SYDNEY – Five years ago, when J Mays had overall responsibility for the design of the eight famous car names owned by, the biannual gathering of their high-profile design bosses was more of a broad-brush, strategic brand-fest than a serious design review.
Today, under One, with Volvo sold to China’s Geely, Mercury eliminated and , , Jaguar and Land Rover long gone, only two brands survive: Ford and Lincoln.
And the auto maker’s global design reviews have become, in Ford shorthand, the JMM Meetings for J (Mays), Martin Smith and Moray Callum.
With no distractions from the core Blue Oval brand, the three men who control Ford design now come together as one team for in-depth evaluations of design proposals for every future new-model program.
They deliberate over the global portfolio, plan up to a decade ahead, and ensure that Ford presents one continuously evolving design DNA philosophy.
This year, for the first time, Mays, Smith and Callum traveled to Ford Australia’s Broadmeadows studio for three and a half intense days of discussion and design reviews with Chris Svensson, the Brit who has run the Australian studio since June 2010.
Late on the morning of their fourth day in Melbourne, and just before they departed for Tullamarine, the four designers meet for an interview with WardsAuto in the boardroom of the recently renovated studio.
Design is the good-news story from embattled Ford Australia, where ongoing production cuts (in November from 209 cars a day to an unsustainable 148) of the once best-selling Falcon threaten the existence of the Broadmeadows assembly plant.
Since Svensson arrived, the Australian design team, including modelers, design engineers and support staff, has grown from 50-60 people to 160, a tribute to the quality of the designers and the growing importance of the studio to Ford’s international operations.
This is another reason why the quarterly JMM meeting is taking place in Australia.
The Broadmeadows studio has just undergone a fundamental renovation. The restructuring incorporates the latest high-definition WebEx video-conferencing on a “power wall,” a large-screen virtual-reality studio with a 3D CAVE.
The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment uses rear projection to, among other things, allow the designers to sit in a virtual interior-design proposal for a real understanding of visibility, ergonomics and space.
The WebEx technology means Svensson’s team is in weekly contact with Mays and Smith in Europe and, when necessary, with Callum at Ford world headquarters in Dearborn, MI. The design tools allow the Blue Oval’s global studios to operate 24/7.
Ford design divides the world into two zones: Smith is responsible for Europe and Ford Asia/Pacific and Africa, with studios in Cologne, Germany; Dunton, U.K.; the Ingeni studio in London; Broadmeadows; and a small Shanghai facility that works on strategic concepts rather than production programs.
Callum runs North and South American design with studios for cars – including the Lincoln studio under Australian designer Max Wolff – and trucks in Dearborn; Freeman Thomas’ advanced studio in Irvine, CA; and another in Camacari, Brazil.
Overseeing the 1,100-strong Ford design team is J Mays, an American who lives in London and has offices in Dearborn and at Ingeni.
The Broadmeadows studio, established in 1970 by Jack Telnack, an American on assignment to Ford Australia, has spent 42 years designing generations of the Falcon large car, Territory SUV and, increasingly, a growing number of international models, most still secret.
Svensson says there also is more design work to come on both the Falcon and Territory before they are expected to be replaced by imported American models in 2017.
“The strategy of producing models for emerging markets like India, China and Indonesia has given Broadmeadows, with its local expertise, a great opportunity to design specific vehicles,” says Smith. “And that’s what is driving the increase in head count (here).”
Ford was late to the game in China and India, and Broadmeadows now is considered Ford’s center of excellence for the Asia/Pacific region.
The popular Ford Figo, a major facelift of the previous Fiesta, specifically developed and manufactured in India but also sold in South Africa and Mexico, is the best in-production example.
Mays and Svensson decline to provide precise details of future programs, though they admit that the Australian studio’s influence spreads to most of Ford’s global products. “We work together globally,” says Smith. “Everybody understands the ambition to develop design, and we get ideas from this studio and that studio.”
“The EcoSport (compact Fiesta-based SUV due in Australia in 2013) is a good example,” Callum adds. “It was first shown in New Delhi and designed in Brazil, but the Australian studio heavily influenced the face of the car. You can see (the theme) in the Territory – that (design) was born here.”
“Design is not a black-and-white process,” says Mays. “It creeps along. What is great is that we now communicate in a consistent, disciplined way. We have design reviews with everyone looking at global programs, and inevitably each studio takes back something that they’ve seen to take them to the next level.
“We want to make the best use of our global creativity, so for each new program we get input. It’s not so much a competition, but a friendly discussion.”
Smith notes: “At the beginning, we want to get as many ideas as possible. It’s our job to strategically filter that, to bring the relevant ideas together to formulate the new vehicle.”
Adds Mays: “And you can never design one vehicle without thinking about the entire accumulated portfolio, what’s in the showroom and what’s coming in the future.”
Mays and Smith, longtime friends who worked together at Audi in the early 1990s, and Callum clearly are at ease with one another, offering gentle reminders and the occasional helpful interruption. They even finish each other’s sentences.
Egos are controlled, with all their comments adding to the consistent message the auto maker strives to deliver: We want a Ford to be instantly recognized as a Ford anywhere on Earth.
Ford design has not always been so carefully and smoothly integrated. Mays arrived in 1997, shortly after Telnack’s New Edge design theme was introduced, first on the Ka and later more prominently and successfully on the first-generation Focus, but disastrously on the AU Falcon.
New Edge, which combined taut surfaces with crisp lines and intersecting arcs, did not sit well with Mays, who soon after joining Ford insisted on being intimately involved in a last-minute radical redesign of the second-generation Mondeo. The resulting car could just as easily have worn a VW Passat or Audi A4 badge as the Blue Oval.
In America, Ford was weak in cars and strong in trucks with the best-selling F-150 pickup and Explorer SUV, and the near impossibility of converging their designs meant that Europe and America took entirely different paths.
In the U.S., Ford developed a brash 3-bar grille theme for its Fusion and Taurus cars and F-150 and smaller Ranger trucks that clearly was in conflict with Europe’s fast-expanding Kinetic design theme that replaced New Edge and was first seen on the ’05 Iosis concept and later in the production Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo.
Seven years ago, Smith explained Kinetic as an attempt to express in the styling the European models’ superior dynamics by using sweeping arcs to give a coupe-like appearance with smooth surfaces and dramatic wheel arches.
Internally, the American and European studios fought to establish greater influence with management. It was only after Bill Ford ceded the CEO role to newcomer Allan Mulally in 2006 that things changed.
Mulally, desperate to save the auto maker, forced the One Ford philosophy on the company. That meant selling off the European premium brands to concentrate on the Blue Oval. With truck sales slashed during the great recession, Dearborn realized that to survive it had to profitably produce and sell cars in America.
Instead of designing individual models for three or four regions of the world, Mulally insisted that Ford go global with the design, development and engineering of all new vehicles.
The new Fiesta and Focus, designed and developed in Europe, quickly became truly global projects. But who would design the new Mondeo, previously the cherished property of Ford of Europe?
After much intense deliberation, an understanding that global design taste was converging, and knowing that One Ford inevitably meant combining the-based Fusion-derived Mondeo into one program, design responsibility for the new car was given to the American studios.
With One Ford, the design studio that normally takes the lead is located where the engineering is carried out, the new Ranger being the perfect example. However, the new model is not built in Australia, despite the styling and engineering being centered in Broadmeadows.
Ford’s new Global Design Language, essentially a pared-down evolution of Kinetic, was first seen on the dramatic, European-styled Evos concept at the 2011 Frankfurt show.
Chronologically, the new Fusion/Mondeo, revealed in early 2012, followed the Evos. But in fact, the production car, long since signed off, was styled much earlier in the ever-more-confident Dearborn studios.
New Edge, Kinetic; why doesn’t the new look warrant a new label beyond Ford’s prosaic Global Design Language?
“Don’t you think that rolls off the tongue?” asks a smiling Mays, offering to explain. “Within the next-generation design language, we have an aspiration to premium-ness. If you go around the globe and look at the premium manufacturers, they don’t have a cutesy name; they’ve just got their design language.
“We are at the point now, after five or six years of Kinetic, that we’ve simplified the best of Kinetic to make it more timeless. That’s the new direction for Ford. Putting a cute name on a design language is very mass-market. We’re going to continue to sell to our Ford customers, but we want to give them a premium experience.
“Four years ago, Martin, Moray and I asked, ‘Would it be a crazy idea to make every car beautiful?’ Everything we work on now, we ask, ‘Are we just provoking the customer or are we seducing the customer?’ We’re out to seduce the customer, and I think getting better and better at it all the time.”
Says Callum: “The customers are asking for that too. They don’t want mediocre-(looking) cars, they want beautiful cars.” Witness, says Mays, the new Mondeo/Fusion, which has been researched “through the roof” around the world.
What of future design trends? “Lighter weight, of course, with a visual lightness we call visual efficiency,” says Mays. “Also, active aerodynamics, with more extreme movable bits on the outside of a car as we try to squeak every last bit out of aero.
“Our 3-cyl., 1.0L Ecoboost engine is a good harbinger of where we are going in powertrain,” he adds. “Although hybrids and plug-in hybrids have gained most of the press over past five years, the stealth improvement in regular engines means they are going to be with us for some time to come.”
Adds Callum: “We need to use technology in the right way, so it helps people drive the thing. The entire industry is grappling with how complex or how simple does electronic communication, connectivity, in a car have to be?”
Says Mays: “We’ll see government regulations coming fast and furious over this, as we continue to understand driver distraction (in relation to) utility for seamless communication from a car.”
Adds Callum, “The question we are asking is, ‘Just because you can do it, should you do it? Are the features we’re adding useful or distractions?’ It’s a learning process. We also need to be aware that there is a generation out there for whom (being connected) is a very important part of their lives.
“To us, texting is a distraction to driving, (but) to a certain age (group) driving is a distraction to texting. So it is going to exist; we have to find a way to let it exist without being a distraction.”
There is one sensitive question that must be asked of these key designers: If the Broadmeadows assembly plant is closed, will Ford maintain a design and engineering operation in Australia?
“I don’t think having a manufacturing plant has anything to do with whether we decide we are going to continue to engineer and design cars here or not,” Mays says confidently.