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Can Good Design Save Detroit? Again?

The Big Three Automakers managed to hand in their loan papers to the Bank of Congress without getting their hands slapped again. But what they really need to do is make cars that people want to drive.

The big three automakers submitted their restructuring plan yesterday, asking for some $34 billion in loans. For GM the news was quite grim - they indicated that they could fail in six weeks if not given some immediate help. With bankruptcy off the table, at least according to a scolding Nancy Pelosi, it looks like the chastened executives will end up getting their cash.

Perhaps a trip back to the future, and then the drawing board, is in order.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Telnack, the former global vice president of design at Ford.

Telnack was the guy behind the ‘79 Mustang and the 83 Thunderbird, among other signature models. But the subject of our call was the car that saved Ford the last time around - the incredible true story of how a radical change in both design and workflow revived an automaker who seemed doomed to go belly up.


It was the utterly charming Ford Taurus, the three billion dollar jellybean on wheels, that both surprised and delighted a public that was used to the big box cars that their daddies drove. The wind-cheating Ford Taurus was instantly more fuel efficient, and its dramatic curves, flush glass, and wide stance set off a buying frenzy shortly after it rolled off the manufacturing line in 1986.


It came just in time. Ford was sputtering the early 1980s -  high fuel prices, foreign competition and internal bickering had driven their U.S. market share down to 20%, a near all time low.  Ford senior management bet the farm that a dramatic new design would keep Ford alive. (Cue menacing music.) But to reinvent the wheel, Ford would have to reinvent itself.

Any of this sound familiar?

"Ford was in the serious trouble in Detroit," the now retired Telnack told me. "We were looking for a new approach, a new direction. We needed a breakthrough design."

Enter the Taurus. 

"The idea started in Europe, under Lew Veraldi. We started exploring the new, aerodyamic look – everyone was doing very boxy, square, angular. It was a very unique strong statement, very contemporary. Aero was on its way, but we were convinced that we could do it in a next step. It was a real risk.  I think others were nervous. Even those in the company – the design was that far out there."

But not only was the design a breakthrough for Ford, the way they built the car was equally revolutionary.

"We’d heard of teams before," said Telnack, without a trace of irony. "We’d seen them work in Europe. We decided to try it because we really had to move fast if we were going to pull off this design."  Telnack created an utterly cross-functional group, bringing together for the first time disparate flavors of professionals who typically worked on a single project in a design vacuum – passing their work product "over the wall" to the next group.

Telnack's brought engineers, designers, stylists, modelers, sculptors, technicians and marketing people, often in the same room, and set them free to debate, reiterate and create.

It was an extraordinary re-ordering of the status quo, which had all but eliminated the messy chaos of the creative process and emphasized instead the swift execution of ideas filtered down from on high. Since "on high" seemed fresh out of ideas to swiftly execute (again, sound familiar?) it instantly injected a dose of inspiration throughout the entire company.

Telnack humbly credits Veraldi, but does say, "I’ll take credit for selecting the right team.  I am very proud of the group I assembled. The good working relationships with engineering, other mechanicals, literally hundreds of people – all in the same room, working together. Design, sculptors, modelers – once we were in agreement on the basic concept of the car, we could get to work on it fast. Think about it – there is flush glass around the sides.  A very wide stance, and an unusual placement of tires. We couldn’t have done that without engineers working out all the turn characteristics, working closely with metal stamping and manufacturing… it all had to be right in on the ground floor."

The team also had the full faith and support of chairman and CEO Phil Caldwell and the senior management team. And they weren’t kidding. "They pushed us," said Telnack. "The chairman would come by the studio and asked if we had reached far enough – which he’d never done."

He also recalled with nostalgia the end of the focus group, at least for that project. "That’s what they do today – focus group things to death. But we wanted people to be a little uncomfortable with the design." Yeah, they did market research and they listened, but, he said, "if we listened to closely, we wouldn’t have had a breakthrough car. Average people give you average ideas."

"We had what we call early adapters, who understood design, and understood what different was and why it was special. They’re input is invaluable. We knew by tapping early adapters - from Silicon Valley, designers, architects and fashion people, that we were hitting trendsetters. We had to filter research within design. And it did make the marketing people nervous." Always a good sign, as far as I'm concerned.

Ford has sold nearly 7 million Tauruses worldwide, making it the fifth best seller in Ford history; between 1992 and 1996, the Taurus was the best-selling car in the United States. After a brief (boneheaded) attempt to retire the car in 2007, the company seems to be planning some sort of design comeback for the car in 2010.

That's cool. But it seems to me that what the automakers really need to do is take a history lesson, then take some real risks.

Maybe John Chambers can help?