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Chicago Sun-Times - February 4, 2004
Motor Trend

Like many thirtysomethings, Hau Thai-Tang has fond boyhood memories of the first time he saw a Ford Mustang. But they don't involve moonlit drive-ins or Main Street cruising.

His mental images of the muscle-car icon are set in war-torn Vietnam, where Mustangs served as a backdrop to raucous USO shows staged for homesick American troops.

"I'd never seen anything like it," said Thai-Tang, who was accustomed to his family's two-cylinder Citroen. "It stood for everything that was great about America."

Forty-eight hours before democracy crumbled in Vietnam on April 30, 1975, Thai-Tang and his family fled Saigon, making their way to the United States. He carried with him a dream that started the first time he laid eyes on a Mustang.

Today, Thai-Tang, 37, is chief engineer responsible for the fifth generation of America's top-selling sports coupe and convertible for 18 consecutive years.

"You're essentially CEO of the Mustang company," he said.

The 2005 Mustang's showroom debut, scheduled for September, has been eagerly awaited since Ford Motor Co. unveiled two Mustang concept cars at the 2003 North American International Auto Show.

For Thai-Tang, overseeing the development of the Mustang was a dream come true, but it was also a pressure-packed assignment.

"There are 18 million customers who have a personal stake in this car," Thai-Tang said. "That was the big pressure. The good news is everybody knows what a Mustang should be. The bad news is everybody knows what a Mustang should be."

Thai-Tang was a logical choice to oversee Mustang's development, said Phil Martens, group vice president-North America product creation.

"We needed a car guy," Martens said.

Never mind that Southeast Asia is worlds removed from southeast Michigan, Thai-Tang said.

"The context of my connection to Mustang is different, but my love for the car, really, has the same roots as somebody, like one of my colleagues, who grew up in Iowa and took his dad's tractor apart when he was 12."

When Thai-Tang was 12, he was settling in at Brooklyn's Public School 282 following his family's flight from Vietnam -- an escape made possible through Chase Manhattan Bank, his mother's employer in Saigon. The bank arranged for Hai Thai-Tang, her husband Huy and their sons, Hau and Nan, to board a military transport bound for Guam.

"You had to keep it a secret," Hai Thai-Tang said of the escape plan. "If the South Vietnamese knew that the Americans were helping you get out of the country, they would kill you, because they'd feel like you betrayed the country."

For 30 days, the family listened to the radio for a signal -- Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." When they heard it, they left immediately for a rendezvous point.

En route to the plane, Hau's father Huy was detained and told he would have to stay and fight. Hau, then 9 years old, and Nan, just 7, were inconsolable, Hai recalled. "They cried and cried. They cried a lot."

After a well-placed bribe, Huy was allowed to go, and the entire family, along with other Chase Manhattan employees and their families, boarded the plane.

Against this backdrop was lingering doubt that the family was making the right move, Hai said.

"The government, at that time, kept all the news to themselves. We were not aware of what was going on around the country. We didn't know how bad it was. When we got to the airport, we knew that we made the right decision."

The gravity of the escape still weighs on Thai-Tang and Nan, also a Ford engineer.

"We were very much aware of the war, and it was something that I had always grown up with," Thai-Tang said. "You accepted that as a way of life. I'm very fortunate."

He joined Ford in 1988, and soon was assigned to work with the Newman-Haas racing team on the CART open-wheel circuit. The job allowed him to refine his area of expertise: chassis engineering.

Chassis design is a hallmark of the new Mustang, which Ford promises will feature more refinement than the current model.

Mustang's powertrain choices, which include a V-6 and an optional 300-hp V-8, are the products of new engineering designs. And its styling harkens back to the late 1960s and early 1970s models Thai- Tang saw in Vietnam.

Hai Thai-Tang said her son was destined to work on the Mustang.

"He was born in 1966," she said.

In the Chinese calendar, it is the year of the horse.

(C) 2004 Chicago Sun-Times.
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