J.C. Mays, the 43-year-old Oklahoma-bred, European-trained outsider Ford Motor Co. tapped to replace Jack Telnack as vice president of design is quite blunt about his new job.

"I have been brought in to make some changes and I fully intend to do that," he tells Ward's Auto World in a joint interview with Mr. Telnack. "There's an incredible amount of talented people in this organization. Jack (Telnack) has done an incredible job over the last 10 years to set a great big creative engine on a track," he says. "I'm going to change the direction of the track (and) certainly there will be some personnel changes, but I think the important thing is to know where we want the train to go down the track. Our destination with some of the brands will change from where they are at the moment."

That's not a knock on Mr. Telnack or Ford's design team. In the highly subjective field of automotive artistry, a top designer is expected to lead the creative charge. And Mr. Mays - his friends and associates simply call him "J" - allows that despite his lofty new position he expects to remain a "hands-on" designer. "I'm not going to be able to go around and design 63 different designs, but my colleagues know that I came off the (drawing) boards; I know how to design a vehicle," he says.

Because of his relative youth and the fact that design veeps usually remain in their jobs until retirement, Mr. Mays likely will shape Ford's global design thrust during the next 20 crucial years of intense international competition.

Mr. Mays and those who know the tall Oklahoman with the closely cropped hair concur that his "people" strengths also made him an attractive candidate. A self-described "consensus builder," Mr. Mays says he is "really a person who tears down walls between departments, and I think people like that."

He's the first Big Three design vice president in anyone's memory to be recruited from outside, but it wasn't a snap decision. "We went through everybody (leading inside candidates)," says Mr. Telnack, who's retiring at age 60 after a 40-year Ford career (see sidebar p.40). "Everybody had a fair shot. J. surfaced at the top. I think everyone feels it was a fair evaluation."Mr. Mays inherits Ford's New Edge design philosophy honed under Mr. Telnack. New Edge, as embodied in the European Ka minicar, the upcoming totally revamped Mercury Cougar and recent concepts, including the MC4 and Lincoln Sentinel Ghia, is a work in progress. Critics would say the results so far are mixed, but to be fair there haven't been enough models brought to market with the defining New Edge cues to draw a conclusion.

The goal is to combine softer rounded lines from the post-Taurus teardrop era with crisper, sharper, edgier lines to create a new visual foundation that projects a positive emotional impact on a critical mass of consumers.

In a marketplace where competitors, especially Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd., thrive with designs that are surprisingly conservative, design risks can easily backfire.

"One of the things I bring to the table here is my ability to clarify and separate the brands under the Ford umbrella," Mr. Mays says. Indeed, that was his role as an outside consultant to Ford over the last two years when he worked for SHR Perceptual Management from a studio in Newbury Park, CA.

"New Edge is a very technical, precise, functional design language. What I would ideally like to see happen is for it to find a home under one of the Ford prime brands (Ford, Mercury and Lincoln), so we could find another design vocabulary on the other two brands."

Those who know him have high praise for Mr. Mays. "J. Mays represents a whole different point of view from what has gone on in the past, at least in the higher echelons of U.S. automotive design," says Ronald C. Hill, chairman of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where Messrs. Mays and Telnack both got their design degrees. "Ford is listening to the need to have a more rounded and responsible reaction to the changing realities of the marketplace."

So just who is this guy and what did Ford find so attractive about him?

He grew up in Maysville, OK, a small town of about 1,000 located 45 miles south of Oklahoma City that was named after his great-great-great-great grandfather, one of the original Boomer Sooners. There is some Native American blood in the family and J. estimates he is about 1/32 Choctaw.

His father owned a large cattle ranch, but supplemented the family's income by operating a go-cart track, where J. and his brothers spent many summer weekends. He began sketching cars when he was around five, he says, and his father still has some of those sketches.

Mr. Mays' first car was a 1972 Datsun 240Z. During high school he also restored a 1955 Chevy Bel Air coupe. At the age of 20, as a struggling journalism student at the University of Oklahoma, he traded in both the Z and the '55 Chevy for a Jaguar XJ12.

How are you going to keep them on the prairies of Norman when they've discovered the Jag? His interest in journalism was waning and he found out about this place called the Art Center College of Design. Way out in exotic Los Angeles, here was a place a kid could go and get paid, or eventually hope to get paid for drawing cars. Sayonara to journalism school.

"He was very focused. Even then he was able to pick a direction and follow through with it," says Jim Hall, vice president for industry analysis for AutoPacific Group Inc. in West Bloomfield, MI, who attended the Art Center at about the same time. "He would take an idea and develop it rather than hop around like someone on the top of a skillet. He obviously is more than just a pencil pusher."

Asked what kind of outside interests Mr. Mays had during his Design Center days, Mr. Hall says, "I didn't hang out with him, but I don't remember any big sports fixations or anything like that. I do remember he had the hots for Candace Bergen, but who didn't back then?"

Although a Ford-sponsored scholarship helped cover his tuition in Pasadena, Mr. Mays' first job was with Audi AG in Ingolstadt, Germany, in 1980. His first project was the Audi 80, a sedan with a shorter-than-normal rear deck lid that actually tried to incorporate some of the expanded greenhouse, or bubble-type aerodynamics, that were going through Mr. Telnack's early models of what would become the 1986 Taurus. Although they didn't meet at the time, Mr. Mays caught Mr. Telnack's attention when the Audi 80 debuted at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show because clearly they were tracking in the same direction.

After three years at Audi he went to Munich with BMW AG where he had a role in the 5-Series and 8-Series. But that stint lasted only a year, after which he returned to Audi as a senior designer focusing on aerodynamic research for Audi's Rally/Trans Am programs. Among the models he influenced there were the Audi 100, Volkswagen Golf, Polo and Audi Cabrio. By the end of the '80s he was deeply involved with two vehicles that carry the most clout on his resume: The stunning all-aluminum AVUS concept sports car powered by an awesome W-12 engine, and the Concept 1, the precursor to the New Beetle that debuts in the United States early next year.

In retrospect Mr. Mays regards AVUS as his favorite car of those he helped design, while Concept 1 was the most fun.

"The thing to remember about the AVUS was that it was Audi's first serious expression of its belief in going all-aluminum and there were a lot of emotional implications to that car what with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall," he recalls.

The courtship that put him where he is today was short and to the point.

It started in early August with a call from Mr. Telnack.

"When Jack called I assumed he was calling up to talk about one of the projects we at SHR were involved with. So when I asked what I could do for him, he said, 'I hope I can do something for you,'" Mr. Mays says. "He was being a bit oblique about the whole thing."

A week later he flew to Detroit and met Mr. Telnack for lunch. Then the two of them dined with Jac Nasser, president of Ford Automotive Operations, that night.

"We had a conversation about the industry and went through from A to Z, every manufacturer, who was producing good cars and who was not producing good designs," he says. By the time dessert came around, the consultant was still in the dark about why he'd been summoned to Dearborn.

"I had really come up with the impression that because there were a few directors in some of the vehicle centers who had retired in the last few months that they were going to offer me one of those jobs and I was going to politely decline," says Mr. Mays.

Finally, Mr. Nasser looked at Mr. Telnack and said, "Well I suppose we can tell him now. It's Jack's job we need to fill."

"You can imagine my ears just folded halfway around my head," Mr. Mays says.

Despite the support of Mr. Nasser, and his candor about setting a new direction, the political challenge of leading a staff of 1,000 creative people spread among seven design centers worldwide - eight when you count Jaguar's studio in Coventry, England - will not be overcome in a month or two. The most people Mr. Mays supervised at Audi was about 200.

"Things aren't going to go radically different just because a talented outsider walks in the door," says Carl Olsen, chairman of the transportation design department at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. "It will be years before one sees a car that is heavily philosophically influenced by J. Mays at Ford. The difficult part will be to integrate the more senior design staff members who feel they were passed over."

Then there's Ford's festering irritation that Chrysler Corp. has become regarded as the American industry's most effective design innovator over the last five years.

But Chrysler's knack for reviving a classic look from yesterday, whether it is the Atlantic or this year's Phaeton show cars or the Plymouth Prowler, is not something Ford likely will emulate. "I have never in my life done a retro car, and I don't intend to start now," Mr. Mays says.

Wait a minute. This is coming from the guy who helped revive the Beetle?

"The (New) Beetle has not one even remote essence of retro in it," he says. "The proof in the pudding is in the Generation Xers who don't know what a Beetle ever looked like. There's a difference in lifting old-fashion design elements and placing them on new sheet metal and doing modern design elements that somehow you calculate in the back of your head that makes you remember when you had a really good time with some old vehicle," he explains. "I'd like to think we're always going to be able to do the former, not the latter."

- with David C. Smith

What you notice first about John S. (Jack) Telnack Jr. is that sweeping smile, that distinctive hawk-bell nose and, arms folded across his chest, that intense look confirming he's listening, assimilating the details.

Jack is capping a 39-year career at the Ford Motor Co., the last 10 as vice president for design, at year's end. It has been, he says, "Quite a ride. I never dreamed it would be like this."

Born into a Ford family nearby the company's sprawling Dearborn complex, Mr. Telnack recalls that even as a youngster he'd climb the wall surrounding the Ford test track and sketch new models roaring by. When he was barely 15, his father wrangled a visit to the Ford Design Center for the wide-eyed youth. And at 21 in 1958, fresh out of the Art Center for Design in Pasadena, CA, he went to work there and never left, except for overseas assignments.

Like numerous people who later would climb high at Ford, Mr. Telnack worked on the first Mustang during the early 1960s, designing the wheel covers and later the fastback version. He's been on a fast track ever since.

Unlike some of the industry's notorious design dandies with world-class egos, Mr. Telnack made his mark by leading, rather than dictating, Ford's design direction. He describes it as "a collaborative process" where everyone has input. "I have my fingerprints on the final designs and I do the presentations to top management," is his simple explanation of his role.

It's much more than that, of course, because whether you love or hate Ford's designs, he's the guy who gets the applause - and the brickbats.

As executive director of design, he led the team that shaped the then-radical aerodynamic Taurus introduced in 1986. His critics called it a "Jelly Bean," but he had the last laugh. Taurus quickly became the best-selling car in America, was copied far and wide, and - after an even more controversial makeover for 1996 - continues to rank near the top of the sales charts.

Pushing the envelope still further, he and his troops took the aero look they pioneered, blended it with crisp angular lines and intersections, and came up with what he calls the "new edge" look. The first new-edge car is the tiny Ka off the European Fiesta platform introduced last year. It will next be seen on the all-new 1999 Cougar and Escort.

One new-edge concept car, the Lincoln Sentinel, was roundly panned by the automotive press when it was unveiled in 1996, however. "Batmobile" was one favorite description. Still, Ford apparently sees new edge as a way to achieve distinction in a sea of lookalikes: The Ka is featured on the cover of the company's 1997 annual report, and Chairman Alex Trotman poses with a Ka on an inside page.

Although he may not extend the philosophy to all Ford vehicles, J.C. Mays, Mr. Telnack's successor, describes the Ka as "sensational; I don't know a designer in the world who doesn't think that. It lends itself to almost anything."

An avid fisherman, sailor and yachtsman - Mr. Telnack also designed boats as a freelancer early in his Ford career - he says he decided two years ago to retire. Jac Nasser, then head of product development and since last November president of Ford Automotive Operations (FAO), "pressured me to stay until I found a successor," he recalls. That search took two years and Ford design insiders "had a fair shot" at his job, he maintains, "but J. Mays surfaced at the top."

A combination of factors ignited speculation that Mr.Telnack may have been shown the exit sign. That often happens when an automotive exec retires early. But when his successor is selected from outside, that suggests someone is looking for a new direction. And if that someone is Jac Nasser, a stickler for detail, whether it's his extensive watch collection, office furnishings or dashboard bezels, there must be more to the story, right?

So much for conjecture. Messrs. Nasser and Telnack, who've known each other and worked together on three continents over the last 30 years, insist that folks can stop reading between the lines (see Mr. Nasser's note on this page).

Their relationship goes back to 1966 when Mr. Telnack, only 29, was sent to Australia to establish a Ford design studio there. Mr. Nasser, a Lebanese-born Aussie, had just joined the Ford of Australia finance staff.

"Even then he was always interested in the product and design side," Mr. Telnack recalls. "Later on we also worked together in Europe."

Returning to the U.S. in 1969, Mr. Telnack was design executive for Mustang and Maverick for four years, then departed for Europe where he had responsibility for designing the all-new Fiesta, which quickly became a winner.

Back once again at home base, he led the design of the 1979 Mustang, whose aero cues set the stage for Taurus - a $3-billion project that moved ahead despite Ford's early '80s brush with financial disaster.

Mr. Telnack also cites Ford's truck designs - Explorer, F-Series and Expedition - among accomplishments under his watch. He's less proud of cars like the mid-'80s compact Tempo built off existing Escort mechanicals. "When we designed the Escort we didn't know Tempo would be coming from the same platform," he says. Under the Ford 2000 platform globalization scheme, that would not happen today, he adds.

Ford also took its lumps when the sad-eyed European Scorpio debuted in 1994 and promptly bombed. But again, Mr.Telnack takes solace in the fact that others, including mighty Mercedes-Benz, since have adopted Scorpio's oval headlamp treatment.

So what's next for Jack Telnack? He plans to do a lot of fishing off his Hatteras yacht berthed in Stewart, FL, and take the ship on a Great Lakes cruise next summer. After that he may design a much smaller fishing boat for putzing around.

He may even try his hand at painting (water colors), something he hasn't done in years, and teaching. And it's probably a safe bet he'll still spend time at the Dearborn test track, this time on the inside looking out.