Who wins the Ford Design War?
An internal power struggle over control of Fords future designs has broken out at Ford Motor Company, a by-product of policy decisions made by Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally. According to Motor Trend, there are two competing camps: the U.S. Ford design studio, which is commanded by Volvo’s former design chief, Peter Horbury, and the European studio run by Martin Smith.
The two design heads and their studios have different philosophies. Smith’s European studio produces cars of “kinetic design,” such as that pictured here, which are marked by more complex design shapes. On the other hand, the U.S. studio and Horbury favor squarer profiles and shapes, called “red, white, and bold.”
The battle is a by-product of Mulally’s insistence on developing global cars. That means that the next Fiesta for the U.S. will be the forthcoming European Fiesta, which is a European studio design. The overriding question is which designer will prevail, as there is not room for two competing themes in the product line if the global car concept is to be fully implemented and Ford is to carry through a family resemblance in all of its models. Having every Ford be instantly recognizable as a Ford, whether in Europe, the U.S., or any other Ford market is one of Mulally’s goals and emulates the approach long taken by Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Motor Trend distinguishes Mulally’s “global car” concept from the “world car” that Ford tried about a decade ago, a program which was designed to use the same platform in both Europe and the United States for models thought to be similar. That approach was a huge failure, costing Ford a great deal of money in lost sales and development expenditures. The two major problems with the “world car” program were size and appearance. Cars designed for the European market were cramped by American standards and compared with American competitors. Also, the Euro design themes were not popular here, at least as Ford implemented them.
More recently, Ford has produced the Ford 500, now the Taurus, which was obviously heavily influenced by the Volkswagen Passat line. That car has not sold well. That car, however, may not be a true test of the acceptance of European designs in Ford products. The design that was copied was old when the 500/Taurus was introduced and Ford’s marketing efforts certainly didn’t help.
The belief that all Ford products, no matter where produced or sold, should have a family identity also runs into one other obstacle. While BMW and Mercedes can claim a certain prestige to their family identity, one that flows downward from their more expensive models to those which are less expensive, neither manufacturer produces a truly inexpensive car. The family identity of the BMW and Mercedes-Benz products is largely created by the cars’ grills, which carry a well-known and recognizable theme regardless of the car’s price range.
Ford, on the other hand, is in the business of selling inexpensive cars everywhere it sells cars, and it has no historically recognizable vehicle “face.” Taking into account the lead time for developing new models, it probably couldn’t even begin to develop a family “face” for its vehicles for at least four years. Whether having family similarity among all models is as important when the vehicle brand lacks the prestige associated with higher priced cars and, consequently, has no cache to rub off on the rest of the line is an unanswered question.
Though the global car concept has set off a turf war between the design studios, that may not have been an accident. Indeed, if Mulally decided to pit one against the other, it would not be the first time Ford’s done that. Competition among designers has long been a tactic car companies have used to wring the best out of their designers. For example, following World War II, the design for the first new post-War Ford was created by Ford’s styling chief, E. T. Gregorie. But Ford brought in an outside consultant, George W. Walker, to review the design proposals. Walker ended up designing the 1949 Ford. Gregorie’s design became the 1949 Mercury. Walker eventually became the design chief at Ford.
And there is no guarantee that either of the current Ford design studio chiefs will win. While Mulally has refrained from making major personnel changes at Ford, as he becomes more comfortable with the automotive aspects of his job, as opposed to the purely business side of things (such as finance and labor negotiations), he may want to have his own person running the design studio. No position within an automobile company is as important to the success or failure of it’s president and CEO than the head of its design studio. The best executive in the world will not be able to sell ugly cars. But beautiful cars that capture the public’s attention and imagination by their appearance will sell, and can go a long way toward compensating for a company’s past reputation.
When another person has that much to do with his future job security, it would only be natural for Mr. Mulally ultimately to expand the list of candidates before finally selecting the person who will determine Ford’s design direction for years to come.