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?

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  • Dwayne King

    The difference is designing a great product versus having a design culture. I don't see an environment striving for constant improvement and user experience.

  • Fred Collopy

    I agree that design is the real hope for the Detroit three, but I think that looking for "breakthrough design" may be a mistake. I think a more appropriate idea would be to set in motion a virtuous cycle of design like that which has driven the computer industry for four decades. I just posted a piece exploring what a Moore's law of the auto industry might look like:

  • Bradley Schwarzenbach

    Product alone will NOT save Detroit. The Taurus was a bandage, it got Ford through the end of the millennium. They need to innovate their product, of course. But they also need to innovate the manufacturing process. Toyota has been refining and honing their process for years and are the undisputed leader in that game. Ford will also have to change their business. The bottom line is that the game has changed so will Ford have to play catch-up instead of being the leader. A tough pill to swallow for them, but reality is their insistence on assuming that their manufacturing and business practices would work forever has proved to be incorrect; to the detriment of thousands of loyal workers in Michigan

  • John Agno

    Yes, the Merkur Scorpio (imported to the U.S. in 1988 & 89) made in Germany by Ford inspired the very successful Taurus made in the U.S. I personally have had three Merkur Scopio's with the first two now "parts cars" (after logging in hundreds of thousands of miles) and the other 20 year-old car still in excellent condition. More at:

    Styling, Design, performance and durability are key success factors for automotive manufacturers. It has been said by a retired high-ranking GM executive that a huge corporate mistake was made when GM merged the Styling and Design Departments in the mid-1970s and decided to have the business lead by accountants.

    Consumers make buying decisions emotionally and that is especially true for automotive products regardless of where they are made.

  • Bhupesh Shah

    Ford CEO Alan Mulally is quoted as saying: "We produced more vehicles than our customers wanted, then slashed prices...[But as a result of these past mistakes]...we are really focused"

    Herein lies the problem. When a large corporation like Ford is not consumer-oriented and only NOW discovers how important it is, a bail out is not the solution. An overhaul of the management team is required.

    Another example is their talk of "tapping into early adapters" - they need early adaptors not adapters. Customers have had to adapt to whatever Ford produced instead of quickly adopting innovations.

  • Tim Tymchyshyn

    wow, better by design
    $175 per hour to build the car by the big three
    $63 per hour to build a car by toyota or honda

    gee I wonder how come the difference

  • Anonymous

    If our government doesn't bail out the big three it's not the government "punishing" them. They have punished themselves.
    It's about jobs, but jobs will be lost under any scenario.
    Scenario 1: bailout - there will be many layoffs, the big three will burn through the money, then there will be more layoffs.
    Scenario 2: bankruptcy - there will be layoffs, the companies will reorganize and renegotiate contracts, and one or more of them may eventually fail or be taken over by a company that has its act together
    Scenario 3: I'm not sure there is one, but it would also involve massive layoffs.

  • J Graham Brock

    As much as I think the companies have placed themselves in this problem, I think they should be bailed out. There are far too many jobs at stake to punish these companies. But I do believe that the culture of Detroit needs to change. This starts with the CEOs and continues through to the employees and the unions. The auto industry needs to analyze itself and understand how they have gone from the pinnacle of industry to on the verge of bankruptcy.

  • Jame Chang

    The CEO's of the big three really did not help their cause in the last couple weeks by flying to DC in private jets. Even though they came to DC this week in hybrids, the damage had already been done in the public's eye. The leadership at these companies have done a terrible job of not promoting innovation or incorporating new technologies into their vehicles even though it was clearly apparent that their foreign competitors were. Even though it would be a huge hit to our economy and many jobs would be lost, it is my opinion that we should not bail them all out. There has to be accountability, and one or all of these CEO's must be held accountable. Unfortunately, if these companies are not going to be bailed out, several employees will lose their jobs even though they played no part in the poor decisions that the CEO's have made.

  • J Graham Brock

    Wow, you mean an idea from Detroit that allowed its talent to be put to use? Then for them to have the insight to actually promote the people involved to work on it. Seems to me that if they had tried this more than once, we would not have to be bailing them out. The reason why the government has to bail out the big three is due to their lack of foresight, innovation and adoption of new technologies. It is really to bad they didn't follow the model of designing the Taurus