Fixing Ford

For the most important speech of his career, Ford Motor Co. CEO Bill Ford on Monday stood on a makeshift stage inside a car design studio that reeked of modeler's clay. Flanking him were two sculptures of high-style concept cars Ford has unveiled at the last two Detroit auto shows: the sleek hybrid-powered Reflex sports car and the Ralph Lauren-inspired Fairlane sport wagon. The setting seemed ideal for Ford to unleash a new model revolution, declaring no more boring cars at America's reeling No. 2 automaker. And that seemed to be where he was heading when he stepped up to the podium. "Today," he intoned dramatically, "we declare the resurgence of the Ford Motor Co."

Ford's address came just before his company announced it would close 14 factories and cut up to 30,000 jobs--about 25 percent of its North American staff--over the next six years. Yet even when Ford did provide details on his eagerly awaited "Way Forward" restructuring plan, he refused to fill in some key blanks. For example, he announced plans to close seven assembly plants, but he only identified three of them: a St. Louis SUV factory, an Atlanta Taurus factory and a Wixom, Mich., Lincoln factory. (Including auto parts plants, Ford is shutting a total of 14 factories). When reporters pressed for more details, Ford deferred to his new president of American operations Mark Fields, who wasn't any more forthcoming. One reporter challenged the brass by suggesting their vague cost cutting didn't add up. Fields retorted: "We're not having trouble with the math internally. Needless to say, the math does work."

That's more than you'll be able to say for Ford employees who will lose their jobs in this overhaul. After months of waiting to see if they have a Ford paycheck in their future, many of the soon-to-be ex-employees don't even know who they are yet. Ford is still trying to determine which additional plants to close to get its car-making capacity in line with its diminished place in the American auto market. A decade ago, Ford controlled a quarter of the U.S. car market. Today it claims just over 17 percent. Fields acknowledged that this endless waiting game is wearing on workers who so badly need a lift. "We know this causes stress among our employees," he said. "We're determined to make a decision as soon as possible." (Perhaps Ford is being cagey about its closures so as not to inflame the powerful United Automobile Workers Union. If so, it didn't work: UAW President Ron Gettelfinger called Ford's restructuring "devastating news," that will make contract talks next year "all the more difficult.")

After a morning of full-throttle talk of Ford's brave new business model, I left the automaker's Dearborn, Mich. design dome with more questions than answers. Will Ford produce the Fairlane and dump its slow-selling minivan? He didn't say. Will the cool little Reflex become the breakout Gen Y hit Ford so desperately needs? He wouldn't commit to building it. Will Ford Motor even make money this year? Again, Ford wouldn't say. His reasoning: That in order to think more long-term, his company can no longer provide guidance on its yearly or quarterly earnings. Ford did promise, though, to steer his careening North American car business back into the black by 2008, after losing a staggering $1.6 billion in 2005. (Thanks to its profitable finance division and overseas sales, Ford posted overall net income of $2 billion last year, but that number was down 42 percent from 2004.)

Ford also offered scant details of the exciting new American style renaissance that we've heard so much about lately. At the Detroit Auto Show this month, there was much talk among the Ford crowd about how they intended to infuse future models with brash American design. Executives (including Ford & Fields) even took to wearing blue rubber bracelets imprinted with "Red, White & Bold" in an effort to brand Ford as "America's Car Company." This fueled rumors of impending announcements about building the Fairlane, or maybe a four-door muscle car like the radical Ford 427 concept shown at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show. And what about the locomotive look of the Super Chief concept shown at this year's show, which is said to be the future face of Ford pickups?

But instead of rolling out some of these in-your-face designs on Monday and announcing plans to build them, Ford and Fields mostly talked about the cars that are already selling well: The Mustang and Ford Fusion. And they reiterated Ford's plans to produce 250,000 hybrids a year by 2010, a ten-fold increase from today. Among the new hybrids coming: the Ford Five Hundred, Mercury Montego, Lincoln Mark X and the Ford Edge crossover SUV. There was also talk of developing recyclable cars at some point down the road. That's a pet project of Ford's green-leaning CEO, who has dubbed the effort the "Piquette Project" after the factory where his great- granddad Henry Ford perfected the moving assembly line to build Model Ts. "The Piquette Project is the leading edge of where we're heading," he said. "We've brought together our best and brightest minds to figure out the transportation needs of the future."

I was hoping to see some of Ford's transportation answers for the here and now. After all, why else make your big announcement inside your design studio? But instead of giving us a sneak peak at Ford's better ideas, all we got were charts and slides and management-speak about a new "customer-driven" focus. It's not the kind of stuff that would have fired old Henry's imagination. In fact, about 10 minutes into his big speech, Bill Ford quoted his famous forefather's flinty view of customer-driven research. "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted," Henry Ford once said, "they'd have said a faster horse." His great-grandson went on to promise to provide people with whiz-bang new cars that they will "want before they even know it." I'm anxious to see what he comes up with. But until Bill Ford starts showing, and not just telling, his company's "Way Forward" remains unclear.