Business, Finance & Economics

Does Ford have a better idea?

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EVERGREEN, Colo. — It’s gone global, my friend.

Even as the erratically pulsing heart of Detroit awaits a pacemaker, two of its Big (now smaller) Three are looking not only to Washington for stimulation, but also seeking help around the world — looking to bring in cars already built overseas, hooking up with foreign car companies or shedding some foreign brands they had acquired.

General Motors let loose Opel in Europe and shed Saab, Chrysler went Italian, and Ford is in the middle of shipping Jaguar and Land Rover into ownership in India, and, most likely, Volvo into the hands of a Chinese company — slimming down without asking for resuscitation from Washington.

So, does "Ford have a better idea?"

Yes, because to steal another advertising slogan, "Have you driven a Ford lately?" I can say yes. In fact, I’ve driven in recent weeks a broad range of new Ford vehicles that convinced me that Ford, free of government bailout money and heading toward profitability, is far better set for the future than General Motors and Chrysler. Ford, in some cases, is reaching overseas for products it sells there but not, until now, in the U.S.

By the end of 2013, at least seven Ford products will be built on global platforms.

Except for changes to meet, particularly in the U.S., safety and environmental regulations or customer desires, these Fords will be the same from country to country.

Watching GM try to tone its bloated body is like watching government bureaucracy trying to rein itself in. Of course, it is doing so with the help of government money and bureaucracy. And at the same time developing its own small car, but that takes time.

And then we have, "My Italian Wedding," in which Chrysler has been courted by and wed itself to Fiat of Italy — all so it will quickly have in hand the (Italian) small car that it cannot turn around in today’s burgeoning market for small cars.

Of course, not all "better ideas’" pan out — though my bet is that Ford's will.

Look back to the bountiful days for the Ford Motor Co. in 1968, when a new advertising campaign proclaimed, as above, that "Ford Has A Better Idea."

True? Yes and no because a gasoline crisis loomed just a few years away and Ford, like other American car companies, would not be ready for it.

It was living, at the time, on some truly great ideas: the Shelby GT 500, Ford Torino, the 428 Cobra Jet and perhaps the most enduring, globally popular vehicle ever built, its F-Series line of pickup trucks.

Ford of Europe, where small cars were already in vogue, begged the Detroit headquarters to let them build a small car. And so was born, across the pond, and after much hand-wringing, the Fiesta.

But in the states, Ford was making some bad moves. Ford would not produce a safe, significant small car for a gasoline-starved market until later in the 1970s. Instead, fighting a wave of customer demand for German Volkswagens in what would become a lucrative small-car market, Ford rallied to rush the Pinto into production in much less than the usual time.

The problem was that, even though it burned gasoline in an at-the-time parsinomous way (mid-to-high 20s per gallon overall), it also burned gasoline in a deadly way: gasoline tanks sometimes exploded when the Pinto was struck from behind. Ford had reduced weight to gain mileage by building a flimsy car (and take note of this as car companies today try to meet both government safety standards and fuel consumption edicts).

Further, in a style, not a safety blunder, Ford also had turned what had been an elegant sports car, the Thunderbird, into a sedan so ugly it killed the sporty mystique and the car would whither on the vine.

And like Chrysler and GM, Ford would soon spin into the highly profitable, yet inflexible SUV market while losing touch with many of its cars, particularly anything small.

So what’s this better idea Ford has now?

Let me count the ways, leaving out details of the diminishing deficit under super-overhauler Alan Mulally, Ford’s president and chief executive officer. Mulally, told the press recently that "Our underlying business is growing progressively stronger as we introduce great new products that our customers want and value…"

An auto poobah talks product before he goes into the financial machinations Ford is performing as well.

And the product is rapidly coming down the pike: a family sedan, a hot rod sedan, yet another version of the venerable F-150 pickup truck, two small cars that will cross the ocean for American drivers and a nifty small delivery van called the Ford Transit — so flexible in options that I’d call it the Swiss Army Knife of expedient hauling of goods, from vegetables, flowers and antiques to catering businesses, carpentry and hardware firms, and myriad other uses. There is also an "Eco Boost" version of the Flex, a boxy low-riding crossover that seats seven but nonetheless gets mileage performance in the 20s. That I drove in the Rockies. The delivery van, already being built in Turkey with great promise for overseas markets, I drove in Manhattan, pretending to be a delivery boy looking for a place to park and deliver. A lot easier than the ubiquitous 20-foot box trucks that pock the travel lanes in any compressed city environment.

I drove the F-150 Platinum pickup truck in Texas, a state big enough to handle its size. I drove the successful Ford Taurus in Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as the Taurus SHO, a souped up super commuter. (Full reviews to follow.)

I await the arrival of the European version of the Ford Focus, as well as the Fiesta, sold here once but coming back reborn. Both are very popular in Europe so don’t be expecting the lesser product that once was sold here and bore those names. Europeans would not put up with shoddy, cheap product.

"We are freshening our product line globally, unique models, new models,’" Rob Stevens, chief engineer of commercial vehicles told me.

There they go again, talking product.

Seems like a good idea to me.

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