AN AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE ICON: Ford races for perfection on way to Mustang heaven
Pressure mounts as '05 car comes out in 6 months
BY JAMIE BUTTERS
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
As Ford Motor Co. and the Flat Rock plant it owns with Mazda Motor Corp. prepare to launch the 2005 Mustang in about six months, every effort is being made to ensure these are the most flawless Mustangs ever built.
They are using high-tech tools and Japanese-style planning. Even managers and engineers are working on the assembly line to get a better feel for the best ways to build the first all-new Mustang in 25 years.
In many ways, the Mustang launch epitomizes the pressure on all of Ford Motor Co. as it sets out to overhaul its neglected passenger car lineup, nurture a proud heritage and invest in a healthy future.
For this icon of the last 40 years, a favorite of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Ford -- and about 8 million other customers -- nothing is being left to chance.
"With Mustang, there's a lot of responsibility -- more than most launches, frankly, because the expectations are so high," said Phil Spender, president of the Flat Rock plant and a man who keeps photos of his '67 fastback Mustang on his desk with those of his wife and kids.
"Everyone knows what a Mustang is. They love it, and they just want nothing but the best."
As soon as he saw the clay model, Tony Al-Hakim knew there would be a problem building the next Mustang.
The angle on the top-rear corner of the door window was far too sharp. Metal sheets stamped in that shape would certainly buckle -- a disastrous flaw that would cost a ton to fix if not found early.
Identifying potential defects and solving them ahead of time is exactly why Al-Hakim, Tom Liberati and Kevin Mills were assigned to the Mustang project 3 1/2 years ago.
Spender calls them "the designers' advisers on manufacturing." As such, they came up with a special stamping process that allowed a sharper angle than normal -- though not quite as extreme as the original vision.
In a work area near the end of the Flat Rock plant's Mustang body-weld line last week, they point out the averted trouble spot on an unpainted Mustang body that had hundreds of figures written all over it in red, green and blue.
The boundaries between design, engineering and manufacturing have been chipped away in recent decades as Detroit automakers employ Japanese-style quality and cost-saving practices.
But for a Ford car in North America, this Mustang represents a new level in using so-called cross-functional teams.
"Typically, Americans work in separate groups. Japanese work as one team, where everyone has a common goal: It's the car. I think culturally, that's the biggest ground we've broken," Al-Hakim said.
The plant, incorporated under the name Auto Alliance, was designed as a way for Japanese manufacturing process and philosophy to enter Ford's culture.
Having worked in Japan and Europe, Al-Hakim said, jokingly: "My brain is polluted. I'm no longer an American."
Mixing Mustang and Mazda
About a year ago, before a single Mustang prototype had been built at Flat Rock, plant managers and Mustang engineers punched the clock and went to work.
They spent a day at Flat Rock, making Mazdas and Mercury Cougars, and another day at Dearborn Assembly Plant in the Rogue complex, making the current Mustang.
They were assigned the toughest jobs on the line, the ones that tend to produce the most fatigue and injuries, which can increase the error rate.
Hau Thai-Tang, the Mustang's chief engineer, spent a day installing dashboard insulation. It required stooping over, holding up an 8-pound piece of foam, and securing it with plastic push pins -- all day, 400 cars, thousands of push pins.
"I woke up the next day, my back hurt and my thumb was killing me," he recalled.
It was a bit like the new TV show, "Now Who's Boss?" The idea in that show is to teach humility to executives such as Loews Hotels Chairman and CEO Jonathon Tisch, who barely knew how to make a bed or pull a luggage cart.
But the purpose of the Mustang project's "ergo days" -- named for the ergonomically challenging work -- was to further the cause of designing a car that was easy to build.
Sharing intimate insights from assembly-line workers to the desk-and-computer types have improved the process, said Spender, who spent a day wrestling with wires to get them installed. Now the supplier tapes the wires together so they are easier to install.
And, well, goofing on the boss was a little of it.
At the Auto Alliance plant, workers got a chuckle out of Spender showing up for work in shorts, headband and long socks.
Thai-Tang said workers on his team kept calling him over, saying, "Hey, cover my job so I can watch Spender work."
Pushing the envelope
Spender has been down this road before.
He has already launched 13 cars, including the Ford Falcon in Australia in 1998 and the Mazda6 in Flat Rock.
Because the Mustang is a rear-wheel-drive car and the Mazda6 sedan, hatchback and wagon are front-wheel drive, the cars' bodies are welded together on separate lines. Then the models share the rest of the assembly line, such as the paint shop and final trim line.
The body welding is separate, but virtually identical: The same sets of tools are in the same places and have the same labels. A green shelf labeled "tip-changing tools" holds a hammer with the word "hammer" written on it and on the spot where it is stored.
"Everything has a place, and everything is in its place," Spender, a tall and jovial New Zealand native, proudly pointed out.
Six months before mass production begins, everything is on schedule and looking good.
Now the team starts testing themselves: How precisely can they build a Mustang? How fast?
Get better, get faster. Then better. Then faster.
Spender said he knows the team is on the right track toward ultimately building an estimated 12,000 per month, but his biggest worry is "misguided complacency."
"Car launches, they're always tough. You're only as good as your preparation. And even if you do your preparation really, really well, there are unexpected things that hit you every time. You've just gotto be very resilient and very innovative. . . . I'm under no illusions: Later in the year, we will be having a really tough time," he said.
But it's not tough on a late afternoon northwest of Ann Arbor. Skateboarding boys gawked and cheered as Thai-Tang took a Mustang prototype on a spirited test drive.
The 12-mile loop between Chelsea and Hell represents about 90 percent of road conditions: smooth and bumpy, straight and twisted, rolling hills. Just about everything but highway driving.
Chief designer J Mays went with a slightly bigger body on the new Mustang, wanting the bareback pony to convey a muscular, tough look.
A big part of Thai-Tang's job is to make the Mustang's driving experience as inviting as the window sticker: Prices range from below $20,000 for a V6-powered version up to the mid-$50,000 range for a limited-edition, power-packed 'Stang.
"Mustang should be fun and rewarding for an expert, but flattering to the novice," he said.
Along with checking how it compares with a 2004 Mustang and rivals, such as the higher-priced Pontiac GTO, he is noting engine noises, rattles and other issues that will need to be addressed with suppliers or Spender's manufacturing team.
Balancing performance and cost issues on the company's best-known car is a lot of responsibility, and one that has brought the 37-year-old -- who left war-torn Vietnam at age 9 -- an uncomfortable level of celebrity.
He finds himself a hero to other Asian emigrants who see his crucial role in reinvigorating the sports car that Lee Iacocca introduced to the world 40 years ago. Last week, he was interviewed on Voice of America for broadcast into Vietnam.
"I'm a little self-conscious about it," he said. "It takes more than 300 people to engineer a car. It's not just one person."
Clearly though, he was slated for this kind of attention when he was hired under Ford's College Graduate Program, which gave the Carnegie-Mellon graduate face time with senior executives.
Ford hasn't seen this kind of pressure on a launch since, well, last year, when it started making the all-new F-150 pickup -- Ford's biggest seller and biggest moneymaker.
Although Ford has stumbled on some recent launches, most notably the Focus small car, the F-150 shows that Ford can still make an all-new vehicle very well, said Lindsay Brooke, an analyst at CSM Worldwide.
And since General Motors Corp. no longer sells the Camaro and Firebird, Ford has the low-priced, American rear-wheel-drive sports-car market all to itself.
"I think it's going to be a knockout," he said.
A QUICK LOOK BACK
The 2005 Ford Mustang, above, with its muscular 21st-Century flanks, carries an echo of its past. Its restrained taillight ensemble reflects that of the 1967 model, below . Below : a 1968 1/2 Shelby Mustang GT 500 KR.