Interview with J Mays

In preparing for our Detroit Special magazine we thought that it would be insightful to get in touch with J Mays, VP Design Director at Ford. While he wore the Audi legacy badge for a while after designing classics such as the Audi Avus Quattro concept car and VW’s revisit of the Beetle, it could be argued that he was typecast as a retro designer and has stayed off our radar for a while now.

However, since 2008, when the economic crisis hit global markets, Ford has been going through a massive business overhaul. Play forward to today and the company is in a very strong position worldwide to cater to savvy customers who expect uncompromising products at affordable prices with plenty of intelligent design. Ford can now deliver, and in no small part thanks to Mays. This puts him dead centre back in the spotlight.

I first met J Mays at the Tokyo Motor Show 1999; he had just been at Ford for two years and was on a mission to blast away the ‘fuddy-duddy’ design image that Ford had inherited. This blast came in the form of O-21-C, a concept car designed in collaboration with Marc Newson. It was, and arguably still is, naïve in the eyes of some automotive designers, yet it shifted people’s perceptions. This is what Mays does best - shifts the status quo.

Green Car Design: What makes good car design and why have you stayed with Ford whilst most designers are seduced by the next big thing?

J Mays: Firstly, in the past two weeks I celebrated my 15th year at Ford, which means that officially I have now been longer at Ford than at Audi. It makes me feel both quite proud but also quite old. Within Ford I am positive that I am still thought of as the ‘new guy’, only after you are there for 25 years do they consider you an ‘old guy’.

GCD: People like to stay at Ford, do you think that Ford promotes trust?

JM: Yes, I had a challenge to myself to change the brand and we are just now starting to get traction and do that. Not to talk about Audi, but when I was there it took 10 years to finally change the perception of design of the company and they have gone on over the past 25 years to be fantastic...not just because of design but also technology. I had said that when I came to Ford that it would take 10 years to move the needle in the eye of the customer. 2008 came, we still hadn’t done it, and I really started to wonder if it was going to happen or not. Then came the global financial crisis and just by complete serendipity we had oragnised ourselves for restructuring. We had gone out, taken the world’s largest ‘home improvement loan’, and restructured the company. When the financial crisis hit GM and Chrysler they weren’t quite so fortunate so they entered into bankruptcy. At the same time that all this was going on, Toyota and Honda were having a terrible time between recalls, tsunamis and earthquakes, and it wasn’t a great year for them.

Everyone had what I like to call an ‘oh shit’ moment, cause they went ‘oh shit Ford actually builds really nice cars!’ And so for the last 2 or 3 years now we’ve really been looked at as a brand that’s on the march again and I would like to say that has all to do with design, but it doesn’t. It has something to do with design. As we brought better and better cars to the market, because we had a product development side that didn’t get interrupted, we’ve been able to bring a lot of fresh design to the market in the past 3 years. It also gave me a chance to hone the design team that I have around me, because I don’t do all of this - it’s the team that does it. We still have between 900-1100 staff on board inside the design organisation that covers 11 studios around the world. It’s a big job and there are quite a lot of people that have to step up and deliver.

GCD: When you started, you went design crazy, the concept cars were over the top…what were you trying to do?

JM: I think I was trying to over compensate for the products we had in the market.  I was trying to take people’s eyes off what was currently available because I hadn’t done any of those and some of them were fine and some of them were less fine.  As we started to get our production line-up in order, and by the way it took 8 or 9 years, after I was at Ford for the last that I didn’t design not to be in production.  There is still one that is in production called the Expedition, which was there when I arrived…but everything else have replaced now.  For the first two years it was a combination of me wanting to show our design prowess, try to be a little more interesting, and try to be divergent from what the rest of the competition was doing.  Marc Newson was a good example of that, the rather risky 24/7 program was at that point so badly criticised when it came out but now all of that technology is …looking back we did some pretty interesting stuff.  These days, particularly with Ford, we are trying to hone the brand and I am really proud of the work we have done particularly over the past few years.  We’ve got the new Fusion and Mondeo, which is a great looking car.

GCD – Speaking about Marc Newson and the O21C is there a place for that kind of collaboration and that kind of car again?

JM – There is always room for disruption, I quite like disruption, because it surprises people and catches them off-guard so when I think back to when we showed that vehicle in Tokyo it was a huge shot out of left field for everyone…it was the complete antithesis of car design.  Probably the biggest challenge I had with our design team who were helping Marc, I should say mostly helping Marc, sometimes not getting what we were doing and I had to keep them away.  The biggest challenge to the team was to let them help him get the car finished without muddying the car up, or trying to turn it into a car design.  So, Marc’s vision of extraordinarily pure geometric shapes and simplicity in that vehicle and also all the cultural context of how it alluded to space travel and all the stuff that he does on his other programs we got to the finish line intact.  I am not sure we need to do another car with him, I would love to, but I think the important part of that program and the reason why that car still remains popular, its popular now a decade later, is that it is a different point of view on what transportation on four wheels could look like.  Its not along the same idiom that every other car manufacturer takes.  It's a lot of fun, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it gives you a point of view of the future that is slightly naïve but TOTALLY optimistic, its so optimistic, that's why people like it. 

GCD: It’s important to have a vision for the future - of who leads the way. What do you think of that?

JM: I think design is often the output of the culture from which it is created. If you go back to the 50’s and look at the crazy cars that were being designed then, they are out of the mind-set of post-war America, everything, at least in that country, was very optimistic - that’s why we go for these kind of crazy cars. And that was great, what was interesting about Marc’s take on the O-21-C was that it was not a particularly positive time but yet this car was still really optimistic. And then the counter to that would be the called the SYN US, which was this little tanky breeze truck of a box that was done right at the height of the George W Bush years, and it was quite negative, but it was an output of the culture that sort of surrounded it...and those become positive motivation, and at their worst they become a kind of a political statement. You have to be very careful what you are laying out there.

GCD: Maybe the digitalizing of our world is the ‘non- existence’ of cars...

JM: I think the stark reality, financially, over the last 3 or 4 years is that there has been a sharp reduction in concept cars because everyone is just concentrating on just surviving or pre-production cars coming to market. That’s where our focus has been because we didn’t want to show anything for the next few years that we were not going to take to production. I think that there is a credibility that comes with that.

GCD: You have spent a lot of time working in a global context but now local is the buzzword, local design. Are your design teams now focused on local design or are you good at being global? What is Ford design?

JM: I think we are very good a being global. I have struggled for years to finally get my head around what Ford stood for and there are lots of companies that will tell you that their cars are fun to drive, but Fords are actually fun to drive. But more importantly people will say what is Ford design? And so you can point to Jaguar and say that’s British, or Land Rover British, or Alfa Romeo Italian, or all the German manufacturers German, and it finally clicked with me that Ford does have an international design language and it is the input of a lot of designers that we have from around the world that happen to be based in some of these studios that I mentioned, but many of them are based in Dearborn.

Not unlike America itself, Ford is a melting pot of an incredible influx of design talent working on design that is at once international but actually American. So the new Fusion has influence from Britain from Germany, it has influence from Italy, Japan, but something about the car has an underlying American quality about it as well. I quite like that idea, it’s a melting pot - I like the alignment of Ford and the country, and the US as well.

GCD: And it’s no longer the rest of the ‘Big Three’ Ford are worrying about...

JM: We haven’t thought about the other ‘two’ for quite a few years. The competition is Toyota, is VW - we don’t really think of them that way, we are not dismissing them, but that’s just not what we think of as our competition.

GCD: The Focus has recently rekindled my interest in Ford as something more than just another car...

JM: Our engineers are increasingly good at creating what I call ‘smart ‘cars’, so the combination of all the human interface and the driving dynamics is fantastic but it has to be put into a package that sort of communicates that that is the essence of the car. I really like the look of intelligence - I think things can look smart if they can look, frankly, slightly silly or overstyled. Everything we are working on right now, one of the primary goals that I tell the team, is that we need to make it look intelligent, that’s a nice thing. Intelligence is sexy

GCD: The millennium was a big moment in your career, you led the retro movement and perhaps got a little typecast for it…but now I hear you like the word style, what does it mean to you?

JM: Well, first of all there hasn’t been a retro come out for 5 or 6 years now and retro was only interestin when we could use it as a  differentiator but once everyone is doing it I have no interest in it.  We have put that over to the side, I won’t say that we will never do another one because might (hands up), but for the moment its on the shelf.  We will keep it there as a weapon in our arsenal…thougth we may not have to use it. 

I think there is a big difference in beautiful tasteful cars and cars that actually have style.  I can equate it to menswear as an example.  There are a lot of men that have taste and there is very few that have syle.  So, style is that sort of undefuneable secret sauce that people a series of elements together that define them in  a particular way that set them apart in a particular way, for right or wrong.  Taste is simple good taste or bad taste, it doesn’t really say anything about the person, just basically makes them anonymous.

GCD: Who do you think has good style, that stands out for you, that is no dead!

JM: I think you can go the list, just to stick with menswear for a moment, there is a spectrum that runs from Jon Varvatos – who is from Detroit originally but is quite a successful designers in New York for menswear – who by the way used to work and got his start at Ralph Lauren.  And Ralph Lauren, I know he is an older guy, but for his particular market he just exudes style.  He paints a picture for a woman of a certain age that basically says this is about East Coast privilege and he gets it…he understands how to communicate his brand and have people buy into that lifestyle.  On the other end back to John Barvados he is doing the same thing for guys that are in their 30s and 40s and occasionally in their 50’s (pointing to himself) that sort of latch on the whole 70’s rock and roll scene that was happening in New York and he lets everybody have a little of that lifestyle as well.  But I think those are just two examples out of fashion, completely different in their target audience but both professional purveyors of their craft.

GCD: The new Lincoln Studio...why now?

JM: Frankly, if we are honest with each other, we neglected Lincoln. For the fifteen years I have been with the company we neglected it, even when Gerry [McGovern] was there is wasn’t getting the attention it deserved and part of the reason was that we invested in the other premium brands that we had - we were still hanging onto Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. Lincoln was sort of the poor cousin of those brands, we didn’t put money toward the product - we didn’t really do much with the brand other than create a slightly more luxurious version of the Ford. It suffered because of that.

Once we invested in all the other brands in the Premiere Automotive Group, then we focused on fixing Ford, which is the foundation for the success of fixing the whole company and we feel Ford is now on track. We have a very good plan over the next 7-8 years as to what that the brand will do. We’ve got now the time to go back and the energy to go back and really focus in on Lincoln and redefine that brand. I would argue that, yes, Gerry did some great concept cars, but we never got those cars into production and many of his concept cars were based on the beautiful Lincolns that we loved in the 60’s. So, without going retro, without going back to the 60’s, there is an opportunity there to rekindle a love affair with that brand and bring it back to a point where it deserves to be viewed from.

GCD: What’s your view on green car design?

JM: Having an environmentally designed car - be it through recycling or fabulous fuel efficiency - is not an option anymore, its’ sort of the price of entry into the marketplace. So, every car in the future is going to have to be extremely fuel efficient, extremely recyclable - I think you will see all manufacturers going the same way that Ford and Toyota have. We have not identified which, and the customer has not identified either, which type of powertrain is the best one yet. We have a very, very ecological 3-cyclinder EcoBoost engine, which will get somewhere between 40-50 mpg. We’ve got a hybrid-electric vehicle, which gets great gas mileage, and we’ve got a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in the new Fusion that gets 48mpg...we also have an all-electric Focus. All these vehicles are out there and, in marketing speak, Ford calls that the power of choice. The reason why we are giving the customer choice is because the customer has not signalled yet which type of powertrain they are comfortable with. I think that will become clearer over the next 7-8 years and then you will see many of those powertrains fall by the wayside. It might be all-electric - I don’t think so but it might be - and I think hybrid electric and plug-in electric is showing great promise. We will see. The strange thing is that a completely normal petrol engine gives you great gas mileage now so that’s sort of our approach. We will push that across the entire portfolio.

GCD: Is there a moment when the car architecture changes? Is it important?

JM: There will be a slow transition as we get into autonomous vehicles. There will be early adopters that want everything to disappear on the inside of an automobile, they will want everything to be voice activated. We are not too far away from that actually. If you imagine that there is an interior of a vehicle where the majority of the buttons and all the gubbins that you have on the interior of a vehicle start to disappear because you can voice activate it, that’s going to radically change the entire layout of the interior. It’s also going to lighten the car immensely, because you are going to get a lot of stuff that you just don’t need anymore that’s all mechanical at the moment. I think there is always going to be a steering wheel in a car because autonomous vehicles mean that they will drive themselves on certain highways on certain conditions but not everywhere you want to go! I still maintain that the sole attraction of an automobile is that it gives the user the most freedom that they have ever had in their life. The entire basis for automotive transportation and the appeal is that it gives freedom to people to go where they want to go.

There is the autonomous side, which is coming, but there is always going to be a desire for people to drive where they want to drive.

GCD: Do you think the Twizy is a car?

JM: I personally don’t think it’s a car, I think it’s a scooter that happens to have four wheels. It’s really an interesting vehicle. On one hand – from the design side – it’s answering a lot of questions. It’s got a footprint that’s really small, it’s clearly the right size for mega- cities, in particular London or Paris where it kind of works. Whether it’s the right piece of transportation for Sao Paolo or Mumbai I question, because different road conditions and significantly more traffic are not as safe an environment to drive around in, frankly. We have a lot of Twizys that run around here, and I think, yeah, not a bad start for transportation. The biggest issue is does it function? Does it do what its supposed to do? I would argue, that yeah it sort of functions, but can you drive one without looking like an absolute idiot? I think it’s difficult - it’s kind of like riding a unicycle - you can’t do it without looking like a circus clown. When you see someone is a small G-Wiz or a Twizy, they all look slightly awkward, and I don’t think anyone has cracked the awkward code yet to get people into these vehicles. Unless it looks like you have come up with a mainstream transportation solution that people will feel comfortable in and not self-conscious in, no-one is going to buy the things.

GCD: Is Ford getting its mojo back?

JM: Yes, I think so. If I could show you what is coming in the next 3-4 years I think your mouth would drop open, I can’t talk about it obviously but we have such delightful stuff coming over the next few years and I am really excited. I am about as excited as I have ever been, so we are very positive. We build our foundation on what the brand should be and people are relating to that now. The majority of the products we are working on are global, but we will always have niche products like the F150 or the Mustang. Ford has gone from being a well-respected brand, and still is, to a desirable one. That’s the cool thing for me.

GCD: There is no doubt that you are one of the top in your field, but there are somedays (like Monday) that perhaps you wished you had done something else…if you could choose another profession  what would it be?

JM: Oh, I would have been an architect, yeah.  I am just about anal enough to do that. Most of the architects that I know would have like to have been car designers and most of the car designers I know would have liked to have been architects.  SO, that probably fits for me.  Interesting thing is that when I say architecture, most of the architects I like are dead.  I am a big fan of mid-century modernism as all of us are…but I really like whole sort of rigidity, simplicity, restricted nature of mid-century architecture. 

GCD: What is the favourite moment of your day?

JM: Hummmm, wow, what a good question!  I suppose the part of my day that is satisfying is that I am sort of in a time zone that when I come into work in the morning Australia is just going to bed, so they have sent me a lot of stuff from the day that's finished.  I also have the last work that happened the day before from the US, so normally I have got 12-15 emails with just design stuff…and no-one else to advocate.  So I can site here in peace and just see what I think of the last couple of days work.  That is for me a real luxury, I LOVE doing that.  I spend a couple of hours every morning reviewing the last couple of days work and then emailing people back, agreeing or disagreeing.  Its nice to have that down time, shut the door, no meetings, its really satisfying to get focused on design.  Every single day!

GCD: You favourite job perk?

JM: Uh, gosh! Well, for the last seven years the company has been kind enough to let me live in London. That’s been an absolute dream, it’s been inspirational for me, I feel like I have got a better handle on the latest cultre, and the latest trends on design and fashion, and for me that’s a perk for giving me more creativity but also it’s a great place to live.

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