The Bronco Sport wasn’t in the original plan at Ford.
It started out as a boxy, bland, nondescript, unmemorable small SUV.
Definitely not part of a legendary Bronco family.
And the Mustang Mach-E SUV was initially going to be a cautious toe in the water for an automaker debuting its first all-electric vehicle. It was conceived to help meet fuel economy targets for the company.
Now each SUV has a waiting list.
Owners of the 2021 Bronco Sport report being treated like Hollywood royalty. And the impressive off-road driving features have been designed to challenge Jeep and live up to the qualities that make the Bronco one of the most valuable collector cars in history.
Buyers are clamoring for the Mach-E; a dealer in California reported 40 orders in a single night. It, too, had to meet the power and driving experience of a nameplate that has come to define the company.
This is the secret story of tearing up designs and going for broke.
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No one knew
The dramatic change in direction began 3 1/2 years ago with no public discussion.
Jim Hackett, named CEO in May 2017, decided to bring Jim Farley back from Europe and appoint him president of Ford global markets. Farley plunged into the new role that summer.
Behind the scenes, Hackett and Farley divvied up new product programs into three categories: so far down the pipeline that there couldn’t be substantial and meaningful change, pretty far along but not so far that changes couldn’t be made, and just the beginning with a lot of flexibility.
Bronco Sport and Mach-E fell into the middle category; it wasn’t too late to revise.
Ford wanted to do an assessment of the products in the pipeline, see where improvements might be made and feel confident they were building the right products for a dynamic consumer environment.
Hackett wasn’t thrilled. In the Mach-E prototype, he saw an electric vehicle that had a tall roof and few interesting features. Designers showed their sketches and clay models.
Senior Ford executives felt the whole thing wasn’t a breakthrough moment. Ford realized competitors would soon be flooding the market with all-electric vehicles. The 117-year-old carmaker needed to stand out.
Their all-electric vehicle, at that point, was unexciting.
“It was just a car,” said Ted Cannis, global director of electrification at Ford, in a 2019 company video.
Farley added, “When I first saw it … I said, ‘Oh, boy. Houston, we have a problem.’ The vehicle looked like a science project.”
Chris Walter, Mach-E exterior design manager, said, “I thought to myself, ‘Who’s gonna want to buy this car?’ “
Debra Hands, aerodynamics supervisor, said, “It wasn’t exactly an SUV. It wasn’t exactly a sedan.”
Hackett said, “We tore up the existing prototype. We said, ‘We want to start over.’ “
Farley steps in
Jim Baumbick, senior product development executive on both projects, told the Free Press on Tuesday that while all vehicles have a natural evolution, these were unique in that they were connected to two iconic brands. Farley, in his global markets role, “was a big part of the inspiration.”
It was about identifying obvious product strengths in a crowded marketplace and harnessing those, Baumbick said. “The designs we had weren’t going to do that. There’s nothing that was unique about them.”
Mark Truby, chief communications officer, who attended some of the meetings. said, “Jim Farley was instrumental on pushing the team in the Mustang direction. …
“It was tricky territory and controversial. Farley said, ‘What if we could use the Mustang as a spiritual lodestar for this vehicle?’ And the designers got to work,” Truby said. “They had all these examples of more Mustang, less Mustang. It led to the Mustang Mach-E.”
The man who put his fingerprints on the design and pushed the designers to get out of their comfort zone and get into new territory, that was very much Farley, Truby said. But it was Hackett who urged the team to reexamine the product line.
Hackett and Farley had to say to Bill Ford, “We’re thinking of doing something.” And Ford, executive chairman of the company and a longtime fan of the classic Mustang, said, “You’re not messing with the Mustang are you?”
Bill Ford has admitted publicly his first reaction was, well, no way.
Hackett, Farley and Ford met repeatedly. Ford said it would take a lot of convincing to get him to sign off on changing the silhouette of the pony car. They knew it would bring controversy, and it has.
In early 2019, the three executives were joined by Hau Thai-Tang, longtime chief of product development, on the 12th Floor of Ford World Headquarters. The walls were covered with images of the vehicle, the Mach-E lined up with other Mustangs to illustrate how it compared, along with market research and the business case in an otherwise empty conference room.
The team went through step by step with Bill Ford, helping him get comfortable with the idea. He asked tough questions.
Farley acknowledged the discomfort, and Ford indicated he was warming to the idea but wanted to drive the vehicle and see it in the flesh.
“The designers were unleashed,” Truby recalled. “We had a lot of debate about the Mach-E with Mustang cues or so far as putting the pony on the badge and calling it a Mustang.”
At this point, Farley, a former Toyota executive, said new Ford products simply had to have a strong identity, opinion, attitude. He wanted sharper design and new technology. If a Ford didn’t have a Blue Oval, he wanted consumers to recognize it anyway.
The Mach-E debuted in November 2019 at the L.A. Auto Show.
Mustang Mach-E means the Mustang coupe isn’t going anywhere and will help Ford keep the Mustang GT with a 5-liter V8 because of Mach-E’s positive impact on overall fuel economy. The Mustang Mach-E GT Performance Edition hits 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
Baby Bronco born
Then, when Farley turned to the upcoming midsize SUV in the pipeline, he led a team of executives who came up with the idea of making Bronco a family instead of just the traditional 2-door and 4-door Bronco. So Bronco Sport was redesigned to mirror the rugged classic Bronco.
“I love getting in the design dome and arguing about a design of a vehicle,” Farley told his cousin during a “Digging in with Tripp” Tracy podcast aired on Nov. 10.
“In business, often people say you’re a coach if you’re leading an organization. I think it’s more a captain of a ship, in a way,” Farley said. “It can’t be just a meritocracy. You need someone who makes the call.”
Hackett put Joe Hinrichs in charge of manufacturing operations and Farley in charge of “autos 2.0” and the future in April 2019. The move “accelerates progress” on global business redesign and product resurgence, the company said in a news release.
No one really knew what that meant at the time.
Now Farley is leading the launches for products he helped bring to life.
“He wants to spend time in the design studio and product development to understand the thinking,” Truby said.
After the early production Mustang Mach-E emerged, engineers had to plead with Bill Ford to give the one he’d been testing back.
Edmunds recently ranked the Mach-E as superior to Tesla, Porsche and Audi in the luxury SUV category. And first-drives of the Bronco Sport have stunned reviewers including Free Press critic Mark Phelan, past president of the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year jury.
Wall Street analysts are noticing.
“The executive can help shape the narrative and there is also a piece of this that comes down to execution,” Dan Levy, an analyst at Credit-Suisse, told the Free Press. “What Farley brings, I think there is some optimism that has emerged, that he can change some of the missteps of Ford. People are hopeful things will turnaround.”
Industry analysts noticed what they called “profit compression” under Hackett that now requires cost reduction and refocus.
“Farley is pushing this home. The emphasis at Ford is coming from the perspective of winning franchises now, like Bronco and Mustang. And they’re focusing on things that matter,” Levy said, noting that he speaks from the perspective of the investment community. “By Ford’s own admission, the last few years haven’t really given investors a lot to be excited about, even though they give a very attractive pitch on the magnitude of opportunity for improvement.”
Challenges over the past few years have been self-inflicted wounds, including costly troubled launches and skyrocketing warranty costs.
Reuters reported that Ford’s warranty costs totaled $3.87 billion during the first nine months of 2020 while crosstown rival General Motors spent $1.68 billion, according to regulatory filings.
It’s these issues that Farley must overcome, Levy said. From 2016 through 2019 is where analysts look, because 2020 has been a financial rollercoaster for companies navigating the global pandemic. During those four years, Ford saw overall earnings drop dramatically even though Ford’s core market and products in North America including the F-150 sold well, Levy noted.
“There was some frustration going into 2020 with the Ford story,” he said. “What Farley brings is a much-needed sense of urgency and accountability at Ford. He’s a car guy, so he’s clearly going to be much more hands on with the business than we saw with Jim Hackett. I do think investors have come to better appreciate Ford’s potential under Jim Farley. Albeit there are challenges ahead in recovery and executing the strategy.”
Farley has acknowledged these challenges publicly.
Other industry observers praised Farley as he closes out a tough year:
- “Farley is moving quickly. Hackett moved slowly. Farley is making his expectations clear. Hackett was vague. Farley has the experience to understand Ford’s immediate problems,” said Erik Gordon, a strategy professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
- “Ford’s return to monthly sales reporting demonstrates the optimism Ford has going forward as it launches a host of new products. It also makes clear a new CEO is in charge who wants to be more transparent and communicate with investors,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader.
- “Change is hard at companies as large as Ford. (Former CEO) Alan Mulally did a great job of leading Ford by setting and maintaining clear direction. All of the people I’ve spoken to really like Farley’s open communication style and believe he has an approach similar to Alan’s,” said Jeoff Burris, founder of Plymouth-based Advanced Purchasing Dynamics, a supply chain consultant to auto suppliers primarily in North America.
New CEO, new style
Jack Telnack, Automotive Hall of Fame designer, is not surprised by Farley’s impact on the Mustang Mach-E and Bronco Sport.
“People like Jim Farley, they support design because they understand design. He reminds me of Bob Lutz, who could walk into a studio and look at a clay model and get excited. Jim Farley is that kind of guy,” said Telnack, who retired as Ford vice president of global design in 1998 after an accomplished career that included work on the Mustang.
“Those people are the early adopters. They know the trends, the way the market is moving. I wish I was there today working with him. When you see that kind of enthusiasm from one of the top guys, you want to support him. You want to do more,” Telnack said.
“I think you’re going to see dramatic change in the company with Farley. He understands the buyer. You have to have gasoline in your blood to understand that. And he’s got it.”