It's tempting to look at J Mays's highest-profile car designs—the Volkswagen New Beetle, the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, and now the 2005 Ford Mustang—and peg him as a guy whose specialty is reinventing the past. That's what the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art did in 2003 when it launched "Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays," the "first comprehensive" museum exhibition to be devoted to the work of an American car designer. But Mays is uncomfortable being tagged Mr. Retro. "Those cars helped me have a great career," he says, "but I'm far more interested in the future than in the past."
As a group vice president of global design at Ford Motor Co.—the first time a designer has held a position reporting directly to the company's chief operating officer—Mays will have ample opportunity to imagine that future for a stable of both American and European iconic brands: Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin.
In Manhattan for the International Auto Show, Mays, who manages to look cool enough for downtown yet retain the genial manner of his native Oklahoma, says the car most emblematic of his design philosophy was the sleek Avus Quattro concept model, which he designed while working in Europe for Audi AG. It became the hugely popular Audi TT. "That was the first time that the lightbulb went off, that in designing cars, I was telling a story."
In creating the Mustang, for example, Mays and his team began by conducting an exhaustive visual audit of the model's many iterations over the past 40 years. "We decided pretty quickly that we really loved the cars from '67 to '70—the one like Steve McQueen had driven in Bullitt, with its forward-falling shark nose," he says. Then they searched for ways in which the car had figured into the public imagination. They pulled an ad the Navy had used for recruiting, whose copy, as Mays recalls, read: "The Beach Boys. Apple pie. The '67 Mustang. Three things worth fighting for." "That just summed it up," he says. "The car has everything to do with the things in America that make life worth living."
It's that kind of emotional resonance that Mays hopes will spur a hand reaching for a wallet. And it's also what Ford, whose brands have steadily lost much of their cachet over the past three decades, has needed: a reason for people to step into a showroom and fall in love. "At some point," says Mays, "you've got to cut through the analytical logic that's driven the automotive business for the past 30 years and say, 'Hey—what's going to turn people on?' "
And that's why design is critical to the company's strategic direction. Automobiles are, after all, essentially commodities; they all get you where you want to go. And while Ford can be competitive in areas such as quality, technology, innovation, and safety, it's unlikely to set the industry standard in any of them. Acknowledging that, Mays says, company CEO Bill Ford then asked, "Where can we be a leader?" The answer: design. "That's an area where changing the mind-set in the company could make a huge difference," he says.
Next up? Mays plans to work his magic on Jaguar, one of the company's premier brands in a portfolio that also includes Aston Martin and Land Rover. While it may seem a stretch to go from designing the latest pickup to reinventing those classics, it's the kind of challenge Mays relishes most. "I want each car to have a classic timelessness," he says, "so that people will look back on it a decade later and say, 'Man, that was a beautiful design.' "
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.