I’ve had my share of celebrity encounters in my life. I once shared a flight from London to New York with Meatloaf, I almost knocked over Paul Newman while photographing an Indy Car race and I’ve been glared at by the likes of Bobbie Rahal and Arie Luyendyk. I used to compete against Nick Craw in SCCA Club Racing, and never knew he was the “winningest driver in BMW North America’s history” until years later. All of these pale in comparison to meeting J Mays in the flesh.
Who, you may ask, is J Mays? Currently, Mays is head of Ford’s global design team, and he’s the driving force behind the styling of the new Explorer. His career is astonishing, especially considering his small-town upbringing in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma. Mays began his automotive design career at Audi, where he worked on the Audi 80. Mays left Audi for a stint at BMW in 1983, where he worked on the 5 series and 8 series design. Mays returned to Audi in 1984, and ultimately designed the Avus quattro concept car, whose stunning design ultimately led to the Audi TT Coupe. His Concept 1 design for Volkswagen became the New Beetle.
His career at Ford is the stuff of legend, as Mays was responsible for the design of the new Thunderbird, the Aston Martin DB9 / DBS, the Land Rover LR3 / Discovery, the Ford GT and the Ford Shelby GT500. Imagine my surprise when Mays asked if he could sit at my table during yesterday’s Explorer unveiling. I think I stammered out a “yes, of course”, but I’m not really sure. It was like having lunch with Mick Jagger, but cooler and a lot easier to understand.
First, Mays is a car guy. Despite his success, he drives a Ford Focus ST to and from his London office. He likes the Focus RS, but calls it a little too hard core for every day driving. I asked him about the new Explorer, and snuck in a few questions about the 2011 Mustang and Ford’s future product direction. Like all senior level executives, Mays was careful to only answer the questions he could, without committing too much detail.
First, the Explorer: the 2011 Ford Explorer will not be built as a hybrid, since Ford is very happy with the mileage achieved by their EcoBoost motors. The new Explorer will not come in a diesel version, at least on these shores. Despite the popularity of diesel in Europe, American consumers just don’t seem to embrace it as a viable alternative. The 2011 Explorer will be built for export to 90 global markets, so future expansion of powertrain offerings is a distinct possibility.
I asked Mays about the future of sports cars, since the general trend in the automotive industry seems to be “hybridize everything, and kill the manual transmission”. Mays assured me that this wasn’t the case at Ford, and cited the EcoBoost motor by way of example. If you can build small displacement, turbocharged motors that yield decent power but still retain reasonable fuel economy, there’s no need to add the cost, complexity and weight of hybrid powertrains. Mays stopped short of saying that Ford would always build manual transmission sports cars, but he did indicate that Ford would be building cars for those of us who like to drive well into the future. He was quick to point out that the new Focus is a global platform, and that we’ll likely see the Focus ST on these shores soon.
As for the Mustang, expect something special for the car’s 50th anniversary in 2014. Mays wouldn’t provide details, but let’s just say Ford is well aware of the significance of the Mustang’s golden anniversary. I asked him if there would be a “Bullitt” edition of the current Mustang, since Mays was the driving force behind the release of the 2001 and 2008-09 versions. He shot that down, much to the relief of my bank account, but indicated that I should expect to see other iconic versions of the current Mustang. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he was referring to the Mach 1 and perhaps the Boss 302, prompting me to list a kidney for sale on eBay.
Mays was remarkably approachable and seemed to genuinely enjoy talking about cars with myself and the other journalists. It’s a pleasure to see that a car guy is in charge of design at Ford, and not some artist who’d rather be penning toasters or office furniture. In case you were wondering, his favorite car of all time is the Aston Martin DBS, which “drives as good as it looks,” in Mays’ own words.