Ford's Dej Vu Moment, Part 2

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
ford s dej vu moment part 2

In the nineteen-eighties, Ford CEO Donald E. Petersen's recipe to save Ford from near-bankruptcy was "higher quality products… emphasizing smaller, more efficient cars." It worked, propelling Ford past Chevrolet to world-record profits. Current CEO Allan Mulally is banking on essentially the same ingredients: de-emphasize trucks and rejuvenate the car palette with global platforms largely designed in Europe. Ford's future, perhaps its very existence, is riding on it. Is the recipe still golden?

Ford's strategy is essentially defensive, conservative and obvious. The big truck/SUV paradigm that propelled Ford to outsized profits in the nineties is broken. Ford neglected its car lines, and never bothered to learn how to produce small cars profitably. It became distracted with Jaguar and the ill-fated Premium Auto Group (PAG), at the expense of Lincoln. Quality gains unraveled with disastrous transmission and head gasket problems. And the foresighted "world car" platform plans, beginning with the 1980 Escort, were unraveled by corporate fiefdoms running amok. The result was a Balkanization of car platforms.

Centralizing development and unifying Ford's global car line-up is a necessary and essential move fordward, but it's hardly a "Bold Move." There's no guarantee that the cars will be hits.

Ford's handsome new Mondeo is already in trouble in Europe, selling at lower volumes than its predecessor. Every time Ford (and Opel) attempts to go upscale in Europe, they run into a glass ceiling, where the premium brands aggressively shove downwards with their own smaller models. Ford's global Focus and Fiesta are attractive and competitive products. But expectations for their success stateside may be inflated. In the Euro-zone, the Astra is a credible competitor to the Euro-Focus and VW Golf. Setting aside questions about profitability, the imported Astra's hardly setting the U.S. market on fire.

The same forces shrinking Ford's market share in Europe are increasingly at work here. Whereas in the eighties Mercedes and BMW were decidedly upscale, they too are pushing downwards, along with Audi, Lexus and Infiniti. And that's just the premium brands putting on the squeeze from above, keeping potential profit margins for Ford-brand vehicles in the thin end of the wedge.

In terms of direct competition, 1981 looks positively idyllic compared to 2008. In the eighties, the Japanese were limiting imports voluntarily. The Koreans were where the Chinese are today: just getting warmed-up for the attack on the U.S. market.

Ford has no realistic hope of recreating the 20+ percent share of the passenger car market in the eighties. Those days are gone, forever. The volume-brand market is fragmenting dramatically. The advantage accumulated by Toyota and Honda is staggering. Ironically, their top-selling Camry and Accord are not global cars, but targeted US models. The tables have turned, and Ford is taking on the role of an "import.. But the solidly entrenched transplants are not going down easily like Ford and GM once did.

The best Ford can hope for is to hang on to its current share, trying desperately to offset its shrinking truck and SUV sales. And the thin profits from smaller cars are going to be a big let-down from the $10+k per vehicle Ford once minted with its trucks and SUV's.

Ford bet the family farm on the original Taurus, and won big. But there's no repeating that gamble. The mid-size car market is mature. The only gamble in that segment was made by Toyota with its Prius, and it paid off.

In 2005, Billy Ford promised to build 250k hybrids per year by the end of this decade. A year later, he recanted. Meanwhile, Toyota is closing in on a million hybrids per year. Ford builds 25k hybrid Escape/Mariners annually, keeping the volume low, below market demand, because it can't make any real money on them. Ford backed away from its bold hybrid gamble. It has the technology, but failed to crank-up production and wring out the costs for eventual profits, a la Toyota. A distinctive Focus-based hybrid sedan built in quantity could have been a genuine Prius competitor.

Yes, the hybrid Fusion is coming, but it's too little, too late. Ford is not really committed to volume hybrids, unwilling to spend its dwindling cash reserves on chasing difficult profits. And except for the obligatory show-off plug-in version of the Escape, Ford has absolutely nothing in the hopper regarding electric cars, having sold off its Think EV division years ago.

If oil prices settle down a bit, Ford's strategy may buy them some time. But if Peak Oil really is lurking around that bend in the road, and/or there is a substantial shift in consumer demand for EV's and hybrids, Ford is screwed. Every other major global manufacturer (Chrysler excepted) has serious hybrid, EV and battery development projects in high gear.

In the eighties, Ford made some genuine bold moves, faced less intense competition, and benefited from falling oil prices. History doesn't necessarily repeat itself.

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2 of 24 comments
  • Carguy622 Carguy622 on Jul 07, 2008

    As others have said Ford's, and GM and Chrysler's, problem is letting good products rot. The original Taurus is and A1 example. I was 7 when my grandmother got her 1988 Taurus GL, and at 7 I loved that car. I marveled at the rear seat armrest. When I was able to drive I was going to buy a Taurus. It was a good car, it has some problems, but we kept it for 9 years. Got a 1997 Taurus, I actually liked the look of it, but the quality was terrible. The transmission shifted crudely, and the brakes were awful. We replaced power door lock motors like toilet paper. Replaced that with a 2002 Taurus, pushed for my grandmother to buy a Camry V6 instead, but she fell hook, line, and sinker for the 0% financing. If she had the Camry though she would have had some resale value in the car and a more refined driving experience. Next Ford introduced the Contour/Mystique combo. They were great cars, loved by the enthusiasts and Consumer Reports, but too small. So, unlike Mazda, who is bringing a larger Mazda6 to replace the great, but too small current model, they abandon the cars. Lastly, the Focus, it started out great but went down in flames. A friend of mine who only likes cars based on cuteness, and has only driven Hondas, drove a friends 2000 Focus ZX3 and said it was fun. Maybe if the quality and reputation was improved she would have bought one, but instead of nurturing the Focus they starved it.

  • Davejay Davejay on Jul 09, 2008
    The Asta’s problem is that GM is selling it badly. You get the worst possible powerplant–poor economy and poor performance–backed by zero marketing support and, thusly, no reason for consumers to even look at the thing. Personally, I'd say the Astra's problem is that it's too expensive for the relatively poor gas mileage/performance/lack of now-basic amenities like an MP3 player jack. At least, that's why I skipped it and bought a Versa instead...$2000 less, with sunroof, leather wheel and door/armrest surfaces, ipod wiring, hands-free bluetooth phone's simply outclassed in this market. That I also turned down the VW Golf isn't a surprise either, considering the reliability issues there -- but in Europe, there is no Versa (Tiida.)
  • Tassos Before you rush to buy this heap of rusty metal, maybe you should wait a day or two.I hear Tim will have an Model T next time.
  • Redapple2 I d just buy one already sorted. Too many high level skills (wiring, paint, body panel fitment et. al.) that i dont have. And I dont fancy working 100 s of hours for $3 /hour.
  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)