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For Ford, It’s 2001 All Over Again

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Ford Motor Co. is taking a trip back in time – to around 2001.

In the days of the early 21st century, it was easy to tell if the Dearborn, MI-based automaker had a good month. You could check the US sales of large F-Series pickups and the Explorer sport-utility vehicle.

Those models were Ford’s “bell cows.” They made the money for the automaker. Car models, such as the once-mighty Taurus (which had once been the top-selling car in the US), were in decline.

What’s old is new again.

On April 26, Ford said it’s largely getting out of the car business in North America.

Ford said, as part of its first-quarter financial results, that by 2020 “almost 90 percent of the Ford portfolio in North America will be trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles.” The company it won’t “invest in next generations of traditional Ford sedans for North America.”

Ford’s car portfolio will consist of two models: the Mustang sports car and a new Focus Active Crossover due next year. Good-bye Taurus (already brought back once from the dead). Good-bye Fusion. Good-bye Fiesta, Ford’s “world” small car. We hardly knew ye.

The automaker cited the shift to trucks and crossovers from cars, a trend affecting the entire industry. Still, Ford’s move would be akin to Honda Motor Co. abandoning the Accord or Toyota Motor Corp. giving up on the Camry. When Honda redesigned the Accord as a 2018 model, top leaders of the automaker reminded manufacturing executives about the importance of Accord to the company.

Ford finds itself with one foot in the present. F-Series is its main source of profit. It has another foot in an uncertain future of self-driving vehicles. It wants to be seen as a “mobility company,” not just an automaker.

The shift to trucks and crossovers from cars seems unstoppable. Gasoline prices have been low since around 2014, helping to boost demand for trucks and crossovers.

Then again, it looked that way in the early 2000s. Some automakers predicted during the period that gasoline would have to go above $5 a gallon in the US before truck demand would be pinched. A decade ago, demand plunged amid a financial crisis and rising fuel prices in the United States.

Exclamation Point

This week’s announcement also means something else. The era of Alan Mulally, the CEO from 2006 until 2014, is now as distant as the time of executives such as Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Donald Petersen and the like.

Mulally was credited with keeping Ford out of bankruptcy, unlike fellow Detroit-area automakers General Motors and Chrysler. When Ford hired Mulally from Boeing Co., one of his first questions was what happened to the Taurus. The car was a symbol of Ford making a comeback in the 1980s.

Upon finding out there was no Taurus in Ford’s lineup, the company brought the sedan back. First it renamed an existing model (the Five Hundred). Later it introduced a new Taurus.

For a time, Mulally was the symbol of another Ford comeback. But that image, already fading, is about gone along with Mulally catchphrases as “One Ford.” The disappearance of the Taurus – for the second time – merely adds an exclamation point to that process.

Bill Koenig, a senior editor at Manufacturing Engineering, covered Ford from 2001 through 2008 for Bloomberg News.

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