VPCs, VLEs, brand managers. Nineties-speak for today's efforts at organizing the oft-blurry idea of world-car management and engineering structure.

In 1980, it was "project centers" that Ford Motor Co. concocted for its first fullbore crack at developing a vehicle for global markets -- the 1981 Escort.

Louis R. Ross, at the time Ford's executive vice president-car product development, explained that Escort's significance to the world-car ideal: "(the Escort) was designed in the States but from a resource standpoint it is a world car. We will have one basic car for more than one market. We still have to adapt it to local suppliers, aesthetic tastes and federal regulations."

The 1981 Escort was indeed a world car in that sense, but WAW editor David C. Smith was there for the car's launch and later drove the European Escort. He says that although the U.S. Escort and the European version appeared quite similar, appearance is precisely where any parity between the two cars ended; European models -- from a hardware and dynamic standpoint -- "were totally different cars," he says. Differences ranged from smaller but stouter engines to heavily revised suspensions for the Eurospec Escort.

As a fledgling world-car venture, the 1981 Escort wasn't a flop at all; the car -- and its Mercury-badged Lynx counterpart -- was a decently engineered, reasonably valued answer to perceived threats in the form of Volkswagen AG's U.S.-built Rabbit and a gaggle of getting-better-every-day Japanese econo-transport.

In fact, it was the inherent decentness of the first Escort that established the Escort/Lynx range as a continual strong seller. Even if the first Escort didn't fulfill the ultimate goal underlying world-car development -- rationalizing costs to the point where even small cars can become profitable -- the car did, and continues to, lure multitudes to Ford dealers worldwide.

Ford's Grand Experiment extended into this decade, when it was time to rethink the Escort's "global" focus.

This time, in 1991, the Escort/Tracer was developed with Ford's Japanese partner, Mazda Motor Corp. Lessons learned from the first Escort led Ford to buy directly into Mazda's own ongoing small-car development program; after all, the Japanese had emerged in the decade since the original Escort's launch. Ford coded its version of Mazda's 323/Protege the CT20.

At the time, Ford reckoned it saved a cool $1 billion by cutting the Mazda deal. CT20's spin on the world-car theme went 180-degrees from the first Escort: now, the cars would enjoy a high degree of mechanical similarity to their Mazda counterparts -- and it was deemed that sheetmetal should become the primary differentiator for various markets.

CT20 helped Ford to better understand Japanese production methods, engineering priorities, quality enhancements, even cultural nuances. By designing-in a much higher degree of North American content, even for cars built at the Hermosillo, Mexico, plant, CT20 aided tremendously in balancing Ford's tricky CAFE position.

Perhaps most important, the CT20 collaboration with Mazda taught. Ford much about resolving cost and quality conflicts that arose between engineers in Japan -- who, comforted by their company's traditional close bond with suppliers, became accustomed to certain engineering extravagances -- and their peers in the U.S. who knew some Japanese-specified components would be unacceptably expensive when provided by U.S. suppliers.

Now, the 1997 Escort/Tracer marks the end of Ford's "learning curve" with the Escort world-car program. Although the new cars continue to be heavily based on Mazda's engineering (the 323/Protege platform remains) Ford has substantially revised the 1.9L I-4 engine and tweaked the suspension.

In essence, the '97 models bridge the gap between what was learned in the previous-generation Mazda collaboration and where Ford will go as the Escort/Tracer gets the full-blown "global" treatment in 1999, when an all-new Escort designed by the company's European small/medium front-drive vehicle program center (VPC) is launched.

Headed up by the able Richard Parry-Jones (see p. 119), the small/medium front-drive VPC from now on handles all of Ford's dent for smallish front-drivers, as mandated by the recently adopted Ford 2000 reorganization.

The Escort/Tracer's come full-circle, then. The "original" Ford global car of 1981 evolves into 1999's adaptation of the global ideal. Back then, Ford called the organization needed to produce that first Escort a "project center." Nearly 20 years later, the idea's the same, but the organization's called a vehicle program center.

In between, Ford's learned that globalization of vehicle development and manufacturing may be a process that demands persistent redefinition.