J Mays is the likeable 49-year-old American who has been head of Ford Motor Co.'s global design team since taking over from Jack Telnack in 1997.

It came as a surprise to some, therefore, when Ford announced in December that it was transferring Peter Horbury, former head of its Premier Automotive Group based in Europe, to the U.S. to run Ford's U.S. design studios.

Horbury, who took up his new post in February, has direct responsibility for the styling of all Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models — a significant part of Mays' job as vice president-design.

Mays admits he has been spread too thin and claims he welcomes the appointment because it allows him to assume a more strategic function, while still being involved in design.

Certainly Lincoln can use some help. Ford's luxury brand, once part of PAG, has taken a pummeling in recent years and now trails rivals Lexus, Mercedes and BMW brands, as well as cross-town rival Cadillac in the U.S. market.

And Lincoln still is waiting for one of former design boss Gerry McGovern's string of concepts to make it to the showroom. While Cadillac's revival gains ever more momentum, Lincoln is in abeyance.

“Lincoln's new DNA shows up on the Aviator,” Mays explains. “We'll migrate to the egg-crate grille over the next five years. We want to lighten the design, make it more flowing and use colors from an American palate.

“Gerry's concepts were too blocky. The chrome strips (that run the length of the beltline, a feature drawn from the classic '61 Continental), are still there, just different.”

Trouble is the attractive Aviator cross/utility vehicle — think Lexus RX 330 — is a couple of years away from the showroom, while the Mark LT, a badge-engineered Ford F-150, won't arrive until early 2005.

Shown as a concept, the Mark X, a flowing 2-seat convertible with a clever 2-section folding hardtop engineered by Valmet Automotive, was destined for production until Ford's recent financial woes killed the program.

Pulled off the T-Bird, the Mark X also wears Lincoln's new grille. Another Lincoln concept, a midsize sedan based on the Mazda6 architecture, is to be unveiled at the New York show in April.

Far more significant is the Five Hundred, Ford's new big sedan, an alternative to the Taurus, once America's best-selling car and based on the Volvo P2X (S80) platform. Mays doesn't disagree that it looks like a cross between a Passat and Audi A6 (which he helped design), with Mercedes' taillights and an old Ford grille.

“The Five Hundred is an evolution of where we are going; it's not the end result,” he says. “It's the first car I did in the U.S. It was frozen at the same time as the Mondeo (launched in late 2000). This was still me training, with a lot of Audi design DNA in my head. I was trying to clean up the swirly design I'd inherited.

“People say we were too conservative with the Five Hundred, but it's a good-looking, conservative car,” Mays adds. “The market is coming to aspirational cars that look expensive, not innovative. Is the conservatism going to affect sales? No, no, no.”

He loves the small Bronco concept shown at the Detroit auto show, styled by Jo Baker, the young Brit responsible for last year's evocative 427.

“It could be the Ranger if we go with a chassis, or an Escape if we decide to do a monocoque in Europe,” Mays says. “If we could do it for $15,000-$16,000, we'd be off and running. It's the SUV a child would draw, without the quirkiness of a concept. This is serious.”

The rugged, small CUV concept, built over the Escape's architecture but likely to be built over the Brazilian EcoSport's underpinnings in production, features the three thick horizontal grille bars that first showed up on the 427, important to the future look of all Fords.

“The 427 represents the design DNA we'll end up with,” Mays says. “I've been talking to Chris (Bird, head of Ford of Europe Inc. design) and Simon (Butterworth, same position at Ford Motor Co. of Australia Ltd.), to find a way to make it work on their cars. The question is, can it translate to Europe? It's a piece of equipment, not a status symbol.”

In Europe, Mays admits, “Ford design is languishing. I'm not blaming Chris. He's given us the family look we wanted. But I want to turn up the volume about six notches at Jaguar and Ford of Europe.”

Seems Jaguar Cars Ltd. management, stung by criticism that the new XJ is too retro-conservative looking, has come full circle and now is insisting on bold proposals that shock.

Mays is circumspect about the Visos — the 4-seat luxury (retro Capri) concept shown at last year's Frankfurt show — and leaves the impression he lost the highly political battle that led to the coupe being shown in public.

The next big step forward in Ford of Europe design likely is the new Mondeo, due for '07. Expect the 3-bar grille to feature prominently and also be included on a facelifted Five Hundred in just a couple of years.

Which brings the discussion to the Shelby Cobra. “This is the voluptuous one,” Mays says of the Detroit show car. “I didn't want people saying, ‘Gee, Mays you've done another retro design.’ So we threw the old English sports car away, there wasn't a lot we could work with, and tried to establish the essence of its form language.

“This is Shelby-Cobra-meets-Audi TT. It's incredibly difficult to do something this simple. It's a forward-looking, linear shape with slot-car proportions.”

From the firewall to behind the seats, the important hardware is virtually identical to the Ford GT supercar, and the car uses the same suspension, which accounts for the vast width, Mays says. “It needs to be wide, the width of a (Dodge) Viper. It's wide but short. It's 15 ins. (38 cm) shorter than a TT and weighs less than 3,100 lbs. (1,406 kg).

“I want to build it. It's totally feasible,” Mays says. “In 21½2 years, there's a factory in Troy (MI) that's going to be empty (when production of the GT stops), and I'd like to fill it up with something. This is incredibly relevant to Ford. What is the relevance of the ME Four-Twelve (Chrysler's mid-engine show stealer)? It's off-brand to me.”

Approaching the new Mustang at the recent Detroit auto show, Mays explains the retention of the solid rear axle. “It's a volume car,” he says. “We'll do 180,000 in the first year, so it needs to be cheap. Besides, you'll soon see a cracking roll-out of limited editions: the Mach One, Bullitt (and) Boss Cobra.”

As he passes Ford's grouping of its power trilogy cars — the Mustang, GT and Cobra, Mays quips: “I wanted Bob (Lutz, Chrysler Group's product guru) to walk past our stand every morning and be reminded that we're America's performance brand.”