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Reinvention sounded impossible -- and that motivated all involved
January 13, 2004

BY TAMARA AUDI
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

On an unseasonably cold September afternoon in 1999, a Ford Motor Co. vice president and a young designer stood at the edge of the automaker's Dearborn test track and, shivering as the sun set, gazed at a vital part of the company's future.

It had no engine. It had no name. It had not been approved by the board. It had no team to build it.

The future was, at the moment, a slab of clay shaped into a large sedan. In its early nude form, the prototype's big side mirrors and oversized trunk stuck out.

George Bucher, the young chief designer, was not even that interested in the sedan. He was there to view a flashy show car sitting beside it. But J Mays, group vice president of design for Ford, was focused on the life-sized model, taking in its silhouette from all angles, making detailed notes about what he liked and didn't like.

For months there had been speculation among employees at the world's second-largest automaker about a plan to reclaim the sedan market. Sales of the Taurus, the reliable but plain sedan that had saved the company from financial ruin in the mid-1980s, were falling. Toyota and Honda dominated the market. Ford workers wondered when their company would strike back.

Amy Marentic heard the talk even in Europe, where she was marketing Ford's commercial trucks. "We knew we needed something new and we needed something big," she said. "The question was what it was going to be."

Back on the test track, Bucher and Mays were looking at it.

Mays would eventually christen it the Ford Five Hundred. He liked the name, which harkened to historic Fords that carried 500 in the name. It sounded ambitious, just like the car he wanted. They didn't know it, but the Five Hundred would eventually consume the lives of Marentic, Bucher and more than 1,000 suppliers, designers and engineers during the next four years.

Ford bosses wanted new interior and exterior designs based on reams of consumer research. The car would be built in Chicago on a platform, or basic mechanical structure, created by Swedes (Ford had just acquired Volvo).

Its transmission would be designed in Germany and Dearborn, and built in Batavia, Ohio. The Five Hundred would have six speeds and all-wheel drive.

It would look and feel large enough to compete with SUVs overtaking U.S. roads, but drive like a European sports sedan.

To the engineers and designers involved, the project sounded nearly impossible.

The word came from above: Ford wanted to reinvent the sedan.

Noise and cup holders
The slim and quiet Swede did not understand these Americans. They wanted to change the interior now? It was too late, thought Jan Vulcan, a Volvo employee assigned as the top engineering manager to the Five Hundred. It was summer 2002, and the car was too close to being set figuratively in stone -- and literally in sheet metal. The final prototype was about to be built.

There had already been setbacks. The first test drive was awful. The date was embedded in Vulcan's memory: March 17, 2002. Vulcan, the vehicle's nameplate engineer, knew the car was not ready for the Ford vice presidents to test. "Cancel this drive," he had said. "We cannot take it to them."

He was overruled. Four vice presidents gathered to drive the prototype on the Dearborn test track. The car was noisy. The handling was imprecise. Vulcan later described the morning with two words: absolute catastrophe.

After that, he quickly formed what he called the Catastrophe Task Force. The task force worked night and day fixing the prototype's problems, making it run smoothly. Vulcan's staff presented him with an embroidered pillow that said "Bang Head Here" to stop him from smacking his forehead on walls and tables.

On July 2, they brought the vice presidents out for another preliminary test drive. This time, the Ford bosses were smiling. Vulcan was beginning to breathe easier and smack his head less.

Everything was on track -- until suddenly, around August 2002, the Americans at Ford were telling him something was wrong.

Joan Florian, Ford's vehicle program manager, had called Vulcan into the design studio. Florian and her team gathered around a full-scale model of the Five Hundred with a box of plastic cups and bottles.

Florian put a Big Gulp from 7-Eleven in one cup holder and a paper coffee cup in the holder next to it. The cups did not fit side by side.

"See, Jan?" she told him. "That's bad."

"But why do Americans need so much to drink when you drive?" he asked. Europeans did not require such massive cup holders. To redo them would mean making the seats imperceptibly smaller, and perhaps losing the coin well -- small changes that would nonetheless involve dozens of designers and suppliers, and mean more time and more money.

"Trust me," Florian said. "It's important."

Not only did Florian have the plastic cups to prove it, but now Five Hundred marketing manager Amy Merantic was confronting Vulcan with piles of market research data to underscore the point.

Ford researchers had lived with families in Boston to study their driving habits. They had surveyed hundreds of consumers, studied market trends and compressed it all into one perfect target customer. His name was Lewis. He did not exist. The Five Hundred was built for him.

A photo of Lewis -- a fit, middle-aged African-American man cut from a magazine -- hung on the wall of a Ford conference room. Merantic and Florian knew every detail of Lewis' life.

Lewis was 41, lived in a nice house with his wife (a homemaker), and worked as the manager of a bank branch. Lewis had two children -- one in college and one in the later years of high school. Lewis drove an SUV, but now he was in the market for something a little more sophisticated.

He liked sedans, but he was reluctant to buy one because he didn't want to feel dwarfed by the other SUVs on the road. (The Five Hundred would be designed with seats 4 inches higher than other sedans.)

On weekends, Lewis liked to drive Up North in Michigan to play golf with three buddies (the massive trunk was built to fit eight golf bags). He liked to shop at Home Depot, but didn't want to have to go home and get his wife's vehicle to do it (emasculating, inconvenient). Lewis would need something sleek and roomy for picking up business associates. He would need something elegant and classic for taking his wife to see "Les Miserables."

And Lewis liked to supersize his order at the drive-thru.

Vulcan looked at the U.S. women. They were serious.

He threw up his hands. The cup holders would be enlarged.

A stop in Germany
The small passenger plane landed near tiny Kressbron, Germany, and Craig Renneker looked at the hangar in bleary-eyed awe. Someone had told him this was where the Hindenburg was built.

He was to meet with German engineers at ZF Industries. They were renowned for designing transmissions for BMW and Jaguar. They would help design the transmission for the Ford Five Hundred.

It would have to be Ford's smoothest transmission. It could not jerk forward to upshift. Done right, the driver should not even feel the gears change.

Renneker watched the German engineers park their bikes. They ride bikes to work, he thought. They live in an Alpine village. They speak German. There was a six-hour time difference between Kressbron and Dearborn.

The transmission they designed would have no fewer than 350 parts and would be built by workers in Ohio.

Images of the Hindenburg faded and thoughts of his own potential engineering disaster filled his mind. Wow, he thought, this is very, very far away from the manufacturing plant in Ohio.

The next three years would be a blur of video phone meetings, trips to the Ohio plant and the design studio in Germany.

Some days he had 300 e-mails from the Germans. But in the end, he believed they had solved the problem of powering the big car.

One last test
At 7 a.m. on a day last September, a small group of engineers, designers and Ford vice presidents gathered at the Dearborn test track.

Four years earlier, the Five Hundred had been nothing more than clay. Now, it was a black and chrome machine, alive with power.

Thousands of decisions and improvements had been made; battles fought and won over window width, the shape of door handles and the number of tiny holes in the speakers.

Employees who started the project in their 30s were now in their 40s. On a team of engineers run by Ray Nicosia, a 30-year Ford veteran, there had been one wedding, three births, three adoptions -- and no divorces.

The car was done. In four months, it would be unveiled to the world at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Reputations and careers were at stake. They all knew Wall Street would be watching.

Merantic, the marketing manager, knew her father would be watching. She wanted him to buy this car. She was waiting for the day to proudly show it off to him at the auto show, for his eyes to meet hers, and for him to look up at her from the driver's seat. "Good job, baby," he would say -- but only if he really liked it.

Renneker wanted it to run fast and tight.

He got in the Five Hundred with another engineer. In a last spasm of worry, Renneker thought, "What if I hate this car?"

He stomped on the gas. The car launched.

"Right then I knew we were all right," he said. He couldn't wait to e-mail the Germans.

A few weeks later, Vulcan, the slim and quiet Swede, conducted a test drive of his own, away from the smooth Ford test track. Driving a cloaked Five Hundred, he pushed it fast over a particularly punishing stretch of freeway where the road is a bumpy rash of asphalt.

The steering was solid. The interior was quiet. The Swede was smiling.
 

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BSR Twin System (tm)
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FM said:
Interesting article that. Thanks matey :hy:
Yes, very interesting. When do we get pictures of the car?
 

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The SparkleHunter™
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They're on www.fordvehicles.com under the "new product coming" link (or something along those lines anyways mate :hy:
 

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Discussion Starter #5

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I dont like the new design all to much, but hey I did not like the design of the Taurus. I rather have something like the BA or even, god forbid ( i know it is not liked all to well) the AU.

It may just grow on me though.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Well, I'm not doing anything right now. So I'll some post pics of the car.





 

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The SparkleHunter™
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Must admit, it's not a design that really grabs me. Word is the the Futura will bear styling resemblance to the 427 concept car. I hope that's the case because I was expecting the 500 to go down the same styling path as the 427.
 

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I am The Brain
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Thanks for the article Stacy...that is a good read.

I quite like the look of the car....although the rear is very Mercedes-ish.

----EDIT----

I just had a look at the rear of it more closely on Ford's website, and I must say that the rear is foul. It is also very much like the current VY Commodore's rear here in Aus.
 

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Territory TS - AWD
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FM said:
....Word is the the Futura will bear styling resemblance to the 427 concept car. I hope that's the case because I was expecting the 500 to go down the same styling path as the 427.
Ford Futura sketch with noticable 427 styling cues and the same structure as the 500.

 

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I am The Brain
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I absolutely love the Futura/427 concept. I love that look.
 

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The SparkleHunter™
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RAPTOR said:
Ford Futura sketch with noticable 427 styling cues and the same structure as the 500.

Dunno about you guys, but I'm really hoping the '07 Falcon goes along the same path as the 427. Imagine cruising the streets in a Boss 320/350 powered GT looking like the 427! Ultimate battle cruiser or what! :wnc:
 

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FM said:
Dunno about you guys, but I'm really hoping the '07 Falcon goes along the same path as the 427. Imagine cruising the streets in a Boss 320/350 powered GT looking like the 427! Ultimate battle cruiser or what! :wnc:
What he said........
 

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Looks very interesting,quite like it.
Tell me is there an equivalent to our FordForums site like here, in the USA so i could check out the American version or such of a Ford web chat site ,like to know if there is. Thanks
Cheers John
 
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