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Thomas Says Another Hit Could Save Ford

If there's one thing that can save Ford Motor Co., it is another hit, says Freeman Thomas, Ford's director of strategic design. "This company was founded on the Model T," the famed auto designer adds during a break at a product review Tuesday.

Whenever the automaker was nearing danger, hit products always arrived to save the day. In the 1960s, the Mustang was the hero. Two decades later, it was the Taurus. Both vehicles took a mallet to existing concepts of what a car could and should be. Also, both were game-changers for the company and for the industry in its entirety. Today, Thomas and his team at Ford's advanced design studio in Irvine, Calif., are trying to do it again. Good thing Thomas knows a thing or two about designing hits.

Before defecting to the Dearborn automaker a couple of years ago, Thomas was the design guru at Chrysler Group. There, he designed the concept that became the Chrysler 300. It was the vehicle that almost single-handedly altered Chrysler's fortunes, at least for two years.

Thomas also played a key role in designing the concepts that led to the Volkswagen New Beetle and Audi TT. "It's hard to find a car designed by a single person," says analyst Jim Hall of AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield. "But he pushes people. He gets good things out of the people around him. And he's great at selling design ideas. There's another one in him that he'll get out eventually."

Thomas calls design the great differentiator -- the thing we auto purchasers buy when they are shopping for a car that says "me." But great design is unworkable without great risk. That's a problem for many of the suits in the boardroom, says Thomas.

"Design, to many in the senior-most levels of a company, is scary," he says. That's why Thomas likes Ford CEO Alan Mulally. "He's not afraid," Thomas says. "Alan has been extremely open-minded. He seems to be very respectful of what design is and does."

Mulally, the former CEO of the Boeing Co., a commercial aircraft, has encouraged closer collaboration between designers and engineers. Thomas delights in the change because it allows designers to influence the shape and feel of an automobile at a more fundamental level.

Thomas said the production version of the New Beetle missed the high mark set by the original design because of a lack of coordination between the designers and engineers at Volkswagen AG. "The auto industry is a dinosaur," Thomas says. "It's going to take someone like Alan to reinvent the industry, because he isn't steeped in the stereotypes."

One of those stereotypes involves great-looking concepts that wow auto shows and are never seen again. Ford has been carped for this in the past, and Thomas said Mulally has little patience for the practice.

Thomas said he would rather work on vehicles that are actually destined for sheet metal, but he still thinks his Interceptor is pretty cool. Though it won't be produced, the Interceptor serves as a platform for several cues that Thomas says will be incorporated into future Ford products.

Thomas added shoppers will also see an ongoing trend toward smaller cars, as well as what he calls "guilt-free designs" that give shoppers the speed and space they want without sacrificing the environment in the process.

In the near term, that means working on new bodies for existing platforms, enhancing Ford Explorer parts, and more. So, does Thomas think he has another game-changing hit in his studio today? "I definitely do," he says. "But I can't tell you what it is."

About The Author Anthony Fontanelle is a 35-year-old automotive buff who grew up in the Windy City. He does freelance work for an automotive magazine when he is not busy customizing cars in his shop.
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