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Whitherest thou goest Ford?

©06 The Media Desk

      Once upon a time there was a dynamic top to bottom American Company that was held out as a way you do business if you want to do business in a BIG way.
      Ford Motor Company was for a time, all that was good in the way things work and could boast about being the only serious challenger to GM in the world of massive auto companies. And when it had a failure (the Edsel with the 'horse-collar' grill comes to mind) it was spectacular in that at the time, Ford did very little that didn't go well.
      Ahhh, but times have changed.
      And Ford has changed as well.
      But the times seem to have changed for the better and Ford has changed... well... all late and wrong, for want of a term.

      At one time, 1985 to be exact, the Taurus was the flagship of the Ford Fleet. Smart and unusual it was billed loud and long as the 'Shape of Things to Come' from both Detroit and Tokyo... and Europe as well since that's where its roots were.
      And it was.
      The influence of the Taurus can still be seen in everything from the Lexus to the latest cute little errand runner under half a dozen nameplates.
      But other than one update in the mid nineties the Taurus has stagnated, relegated to taxi fleets and dealer loaner cars, and now it is no more. Ford is even closing the plant in Georgia that makes the thing. Not retooling and changing the line, Closing. The factory has led the company in several categories and won awards for producing the best selling passenger car in the company. So of course, Ford is turning out the lights and sending everybody home.

      For ages the F-150 pickup was a workhorse as ubiquitous to construction sites and farms as flannel shirts. There were three pickups made. If you wanted a truck you bought the Chevy/GMC model, the Ford, or the Dodge. That was it. Three primary choices. Add in the odd IH or whatever for spice, and there you had it. Ford had a good chance of selling at least one out of every three trucks purchased in this country. Same with vans. There was the Dodge that looked like it was trying to impersonate the VW Bus, the Chevy that would double as a warehouse, and the Ford that won awards for being ugly but was serviceable and had a six cylinder engine that would run almost forever (if you kept pouring oil into it that is).
      But then something happened.
      Now you can buy a Cadillac truck. Toyota makes a full sized pickup that will pull a substantial horse trailer without argument. There are funny looking things from Europe making deliveries. And Ford? Well....
      Ford is trying to con you into believing that if you buy one of their trucks you'll be tough even if you are an assistant accounts payable clerk that wears pink shirts and drinks double mocha lattes with almond essence.
      And it's not working.
      The Ford Pickup plant in Virginia is being scaled back as people begin to see the F-150 as the overpriced gas hog it has been all along.

      What does Ford have on the horizon that is as new and exciting as the Taurus was at its rollout?
      Well. The Mustang and maybe the Thunderbird.

      New? Exciting? Ford? Well... maybe, maybe not.

      The Mustang was introduced in 1964 to great fanfare as a slightly more 'family friendly' muscle car answer to the Corvette and its relatives. The original and an update in 1974 both earned Car of the Year honors. Then, as is the way with Ford, it was all but forgotten about until the company saw itself adrift and approaching the rocks along the shore. THEN it was rediscovered and re-launched to great fanfare. The echoes of which you can still hear if you listen closely enough. Although the steam seems to be leaking out of it now, it is still riding fairly high.

      The Thunderbird began life in 1957 as a two seater. Then later it expanded into a four passenger sedan, and later in life as a mid-sized highway cruiser. Over the years the quality of the car came into question and production issues haunted it. Later with its reliability a mechanic's running gag the line was retired.
      Then in 2002, again as the car side of the company was floundering and nearly awash, the 'T-bird' was resurrected in something akin to its early two-seater mode, far removed from its 'wanna-be a Lincoln' look in the mid 80's. But alas, the little bird did not find its footing in the market and of late it has been removed from the menu. But rumors abound of it making yet another comeback.

      So what's going on at the erstwhile Number Two auto maker?
      Well, for one, depending on how you cut the numbers, it isn't really 'number two' any more. Toyota has given it a run for its money worldwide and by overall count passed Ford by nearly a million units produced as of the June 2006 numbers. And don't look now, Volkswagen is breathing down Ford's neck.

      Ford is flatly in trouble.
      Well, GM is too, but with nine million units produced across a dozen nameplates General Motors has more room to bleed. And bleeding it is, but that's another article.
      And to be honest, Chrysler and its new partner Daimler-Benz is in just as much trouble, but that would be yet another article where we would discuss how the Number Three automaker is actually a distant fifth behind VW.

      What happened?
      That is both laughingly simple and unbelievably complex, but we'll try to break it down to a few high points. Or low points as the case may be.

      We'll start with a disastrous combination of bureaucratic inertia, laziness, complacency and self preservation at the middle and upper levels of Ford that bred an almost suffocating fog inside FoMoCo headquarters that didn't dissipate until it was almost too late to save the company once again.
      Ford all but ignored entry level and mid-range automobiles for years. Focusing instead on its 'tough truck' and a range of more or less pathetic SUV's (like the gigantic failure- the Aerostar minivan, more on that later).
      As the world changed around them, the Detroit Big Three (or the big One, Three and Five as the case may be) once again missed the boat and were, as they were in the late seventies and early eighties, building cars and trucks that people simply did not want at a price they would not pay. Why in the world would anybody in a fancy office in a glass and steel tower office building think that anybody that works for a living would want to pay ten to twenty thousand dollars MORE for a vehicle that might be recalled three or four times in its first six months, THEN might fall apart under them the week after it was paid off, when you could get something more reliable, more stylish and with a better resale value for less? Again, this applies to GM and Chrysler equally well.
      And the Lease craze. How long did it take them to get off that treadmill? Face it, for the Average Driver a leased car was a bad idea. If you went over on the mileage you got absolutely burned at the end of the deal. The termination liability could equal the price of the car if you needed out of it before the end for some reason. You paid for two years on something then paid a chunk of money at the end for moonlight and fairy dust charges (look at some of the fees built into these contracts if you don't believe it) and ended up with zilch at the end. Not even a trade-in.
      Of course, there was the other side of the argument on leases. If you bought a brand new car and tagged it and drove it around the block then wanted to trade it in on something else you suddenly discovered that it had lost up to half of its new sale price. Either that or you had a sixty month loan on a lemon that's on its third recall.
      Both of which are good arguments as to why most people should buy decent late model used cars.

      It is safe to say that the Ford Truck Division was absolutely blindsided by the Toyota Tundra, the Japanese maker's full sized pickup. Not only was the truck good looking, it was priced right and didn't need to stop at every gas station it passed.
      Something else. Ford was sitting on its 'Star' minivans wondering why nobody was buying them. First was the Aerostar, underpowered, overpriced, ugly, unreliable and subject to random failures it simply did not sell. It was replaced by the somewhat more stylish Windstar but the new van continued the Aerostar's reputation for almost random parts failure (everything from the head gasket to the wiring harness). It too was underpowered and the joke was they named it 'windstar' because it would accelerate faster if you put up sails. Ford, not wanting to admit failure and simply give up, developed the Freestar. An interesting play on the word 'Free-Fall' since that's what this model did. Again underpowered for a seven passenger van, it signaled the end of Ford's bid to join the minivan wars. Rumor has it that they are redeveloping the line under another nametag in hopes of hitting the mark this time. The bookies around Detroit are taking bets against them.
      The 'Star' van saga seems to represent the entire mindset at Ford. If something doesn't sell, overproduce it and hype it and offer incentives. If it does sell (like the Taurus), don't update or redesign it, but let it sit in production and milk it for every dime it can produce, then scrap it and its factory. Or, like the F-150, put all your eggs in its bed and ride it to death behind an actually offensive marketing campaign.

      Here's a game to play.
      Ask your friends and co-workers to name another Ford model in current production besides the F-150 and the Mustang.
      They might come up with the Expedition, Ford's attempt to unseat the Suburban as the large family people mover, or the 'cute little car' of the moment- the Focus. But the odds are they'll have to stop and really think about it.


      Not exactly the way to turn what used to be one of the mainstays of Wall Street around.
      And their current company wide ad campaign.... 'Bold Moves'?

      FIRST- Ford needs another Taurus.
      That's easy to say, but damned hard to pull off. The market is as fickle as a high school girl shopping for eye shadow the week before prom. The lead time between concept and showroom can be two years or more at US companies. And in that time gas prices can go from moderately high to obscenely high and back, giving the consumers all sorts of problems and causing the few auto executives that do pay attention the fantods.
      But without a model that everybody walking through the church parking lot sees and looks at with wide eyes, then on the way home stops by the dealer to check out, Ford may end up being sold to Peugeot.

Note on reference- Fantods: Outdated and obscure word for a folk-tale type of illness characterized by extreme nervousness, heavy sweating, darting eyes, hollow laughter and rapid breathing. Most recently seen in political campaigns right after the candidate says something really stupid in the presence of TV cameras.

      SECOND- They need to jettison the models that simply take up space on the lot and that they can't give away under an 'employee pricing' sales gimmick.
      Yes the venerable Crown Victoria is something of a legend and a massive statement about what American Family Sedans and police cars and taxis USED to be. But now they are a relic and unless they are going to unit produce to order for fleets, there is no reason to manufacture several thousand of these things a year now.

      NEXT- Ford needs to concentrate on 'next generation' vehicles that are not only fuel efficient and 'green' but that people want.
      To its credit Ford is offering up the 'Edge'. A crossover vehicle that puts a mid-range V-6 in a quasi-SUV platform.
      What remains to be seen is whether or not it will be plagued by Ford's usual range of quality issues in new models. If it turns out to be another Aerostar... pull the plug and give Ford the industrial version of Last Rites.

      FOURTH- The company needs to act like it wants to be saved.
      Golden Parachute clauses in executive contracts simply will not sit well with stockholders that are already going over the falls in a barrel. Neither will massive bonuses to suits whose best new idea is to close a plant that has exceeded production expectations for most of its existence.
      And here's a novel idea: advertise the vehicle... What does it do? How does it drive? Maybe the MPG or towing capacity or how many T-Ball kids it can hold... NOT an attitude or image that most of us already know is so much garbola.

Note on reference- Garbola: Institutional foodservice term for Mystery Meat Patty served with Gravy or Red Sauce and given meaningless fancy sounding name like "Veal de la Rosa".

      Maybe Ford, as Studebaker, AMC, DeSoto and Packard before it, may have outlived itself and NEEDS to be swallowed by somebody else to save it. After all, at one time Chevrolet was a stand alone company (which then bought the infant GM). And Ford itself consumed Lincoln back in the day.
      Would a purchase by Hyundai perchance Save Ford or Kill Hyundai? Well. That depends on both how it is done and what changes take place in Dearborn.
      The problem isn't the guys on the line who do the work, not really. They build what they are told to build. If the Aerostar was junk it was probably because it was designed as junk. Yeah, maybe there were production issues, as with the T-bird in its time, but most likely the problems with both began on a chalkboard in an office complex someplace hundreds of miles from the factory that actually built the thing.
      And those problems need to be addressed before anything like a turn around can happen. With or without the wild card of a buyout thrown into the hand.
      Yes there should be a housecleaning among those that brought Ford to the brink yet again. But it shouldn't be done at the price of multi-million dollar buyouts of guys with fancy watches and expensive shoes who do most of their work in steam rooms and on golf courses.
      And again, this goes with GM and all the rest of them too.

      Bottom line time, as the salesmen in the showrooms put it.
      FORD as a unit is just about to a major crossroads in its history. And depending on how you look at it, this may be the last of a series of fits and restarts and turns that mark its somewhat interesting history as a company going all the way back to Old Henry the race car driver (one race, one win) and his early days in Detroit. Or this may be the final act of a hundred and three year play that has been too long on the stage of a nearly empty theater.

      Perhaps the days of Truly Massive car companies are coming to an end and conglomerates of smaller, leaner, nimbler companies... like Fiat are the way of the future.
      Manufacturers who work together (there are five names under the Fiat banner each with its own target audience and a few models that they market to that population. They don't even attempt to make a vehicle for every household in Europe from sub-compact to heavy-duty truck, nor do they want to.) in the research and development phase and share technology and purchasing between them, then go their own way when it comes to production and marketing.
      The marriage of Chrysler and Daimler seems to be bearing that out quite nicely as together both companies are faltering dramatically and even more former Chrysler factories are closing as sales drop even further. Meanwhile Honda is BUILDING factories in the US!

      But we'll have to wait and see as the situation develops won't we?


[NOTE: The Desk is Not affiliated in any way with FoMoCo other than at various times having owned several of its vehicles, which it purchased as the third or fourth (and usually LAST) owner. One of which it pushed through the 450,000 mile limit, and when it traded it in it was still running! (so get off the 200K mile thing ok?)
      It is also not affiliated with any other automobile manufacturer, distributor, dealer, repair shop, auction house, towing company, repossession outfit, 'ride customizers', junk yard or taxi operator. - thank you ]

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