LONDON – First Standard & Poor’s cuts Ford Motor Co.’s debt rating to the lowest level above junk bonds, and now the auto maker’s chief designer J Mays says the Ingeni European studio will close.

J Mays created Ingeni studio.

The two events are inexorably linked. Ford no longer can afford the luxury of a studio, largely funded by its Premier Automotive Group – Land Rover, Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin – that’s effectively outside the traditional car-making system. (See related story: Ford’s Ingeni Studio Fate Uncertain)

Ingeni, set up in London’s Soho, was very much Mays’ creation. The former Audi AG designer, who took over at Ford in October 1997, convinced then-President Jac Nasser that to understand the youth culture Ford needed a studio in London.

Mays wanted a young group of designers to, “explore new ideas in product, furniture, graphics, fashion design and architecture,” as well as to work on a range of products and accessories for the PAG brands.

And, although a full-scale car wouldn’t fit in the open floor-plan studio, the group did work on advanced concepts for Ford and PAG brands – the Faction compact SUV, for example, unveiled at last year’s Los Angeles auto show.

Mays spent four years getting the studio up and running, personally selecting the location, architect and reconstruction, thought to have cost about £15 million ($25 million).

Now, just 17 months after its official opening in June 2002, Ingeni will close on Jan. 1. although Ford is not getting rid of the building. PAG’s executive offices remain, along with the basement restaurant and Bean-Stalk, a graphics business 70% owned by Ford.

Mays says the 14 Ingeni designers will be “redeployed back into the brands,” equally split between Dearborn, PAG and Ford of Europe.

An announcement regarding the future of recently appointed Ingeni design boss Gerry McGovern is expected in December. Mays says McGovern will stay with Ford, likely inside PAG. Rumor suggests he will be in charge of PAG “special vehicles and concepts.” Peter Horbury, PAG styling chief, remains at his present post.

“We learned a lot from the non-automotive works,” says Mays, adding Ingeni’s outside customers included a major aircraft manufacturer, an airline and mobile phone company.

“We were making our numbers, but Ingeni doesn’t fit into to Bill Ford’s back-to-basics company philosophy,” he says. “I can understand the brands being unhappy funding Ingeni. It was inevitable under the circumstances. PAG people would look at our luxury goods work and ask, ‘Why don’t we have dashboards that look this good?’”

Ingeni is the second Ford studio to face the ax under Mays, who also was responsible for dismantling Ghia SpA’s coach-making operation in Turin.

But Mays remains upbeat.

“Ingeni was the third studio I’ve opened,” he says. “I hope there will be others before they put me out to pasture.”