Manchester, purchase of lathes in

Don’t meet your heroes, they say. They only disappoint. In something of a reverse case, I met an anti-hero in a car park of an Essex airport and was not disappointed at all.

2004-2007 Ford 500

The car in question – shown here in one photo because it isn’t worth any more than one – is the famous Ford 500 or Five-Hundred. It had a mayfly existence if you pardon the pun. Ford revealed it in 2004 at the Detroit Auto Show and they sold it from 2005-2007.  Thereafter they renamed and restyled it.

I notice that if you read up on the design attribution a certain George Bucher is credited (as Ford N. America design chief) alongside J Mays (as Design Vice President).  It’s not really, really easy to find out much about Mr Bucher – this car may have torpedoed his reputation. In a way this seems a tad unfair as J Mays had been in office a good six years when the Ford 500 was signed off. He must have seen this car before they committed it to production.

What were they thinking of? In 2000, this car existed (below), the one to which the Ford 500 owes the major parts of its design. This is the year 2000 version of the Passat. The B5 version appeared a good five or six years before George Bucher and J Mays agreed to push the Ford 500 into production, for no documented reason:

2000 VW Passat: source

I also think this car was on the mood board when the 500 gestated:

1997 Audi A6: source

Notice the way the A6 and Five-Hundred side-glass finishes at a small radius. The Passat’s is truncated. The wheel arches of the 500 are also more A6 than Passat B5.

2006 Ford Five Hundred: source

We may never know the real story behind this. Messrs Mays and Bucher are not in a position to say if senior management pushed the 500 on them.  Neither the truth nor lies would be credible from them.

Painfully, this came out in 2003:

2003 Ford 427 concept car: source

Is this not J Mays’ response to the 500 that was perhaps forced on him?  Yet all it did was make the 500 look worse when it appeared. Either way it made no sense to show it in 2003.

What else could Ford have made?

A concept from from 2002?  But there was nothing.

Or this concept from 2001? Too retro.

Ford Forty-Nine convertible concept: source

Or this design from 2000: … nothing.

Or this gem from 1999?  Too high-brow.

1999 Ford 021C concept car: Marc Newson is cool

All of which is an interesting finding: in the critical five years before the 500 crawled through the design process like a monster in the ventilation ducts, Ford’s cupboard was bare. The 427 appeared too late (and too early) and the 021C, excellent as it is, is not what one could base an American car on.

There are excuses and there are reasons for errors. The front-drive 500 supposedly owed something to the Volvo S80 chassis. That’s an excuse and a poor one. The S80 is a handsome car. The reasons might be that a few extra ambitions piled onto the bandwagon: a taller H-point and a massive 600 litres boot plus the need to carry things longer than 3 metres all upgoofed the proportions.

George Bucher explained: ” … it was a challenge to sculpt a Ford-styled body around a Volvo chassis, and added that designers used what he calls plainer surfaces with taut lines to give the car a modern look without losing its passenger-car proportions.”  Indeed, yet one has to point out it wasn’t really a Ford-styled body but something of a … homage to the VW Passat and Audi A6. J Mays tried to say boring was okay: “By the way, I don’t think it’s going to hurt sales. They’re the most conservative buyers there are.”

Something else was going on, namely that the designers intended the 500 to offer what SUV buyers wanted which is mostly to do with the ride height. That explains the tall roof and perhaps the decision to give the car an arced roofline.  A decade and a bit later, Ford’s out of the saloon car business pretty much (BMW, Audi and Mercedes aren’t).

There are signs someone tried to make the faux-A6 design work. I have seen a concept sketch of the 500 and what that car shows is length and width but not height. The lamps look way better. Alas, I can’t reproduce it here but click this and scroll down a bit.

What I can do is quote the NY Times on the 500: ” A car whose lack of charisma is so dense no light can escape its surface, the Montego is the Mercury Division’s upscale twin to the Ford Five Hundred sedan, though the Montego’s version of upscale is of the Korean off-shore casino variety. The faux wood-grain interior trim looks like it came off a prison lunch tray. I’ve felt better leather upholstery on footballs. But this is not a case of a car nibbled to death by details. Overall, the car has a profoundly geriatric feeling about it, like it was built with a swollen prostate. To drive this car is to feel the icy hand of death upon you, or at least the icy hand of Hertz, because it simply screams rental.”

My own impression of the car in the carpark was the astonishment of realising it was as mediocre as legend described it. I met an anti-hero and found them as bad as promised. The tell-tale detail was the two-piece brightwork on the window frame, with a seam put where it was most noticeable and assembled with less precision than any such joint I have ever seen. Paint flaked from the bonnet (aluminium, I think). The headlamp covers were going nicotine yellow. The rub-strips on the doors were making the beginnings of a getaway.

I really thought detail design this bad had been exiled a decade before 2004. So, in terms of design and execution, the 500 lives down to my expectations which is something of an achievement.

The interior looked like this:

2005 Ford 500 interior: source

And let’s not forget the 1997 Audi A6 interior looked like this:

1997 Audi A6 interior: source

It’s close enough to be troubling. The example at the Essex airport naturally didn’t look to be that well-kept which is not the car’s fault. I can only comment that the interior design is nothing less than a wholesale re-interpretation of generic VAG.

I will decline to blame the designers themselves. I think these people want to do original work. The brief is not theirs – that is the result of management and marketing working together to identify the problem and, here, getting it wrong.

A combination of factors got the 500 into the showrooms: Ford had not even been working on saloon cars so they had no research to draw on; management offered the wrong brief; the VP Design had not the persuasive power to alter the decisions of the senior board and production engineers cut quality out of the picture.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

7 thoughts on “Manchester, purchase of lathes in”

  1. Bucher and May’s comments read like those of naughty school-boys when caught spaying graffiti on the tech-block walls – all guilty, shifty-eyed protestations of ‘not me, guv!’. Bucher’s comments in particular seem very lame – tool and bad carpenters and all that – given how, over the years, very fine looking cars have sprung from shared platforms. Indeed, many have been discussed on these pages.

  2. The story I heard is that the 500 is very much J Mays baby, and that Ford poached him to do exactly that, reprise the success of Volkswagen with Ford. And as I get it, the 500 isn’t built up on the lower platform of the S80 but the higher H-points of the XC90. It really is an XC90 sedan, which counts for the suv-like stance. Answering criticism of the VW design language J Mays famously stated: “You can never look too much like an Audi!” Revealing His thoughts about the Audi he just left being the ne plus ultra of design language and design evolution.

  3. Lord, out of all the Meidocre cars to end up in Europe, why the Ford Five Hundred??

    Also, the chassis is underneath a reworked S80, but a few crucial components are made of heavier, cheaper steel rather than Aluminum.

    The 500 was an exceptionally dull car, powered by a 3.0L V6 that only had enough power to vaguely move it around. The CVT automatic that came in the AWD cars was known for being pretty fragile, too. Fuel economy was OK for what it was, though.

    The Five Hundred had a SUV/CUV kin, the Freestyle – which looks a lot like the Aussie Ford Territory, but instead is FWD Unibody based. Both cars were a solid yawn in the market. The facelift and rebranding of the 500/Freestyle to the Taurus and Taurus X helped, mostly because it got a better engine and transmission combo, but overall, the smaller Fusion outsold the Taurus/500.

    Also, the S80’s platform is still used on the current shape Explorer, and its a compromised design. Tight interior for how large it is.

  4. One of the biggest missteps for the 500, is that as a whole, people started to buy less and less of this class size of car. By 2004, a lot of the Japanese competitors had become about the same size measurably as the Taurus/500. When the USDM 2008+ Honda Accord came out, it was classified as a full-sized car, rather than a mid-sized one, mostly because it was so long and wide!

    Not to mention, 2004 was also the first years for the Chrysler LX platform. With the RWD, old-americana ish styling, and big, brash engine options (Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum), the Ford 500 looked exceptionally dull. Chrysler had a lot of hype and fanfare for those cars at that time.

    With options like the Ford Five Hundred, as well as the warmed over MK1 Focus we got, it’s no wonder Ford lost exceptional marketshare in the gas crisis of 2008.

  5. The 500 got turned into the “new Taurus” for 2008 with a mild restyle and a new 3.5l V6 and still they couldn’t sell many. Ford used the old name to fool the unwary on Mulally’s advice, but the actual original Taurus replacement was the Fusion, a smaller vehicle that sold well and was pleasant from 2006 model year.

    Fusion was a Mazda 626 cousin made in Mexico while 626s were made in Flat Rock, Detroit. In 2009 Mazda supersized the 626 to compete with the new blimp 08 Honda Accord, but Ford kept the Fusion going until the current one arrived for 2013, followed by naming it Mondeo in Europe two years later.

    Back in 2010, Ford changed the “new Taurus” ex-500 into the even “newer new Taurus” with a complete body restyle. This “newer new Taurus” was the opposite of the gawky 500/”new Taurus”. It minimized interior room rather than maximized it, and introduced the World’s Largest Center Console to rob driver and front passenger of seating width. Leading Edge.

    The “newer new Taurus” is in most ways a completely useless car with a giant boot that is more than enough for the four squeezed-in passengers. Now mostly used as a poelice car, where a regular cop with standard battle accoutrements can hardly get in it without undressing, the space is so small. I have no idea why police forces buy them as they are really quite unfit for purpose.

    You might have looked like a goof driving around in the 500/”new Taurus” from 2005 to 2009 but it sure was roomy with big windows to look out of. And there weren’t many copies to distract the public from gazing back at just you, wondering why you bought it. An unloved car

    Ford. I wonder about that company sometimes, even during Saint Alan Mulally’s tenure when the “newer new Taurus” happened along with the useless Powershift DCT transmission for the Focus. That’s what ruined car sales for Ford in the US as the word spread. Now they have the Ecosport to ruin the crossover experience for thousands of not too bright first time buyers ejected from underwhelming aging Foci. Note to Europeans – the Focus is fine with the manual, but manuals don’t sell in North America.

    1. Hi: I have good reason to believe J Mays didn’t support the Five Hundred.
      Either way, yes, you make a good point about Ford which makes me wonder generally about governance of any large entity. Much like the Holy Roman Emperor, the CEO is only incompletely in control. These people trade power and concessions and also lack complete information.
      Generally Ford’s history since the zinger Focus Mk1 has been mixed. Seldom bad, the products are seldom inspiring. The current EU range appears to be very Fiesta/Focus dependent. The Mondeo is a whale – not bad just way too big without being big like a Granada. The Kuga and Ecosports are pure corporate box checking excercises. I like the S-Max though. Such cars are niche (for no good reason). The S-Max and Espace seem to be much better than oversized saloons as range toppers.

  6. It’s astonishing how many cars Ford got wrong at roughly the same time.
    This one, Jaguar’s X350, S-Type, X-Type – all of them suffered from the same excessively tall look and geriatric orientation with standard bi-focal windscreen and incontinence resistant seat covers.

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