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Interview: Hau Thai-Tang

First Things First: He doesn't laugh and hardly smiles; family and work are priority--but, down deep, Hau Thai-Tang is a real American musclecar enthusiast

By Todd Lassa
Photography by Lionel Deluy
Motor Trend

He's the working stiff type of enthusiast. He doesn't own a scuderia of Ferraris or vintage T-Birds and Jaguars, like some aesthete who just happens to engineer cars for a living. "I have no time," he says. "No money. Usually, you have one or the other. I have neither."

Hau Thai-Tang doesn't even have a copy of the icon on which he spent the last five years as chief engineer. Thai-Tang promised himself that he'd get a red 2005 Mustang GT when the car whose development he led made it off the assembly line. But Thai-Tang ordered his car late and still drives a 2004 Lincoln LS V-8--his engineering project in the late 1990s--to his new job as director of Ford's in-house tuner operation, Special Vehicle Team. He has this in common with predecessor John Coletti: first things first, family and work over acquiring things like collector cars. Thai-Tang spends his rare free time with his wife and six- and three-year-old daughters. He's a golfer, and he's a racing fan who admits to no talent as a driver.

But you'd wonder how well Thai-Tang and Coletti would've worked together, as if that was ever a realistic option. Late last year, Phil Martens, vice president of product creation for Ford's North American operations, handpicked Thai-Tang to lead SVT. The promotion placed Thai-Tang above Coletti, the capo di tutti capi of SVT (he became chief engineer of SVT in January 1994, two years after it was formed). Coletti would report to Thai-Tang, who reports directly to Martens, but chose instead to retire as SVT director before the end of 2004. For his 38-year-old successor, the SVT job is another step in a bright future at Ford Motor Company.

Coletti is bombastic, bigger than life, eager to joke and riff off stereotypes of his Italian-American heritage. He grew up racing musclecars on Woodward Avenue. Thai-Tang is famous for seeing his first American car, a late-1960s Mustang fastback, in his native Saigon in the early 1970s. Thai-Tang's family fled Saigon in 1975 as it fell to the North. In the 1980s, he earned an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University and later an MBA from the University of Michigan. After Carnegie Mellon, Proctor & Gamble, and General Electric aircraft engines offered him lucrative jobs, Thai-Tang opted for Ford, where he'd worked as an intern.

"You can get just as much intellectual stimulation working on an aircraft engine," he says, "but the likelihood of taking your wife along for a test flight is low, whereas you can bring a Mustang home and share it with your friends. That's really rewarding."

Thai-Tang also appeared on "The Late Late Show" after host Craig Ferguson drove the Mustang convertible at its California introduction.

"It was their first week," recalls Thai-Tang, "and nobody knew who Craig Ferguson was. I think they were short on talent. They called and said, 'Would you like to do it?'"

That's typical Thai-Tang. A dry wit fits his polite, soft-spoken, even-tempered style. He barely ever cracks a smirk and never laughs. And his self-deprecation is a stark contrast to Coletti's elbow-in-the-ribs sense of humor. Yes, they share a love for American musclecars, but, like any self-respecting American engineer under 40, Thai-Tang considers the Porsche 911 the ultimate benchmark.

"Those Porsches have a timeless quality about them. You see a 911 today, and it looks like a 1970s 911. There are evolutionary design changes. That sense of timelessness just fascinates me."

Ford's response is the GT, even more exclusive and more expensive than a 911. "Externally, we demonstrated to our competitors and to the press that we can build a world-class supercar. And we're taking those same engineers who worked on it and putting them on the Shelby [Mustang] program."

The GT also has taught the company new production processes, Thai-Tang says, such as aluminum superforming and CATIA computer-aided designing. And quality control--with recalls for suspension control arms among its teething problems. "It's different from doing a Focus or an F-Series truck. We're not going to do 900,000 of these a year. We're building nine a week. Look at the track record of other supercars. Porsche, Ferrari, you can pick them, and you can look at how many field campaigns and technical service bulletins they've had against their products. The GT shines in comparison. We've protected the customers."

The Shelby Mustang carries its own sense of timelessness, with its retro styling and a solid rear axle in place of the last SVT Mustang Cobra's bolt-in independent rear suspension. As chief engineer on the base car, Thai-Tang is proud that the Ford Racing version campaigned in NASCAR's new Grand Am series cleaned up with a first, second, and ninth at Daytona's road circuit on its inaugural run, beating BMW M3s, Porsche 996s and 997s, Cadillac CTS-vs, Mazda RX-8s, and Nissan 350Zs. "Now they've [Grand Am] added an extra 100 pounds to our cars to make the racing better. I feel the solid rear axle is going to be a nonissue. The car's going to do well."

Drag racers prefer that old solid rear, and many have reinstalled them in last-generation IRS Mustang Cobras for reliability. But Thai-Tang didn't develop the new Mustangs--Shelby 500s by SVT or otherwise--to be straight-line performers. Although the GT still feels like a big American car with a big American engine poking past the front axle, one word that comes up a lot in conversation about Mustang and SVT is "balance." Here's where respect for the Porsche 911 pays off.

"One of the things Phil Martens has said that I want to clarify," Thai-Tang adds, "is that we want to take the BMW M approach. And people say, 'Wait a minute, a 3 Series has IRS. How come you're not doing that?' What Phil really meant was he's challenging us to make our cars multidimensional. We have to make them well-balanced, with good handling, solid structure, fun-to-drive characteristics, all those things. And one of those things BMW never does is rearrange the architecture of the donor platform. That's one way to mitigate risk."

Coletti saw SVT as a Ford division tuner and did no work on Lincolns or Mercurys. "I think we view ourselves as the de facto in-house source for performance products," says Thai-Tang. "If we were to do other performance products in another primary brand, I hope our company would look into it. If you want to do a low-volume, aspirational performance derivative off a high-volume car, it makes sense for us to do it. The paint quality, the craftsmanship that would satisfy a $20,000 V-6 Mustang customer might not satisfy a Shelby Mustang customer."

When he was named director of SVT, Thai-Tang also acquired the title of director for advanced product planning, essentially replacing the retired VP of advanced product planning, Chris Theodore. That half of the job has Thai-Tang making sure a new car or truck can take SVT or other enhancements somewhere along its life cycle.

Maybe we take a strategy that this car is tuned by SVT or enhanced by SVT, but it's not badged an SVT. And those are all things under consideration. We want to provide enhanced benefit to the company. I want better synergies between Ford Racing and SVT, better synergies between our personalization activity and SVT. I see opportunities there."

Ironically, SVT's next truck, based off the new 2006 Sport Trac, will have IRS--why not, if the base model has it, Thai-Tang argues. It'll also have a supercharged 4.6-liter V-8 and six-speed automatic. But enthusiasts expecting a GM Performance Division-like proliferation of such models or Chrysler SRT level of activity will be disappointed. SVT is small, with about 75 engineers. The Shelby Mustang, Sport Trac, continued production of the GT, and the possibility (still undetermined, he says) that Ford will build the GR-1, or something, as a GT successor are all on Thai-Tang's table. He'd like to do a Lincoln, but says such a car is still in the discussion stages--even the branding is under question. Synergies with MazdaSpeed (which could mean a performance Fusion or Lincoln Zephyr), a rally-inspired Focus a la Mitsubishi Evo/Subaru STi all are possibilities. For now, SVT is a two-model operation, plus the nonbadged special tuning and personalization work.

Thai-Tang doesn't take much credit for the SVT stuff that's out there. He can point to the Mustang underneath the Shelby 500, but even the Sport Trac idea belongs to Martens, who decided after the concept version appeared at Detroit that it should be the second new SVT model. "You're not going to see us slap SVT badges on every vehicle nameplate and just throw it out there without the total ownership experience," says Thai-Tang. "We're going to build on our tradition of leading, so you're going to see us go into new segments where other manufacturers haven't gone."

And Ford seems to be holding SVT more closely. It can't fly under the radar, operating like a backroom renegade operation, as it did under Coletti, who worked from a single-story SVT office a couple miles away from Ford's product development center. Thai-Tang's new office is in Ford's product development center, close enough to Martens's office to be able to hold several meetings per day. That'll keep Thai-Tang busy.
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