Ford’s Euro-pendulum swings, but is there time to Explore?
A number of years ago, Ford’s European marketing department initiated an advertising execution they called ‘Unlearn’, an attempt to nudge customer perception of the blue oval; essentially a variation of the somewhat clichéd ‘Think you understand brand X? Think again’ marketing trope. With Unlearn, Ford wanted us to view the brand more in iconic terms; cars such as the Mustang and GT models, rather than the Fiestas, Focuses and Mondeos which had hitherto made up the bulk of Henry’s European output.
To put it charitably, it was a rather heavy-handed, somewhat clunky example of the advertiser’s art, one which the blue oval quickly abandoned. However, in light of recent developments, there are signs that the carmaker is back in the unlearning game.
About a week ago, Ford revealed a new all-electric crossover, “steeped in Ford’s US roots and designed for Europe”, previewing the blue oval’s new approach for the region. But if the ethos is new, the name isn’t, Explorer being a long-lived and popular nameplate in the United States, if less well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Also new (to Ford) is the MEB platform, courtesy of Volkswagen and shared with the current ID series of VW electric vehicles in a co-operative agreement between the two carmakers.
Despite the lasting success of the F-150 pickup truck in the domestic arena, Ford suffers from something of an image problem. Falling squarely into the legacy carmaker category, innovators such as Tesla have been running rings around Detroit over the past number of years, not only in image and perception, but particularly in the financial markets, an arena where industry CEOs are increasingly adjudged and found wanting. This has led the blue oval’s Jim Farley to adopt an increasingly robust US-centric approach, one which continues to have a profound impact upon its perennially loss-making (ergo increasingly precarious) European outpost.
With Mondeo in eternal repose and both Fiesta and Focus undergoing palliative care, Ford’s European line up will soon change beyond recognition. Goodbye saloons and hatchbacks, hello SUVs and crossovers. And a big howdy to a more transatlantic visual palate, Explorer previewing this blunter, visually tougher aesthetic. The carmaker’s latest creative pivot is characterised by the term, ‘Adventurous Spirit’. Within this, Ford says, exist four design ‘pillars’: ‘Ultimate Outdoor’ (Bronco), ‘Wild Performance’ (Mach-e), ‘Urban Escape’ (Puma) and ‘Active Adventure’(Kuga). The more observant amongst you will perhaps discern the emergence of a theme here.
This latest re-focusing of visual priorities is very much in line with Ford of Europe’s rather inconsistent approach to vehicle design these past four decades. Nothing short of market dominance has been Dearborn’s longstanding ambition, one which has consistently eluded them, despite a number of stand-out products over intervening decades. Perhaps owing to a lack of commitment (Ford executives always having at least one eye on the escalator at Michigan Avenue), perhaps a lack of support from the mothership, but the European outpost has since its ’70s heyday suffered from something of a scattergun approach to design – lurching from regressive to radical and back again.
It is possible to trace this binary approach back to the schisms enacted by ‘Glass House’ management in the late 1980s, the resultant loss of confidence, not to mention some of Ford’s most valuable design talent creating a vacuum (both real and metaphorical) which has never adequately been filled.
Current incumbent, Amko Leenarts is tasked with not only mapping out a new visual identity in a transitory European landscape, but arresting the carmaker’s sharp decline across the region, not only in sales but perceived desirability. Ford finds itself in an invidious position in Europe, the allure of the blue oval brand being nothing like it once was. Recognising this, management’s aim is to circumvent it with a decreased emphasis on the Blue Oval brand itself.
Because the future of the future will contain the past, forthcoming models are set to arrive freighted with nostalgia. Some of Ford’s best-loved nameplates are believed to be making a come-back – Capri being suggested as an early favourite to return to the range, albeit not quite as we might imagine.
But what of Explorer itself? Crossovers are by their very nature unexciting to behold, there being little the car designer can do to lend the silhouette a sense of visual dynamism without hopelessly compromising the all-important package. Hence Explorer is largely by the numbers, but to its design team’s credit is distinguished by relatively clean flanks, sound proportions and a solid, robust looking stance. Perhaps the most notable aspect being its front end; this grille-less approach being somewhat redolent, (intentionally or otherwise) of Ford’s landmark Sierra.
In its home market, there have been comparatively few class or prestige-related issues with brand-Ford, which has been capable of supporting just about any product. On this side of the world however, ‘big-ticket’ items like automobiles have always been brand-sensitive, but are more so in the current environment. With EVs, where the price of entry is higher still, paying the sort of prices Ford are expected to charge for Explorer will certainly be asking a good deal of the European consumer.
Whether Ford’s new approach differs markedly (or sufficiently) from its predecessor is a matter of opinion. But this seemingly constant rearranging of stylistic deckchairs is redolent of a deeper issue of confidence – one which comes direct from Dearborn itself. Does Jim Farley believe that his European outpost can be resuscitated, or is he simply marking time until he (or his successor) can execute a withdrawal?
There are only so many times one can etch-a-sketch a market strategy and still come up short. With Ford’s legendary blue oval nameplate becoming an impediment to European sales progress, style (and clever branding) may be forced to do more of the heavy lifting than might otherwise be deemed necessary or expedient. For Ford’s European overseers therefore, a good deal rides on Explorer’s adventurous spirit.
 Explorer production is to begin mid-year at Ford’s Cologne plant. Pricing, it is believed will start from around £40,000.
 The current US market Explorer is a much larger and more off-road focused vehicle. While the Explorer EV will not be offered in America, its US sibling will be withdrawn from European sale later this year.
 “We are the only American, iconic car company still doing business in Europe. I think this is a huge opportunity for us to reposition the brand, and to create a new world of experiences around this DNA.” Ford’s European chief, Martin Sander, quoted in Autocar,
 “We’re American and we really want to underline that. That’s something that we’re drawing from: our heritage, our past,” Ford Exterior Design Manager, Jordan Demkiw, quoted in Autocar.
 The reinvented EV Mustang currently on sale is probably a fairly accurate barometer as to what can be expected.
 “I think in general, the public loves that we are bringing nameplates to new territories,” Leenarts told Autocar last week. [We hope] “the public loves that we are bringing nameplates to new territories,” is probably closer to what he wanted to say…
27 thoughts on “Tick Tock”
On a personal level, I am glad to see Ford sticking with production in Cologne. It would be a terrible blow for a city so linked to Ford to lose the economic and social value of vehicle production. On a general level, Ford´s stick-slip-slide to the point where its Europeal line-up is so markedly unlike what it was just a decade ago and where it´s almost entirely out of the top ten is striking. Yes, the world´s changed but it didn´t change so fast as for the change to be seen and addressed. Perhaps the biggest proble was cultural – if it´s true that Ford EU has been steered by US-centric managers since the late 1980s then you can also see why their attention might wander. Ford EU will only do will if the people at the top are committed to it. If you want that, you need local managers who help the mothership by helping the satellite.
Good morning Eóin. Thank you for an excellent analysis Ford’s current situation in Europe and the recent history that led it here. At least they are trying to re-establish the brand, not just giving up like GM. It’s telling (and, I imagine, injurious to the company’s pride) that Ford has had to seek Volkswagen’s assistance to do so, but it’s a pragmatic solution.
As to the new Explorer, I really like it. It’s refreshingly clean and confident design, with a distinctive front-end treatment that is entirely appropriate for its power source. I note also the complementary and really clean treatment of the rear end, without any of the usual fake diffuser / skid-plate nonsense. My only criticism is reserved for the fussy C-pillar / rear quarter light graphic, but I could certainly live with it. The explorer is certainly more appealing to my eyes than any of Volkswagen’s ID designs, which are rather bland and no better than ok.
If the co-operation with VW continues in this fashion, that would certainly simplify the ultimate integration of Ford Europe into the German giant’s portfolio, an eventuality against which I wouldn’t bet heavily.
With plain rear panel and straightened rear door window:
Nice work, Bernard. It probably needs a rear quarter-window to slim down the C-pillar a bit, but I prefer it to the production version. I might get my crayons out later…
Here’s my attempt at resolving the C-Pillar better:
Nice, although it does – to me – look a tad nondescript like this, thus highlighting the case for the prosecution- sorry: complicated c-pillar.
Morning Eóin. This design isn’t bad as far as these types of vehicles go. I certainly hope Ford of Europe is able to find a secure future; the thought of not being able to purchase a new one here is shocking to me. They’re so ubiquitous, I can’t imagine life without them.
I know it was sacrilegious turning the Mustang into a quasi-SUV but I quite like it, and I find the latest Kuga and Puma models attractive by SUV standards. I’m surprised that Ford have inflicted such USA-themed mini-Hummer styling on their new car, rather than sticking with what was working. The only familiar element is the low mounted air intake, which looks similar to that on the Mach-E.
Ford have demonstrated in years gone by that they are very good at selling mediocre products, but the competition has become more intense in recent years. Is the Explorer a new start, or the beginning of the end ? I suppose I do care, but not very much.
I thought Ford was more like a firm selling rather good products for reasonable prices. The odd duffer was the last Escort or some of the cheaper Cortinas. What is perhaps worrying is that Ford Europe has not managed to find a clearly identifiable appearance for their cars. This has been the case pretty much since Martin Smith took over. It´s not that some of them are not handsome vehicles e.g. the S-Max and the Fiestas. It´s that they have much less discernable identity than products from similarly priced brands. The Mk 3 Focus was the nadir of this, a design lacking in any clear identity other than that imparted by the badge. I wonder what it´s like at design board meetings in Merkenich. How much do they struggle move along and how much of their difficulty originates from the deserts of Michigan.
An article in ANE some time ago sheds light on how responsibilities are (or were) divided up. Europe oversees small platforms, but with input from local markets and, I would think, head office. For larger vehicles, head office develops them, with input from the satellite operations. That sounds complicated; I suspect it’s much more US-biased at the moment.
There´s the problem: the idea that US interests and tastes for larger cars are the same as those in the EU (and so they can base EU cars on platforms with American needs in mind). Conversely there is a kind of US-centred bias in leaving the less prestigious smaller car to the Europeans (because the little ones don´t matter too much). That way Europe was saddled with ever larger Mondeos and now it seems Ford will give up smaller cars anyway leaving EuroFord with little to do. Ford has a long record in making popular, well-liked vehicles and I for one have enjoyed some stand-out drives in Fords. It´s worrying to see the range and character of the line-up head in the direction it is. Old nameplates aren´t what make Ford great – it´s being able to land a good product at a sensible price.
Thanks, Eóin. I noticed the Explorer (EV) yesterday, I think. All the build up (Ford’s tired “teasing”, the earlier announcement that it was MEB based) had led me to assume it would be a straight ID4 clone, but apparently it is more it’s own thing (I believe it’s shorter than the ID4, but I don’t know how its size stacks up to the ID3). Like Daniel, I appreciate the design (with the usual proviso that I don’t care for SUV’s/crossovers). What is it with the MEB platform and c-pillars, though?
I wonder what the European car market will look like in ten years’ time. Not only because of EVs and their cost (will personal mobility be within reach of a significant portion of the population or not?), but also because I wonder if Europe’s rather unique demands on cars are tenable. More, I think, than most other discrete markets, Europe places an emphasis on percieved marque characteristics and very specific quality/design demands, although it is also willing to pay for the priviledge more than most other markets. That can make it financially worthwhile, but only of circumstances are right. Look only at the time it cost Audi or Lexus to achieve the desired brand cachet, relative to how long it took in the US.
Many an automaker can also attest to the impossibility of imbuing a product built for a less exacting market with the kind of – for lack of a less esoteric term – “soul” this market expects. Conversely, European(-spec) cars abroad seem to enjoy a certain prestige (including the hostility that evokes in self-proclaimed “normal folk”) in other markets.
I wonder if the financial logic of this “European exception” will disappear the way it did for, say: separate Ford Germany, UK and France branches in favour of Ford Europe. Maybe we’ll all be forced to swallow “world products” soon.
It might only be subjective on my part: I don´t get any sense from my first-hand experience of any interest in “soul” in cars. That might be due to my location Denmark where cars are appliances leased in black and white and off-black and metallic grey.
Maybe “soul” is the wrong expression: I mean that cars for the European market are usually more… sophisticated(?) technically than the more “appliance” like expectations in the US, for instance. Marque prestige is also much more differentiated (and in many cases, limiting, as Eóin pointed out) in Europe, hence my allusion to Audi and Lexus.
In some sense, Europeans do seem to invest more of their… identity (again: ?) in their cars. Even in the Netherlands, which nominally seems to have a similarly prosaic attitude towards cars as Denmark, that gets expressed in car choice. Up until about a decade ago, Opel was the best selling brand over here, very probably because it’s image was “like Volkswagen, but less pretentious and cheaper and thus better value for money”. The outwardly more rational (or even cunning) choice. At least: I’m under no illusions that the Dutch appreciated Opel’s often superior designs.
According to recent articles in Automotive New Europe, it looks as though Ford is going to reduce its co-operation with Volkswagen, so perhaps Ford were looking for a way to get started quickly with the VWG platform.
The Explorer itself is nice enough – according to a review from the Fully Charged channel, it’s pretty upmarket. I wonder whether many ‘legacy’ makers have decided to go for lower volumes at higher prices and leave the volume stuff to the Chinese. If that’s the case, then that part of the market will become pretty crowded.
The Explorer reminds me quite a bit of Land-Rover products – especially its interior, which is a bit ironic given Ford’s previous ownership of the brand.
Ford have form with co-operations with VAG. In that case, VAG partnered with Ford for the Galaxy Mk1/Sharan/Alhambra but went their separate ways. Ford tied up with Fiat for the much-loved Ka Mk2. And if memory serves they worked with Nissan for a Terrano-derivative called the Maverick (Euro market). I see that Ercole Spada/IDEA is credited with the design.
Leaving the mass-market/passengar car market is not advisable – it´s happened to Ford and GM in the US over the long haul. If they were really so lucky with their socio-economic model they´d be able to make profitable, desirable cars in such a big market. Toyota, Honda and Nissan have no qualms about making cars in all shapes and sizes and doing very well at it too. I think EuroFord would be a different and happier beast with less “help” from Detroit.
Geopolitically thinking, perhaps it might be leaving a large part of a big market to the Chinese is a risk. It´s one thing to make in China and sell in Europe but simply abandoning market share to a country with, to put it diplomatically, an ambiguous attitude to Europe/the West might is poor industrial policy. I´d suggest Western policy-makers look very closely at the risks of excessive independence on external sources of supply.
I think all of that’s true; and there is a related piece in Fleet News about how fleets feel that they’ve been messed around by European manufacturers.
Following DTW’s recent Allegro articles, all this reminds me of the situation in the 1970s when buyers were treated in a cavalier fashion by local manufacturers and people were only too pleased to buy Japanese.
Unless European manufacturers are careful, the sky overhead may start to darken with the wings of chickens coming home to roost (as UK chancellor Denis Healey once memorably put it), assuming it isn’t already too late.
“You’ll take what we give you and be happy about it” seems very on-brand for Ford right now. Their actual availability of products in the US reflects this attitude. Want a $25k Maverick? Sorry, we only built 90k. But here’s any number of $70k F150s to choose from.
Yes, that big bluff Explorer front end is going to look just great after four or five years of exposure to gravel and road debris.
Is there really any equity left in Brand America. The depths that public sentiment about America have plumbed would make Citroen marketers look like geniuses. Not even Americans are in love with America anymore (for starkly different reasons, but the end result is the same)
Back in my childhood days, whether cars, toys or kitchen appliances, it was “Wow, that’s American!”
That was the nineteen-sixties. A lot has happened since then. I think a lot of those US corporate types think we’re still living in the sixties. Maybe it’s their education system?
You might want to ask the designers at H&M and other clothing firms. I say that because you can´t walk 5 metres through H&M or Pennies without seeing garments with the names of US states and US universities in big letters on the front. It´s infuriating if only because there are 350 great name in Europe or anywhere else they could use. You´re lucky if you see even London, Berlin or Tokyo on these garments. What do people think the US is really like?
I had no idea Ford in Europe had fallen so far. Guess there’s a story to be told there.
I kind of had an inkling when the latest Mondeo showed up in Australia. So big? I could see a hole in the range between this and the Focus, a me-sized hole. It positively invited comparison with the locally-grown Falcon, so I did. The Mondeo had 6cm more wheelbase, was 10cm shorter, and only 1.5cm narrower. So in local Ford showrooms during the overlap period, you could buy a 4 litre rear driver almost the same size as the Mondeo! I don’t know whether any magazine actually did a comparison test (like Wheels’ infamous Falcon vs. Taurus), but it would have been interesting.
What is it about American management? They keep wanting to oversize the product. Even after all these years they don’t seem to be able to resist muddying the waters, as though they think we’ll all want the American Dream. When will they ever learn…?
Ford certainly is no longer the force it used to be in Europe. In the Ireland of my childhood (the 1960s and 1970s) Ford vehicles were truly ubiquitous, almost the default option. In the past fifteen years, Ford’s passenger car sales in Ireland have fallen by 76%, from 21,266 in 2007 to 5,072 in 2022. Ford now ranks a lowly sixth with a market share of 4.81%, down from third and 11.40% in 2007.
More widely across Europe, the story is the same: in 1991, Ford sold a total of 1,587,798 passenger cars across the continent giving a market share of 11.84%. Thirty years later, the comparables were 569,534 and 4.84%
Thank you, Daniel. We’re of a similar age then.
I used to read Car regularly through the seventies and eighties – somehow I assumed Ford kept their finger on the pulse of the market in England anyway. They certainly hit the bull’s eye with the Cortina, and it was pretty much the default medium-size car down here through the sixties. But the Mark 3 had massive quality issues (I owned one), just at the time Datsun launched the 180B which was a huge success. And Holden’s Torana, originally with a small six, walked all over Ford as well.
Although Ford did well with their bigger range, the Japanese had the small and medium market well and truly sewn up by the late seventies.
This Explorer? Not for me, thanks.