Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co.’s decision to cut loose the last of its Premier Automotive Group luxury brands has simplified life for the auto maker’s top designer.

“I was an inch deep and a mile wide,” J Mays, Ford’s group vice president-design and chief creative officer, says in an interview on the sidelines of the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here this week. “I would go from one review to the next, and then start the whole thing over again.

“It was like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” he says. “I would get to one end and the other end would already start rusting, so I’d run back and start going again.”

PAG was established in 1998 during Jacques Nasser’s tenure as Ford CEO, and at its peak comprised the Lincoln, Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover brands.

When Ford CEO Alan Mulally took the helm in 2006, his first order of business was to conduct a strategic review of PAG. Ultimately, he decided the group was too big a distraction and draining valuable resources away from the core Ford brand.

Volvo Car Corp., the last vestige of PAG, is close to being sold, marking the end of a once-promising scheme to turn the stable of global luxury marques into a profit generator.

“Once we decided to get rid of the PAG brands – as much as I hated to, because I loved those brands, my job was simplified,” Mays says.

More important, he says, was the One Ford program that combined vehicle development worldwide.

Ford’s concentration on its core DNA resulted in a common global design language. Dubbed “Kinetic,” the philosophy is described by Ford as “energy in motion” and is evident in the upcoming Fiesta B-car and Focus C-car.

While the language has guidelines calling for brand familiarity to be present in Ford vehicles worldwide, it allows for a great degree of design freedom, Mays says.

“There’s a huge array of creativity afforded to our design team,” he says, noting Kinetic design applies to both exteriors and interiors. “But there’s a framework that keeps them inside of the brand parameters.

“When you see (new vehicles) on the road and you say, ‘What the hell happened there?’ It’s because (designers) got outside the brand framework,” Mays says. “So it’s important to me to keep a tight enough rein on the organization that they’re being creative, but within a framework that’s going to help enhance the brand.”

The design staff is encouraged to express itself, but there are exceptions. One is the word “value.”

“I kind of banned the word from the design studios, because inevitably designers will immediately think that means cheap,” Mays says. Instead, Ford vehicles should be known for exceeding customer expectations.

Even without PAG, Mays still has a lot on his plate in overseeing Ford design studios worldwide from his London location.

“I’m there for a purely practical reason,” he says of his home base. “It allows me to do business with the entire world without getting up in the middle of the night.”

Mays’ influence stretches beyond design, as he works closely with Ford’s marketing team to decipher consumer wants in various regions of the world.

Many auto makers targeting “Millennials,” the growing population of 14- to 29-year-olds, are missing the big picture by lumping everyone in the age bracket into a single marketing group, he says.

“There are leading-edge Millennials, and trailing-edge Millennials,” he says. “We need to slice this pie up a little bit more finely.”

The unprecedented growth of China’s car market and its rapid adoption of new technology also fascinate Mays.

“They disregarded the landline and the dial phone and the big brick (portable phone) we had in the ’80s and went straight to the Internet,” he says. “Because of that we’re getting this kind of skyrocketing growth, (and) there are a lot of high expectations there.

“People want it and they want it yesterday.”

bpope@wardsauto.com