'm not saying I don't have one. I do. But I like to think I can temper that."
He can, in small measures. I mean, why's a guy from Maysville, Okla., (named for his family) peppering his patter with the British epithet "bloody" and pronouncing Mazda with a nasal "A," like they do in London?
"If I do it again, just tell me," he says. Like I said, refreshing.
If no less on the hot seat. When Ford unveils its Ford Fusion sedan at the North American International Auto Show next month, Mays and his impact again will be a prominent sidebar to the story Ford wants to tell.
Does it show more passion? Yes. Does it show the "consistency, the clean, modern executions" that Mays envisions for Fords, Mercurys and Lincolns? It's heading that way.
Will it quiet the sniping? Not yet.