How Ford gave Mach-E its Mustang muscle

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn —  In one of his first moves as CEO of Ford Motor Co., Jim Hackett placed a big bet: he changed plans for the automaker's first-ever dedicated electric vehicle platform. 

That's why many — including Executive Chairman Bill Ford and the directors he leads — are staking their credibility and Hackett's reputation as a "change agent" on his ability to chart a new direction for the 116-year-old automaker with the electric Mustang Mach-E SUV, unveiled Sunday in Los Angeles.

The Mustang Mach-E electric GT model.

"The heart of the company is on trial," Hackett told The Detroit News, referring to the Mach-E by its internal code name CX727. "The 727 is at the heart of what the company's been working on."

The Mach-E also is a long-awaited signal of the path the Blue Oval intends to pursue to meet the Auto 2.0 challenges of mobility, autonomy and electrification as they converge with the demonstrated market expectation for both emotion and brand cred in the emerging EV space.

The Mach-E, Ford's first-ever electric SUV, is a big part of the answer, as is a coming electric version of the Dearborn automaker's best-selling F-150 pickup truck. In the race for advantage in the small, if growing, electrified space, evidence is mounting that Ford intends to leverage the iconic heavyweights of its past and present to navigate the future.

Crain Communications, Inc. Chairman and Automotive News Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain, left, interviews Jim Farley, Executive V.P. & President, Global Markets, Ford Motor Company, in this January 15, 2019, file photo.

The Mach-E is an expansion of the Mustang lineup, now in its 55th year. The new EV is not a coupe like every Mustang before it. And by Hackett's own admission, it's the first vehicle launched under his direction at Ford that he didn't inherit from the CEO he replaced, Mark Fields, in May 2017. 

That's no accident. Hackett, Ford's president of new business, technology and strategy, Jim Farley, and other senior leaders company scrapped plans to develop and launch a new electric vehicle that was something like an electric Focus compact — another so-called "compliance vehicle" aimed at helping the trucks-and-SUV maker meet rising emissions standards instead of wowing would-be customers. 

Pieces of that original plan were good, Farley said. The automaker would have launched a futuristic vehicle that planted the Ford flag in the electric vehicle market. It had some new technology. Its build and design might have connected with the comparatively few true electric vehicle fans living in the United States and abroad.

But it lacked the right emotion, a message in glass and sheet metal that says battery-electric vehicles can be every bit as sexy, as powerful, as evocative as a traditional Mustang powered by an internal combustion engine.

"I see the thing, and it was like a Prius," said Farley, a former Toyota Motor Corp. executive recalling his first impressions in 2017 of the Ford EV's design. The original design prioritized aerodynamics over design: "It's our first BEV! Why did we delegate it to the wind? We're going to delegate our whole future to the wind?"

Hackett agreed. 

"I said to Jim that it's not good enough," the CEO said. "He already knew that. But then he came back and he goes, 'What if,' long pause, 'it's a Mustang?'"

Within months, the Mach-E would be completely redesigned, bucking the long-established industry practice of taking years to design, engineer and launch new vehicles. Hackett and his executives formed Team Edison, a Detroit-based squad working out of new bricky digs in an old Corktown building that focused on the company's electric vehicle strategy and its Mach-E halo product. 

Mustang Mach-E GT Performance Edition brings the thrills that Mustang is famous for.

At least it would be "Mustang-inspired." Just how much would depend on the team toiling over the details. Farley met with Hal Sperlich, the chief architect of the first-ever Mustang and a longtime lieutenant to the legendary Lee Iacocca, to talk about the specific measurements and ratios that gave a Mustang front end and dashboard its iconic look. 

A team made up largely of people who'd worked on more recent Mustang launches, such as the GT500, battled with each other: which Mustang design cues would the Mach-E use; how, exactly, would they create a new vehicle that looked enough like a Mustang to cue potential buyers to the capabilities of the vehicle; how would Interior teams deliver an interior inspired by a classic, but that was built nothing like it?

Meantime, Ford's product development and purchasing chief, Hau Thai-Tang, would develop a new platform for the Mach-E at the same time designers and engineers were devising a new plan and pushing to meet a deadline. That bucked another trend.

Automakers typically have a platform for the vehicle designed before moving forward with plans for the body. But Hackett and his team demanded the vehicle be ready for its original launch date, which called for putting the vehicle on roads in 2020. 

"We had no choice," said Jason Castriota, brand director of Ford's battery electric vehicles.

Once the teams had the new design and build, they had to decide what to call it. And when Farley and Team Edison decided they wanted to attach the iconic Mustang badge to the vehicle, they had to talk to Bill Ford, great-grandson of founder Henry Ford.

"I've always been very protective of the Mustang," Bill Ford told The News. "I was very skeptical. But people will be really surprised. They'll love this car. It accomplishes so much for one vehicle. This product will end up speaking for itself."

Confidence in the product is the result of a gauntlet of quick, determined decision-making, new product development processes, and a new focus on establishing better technology in new vehicles, company officials say. Farley says it was a "hard birthing process" to bring the Mach-E to market.

Ultimately, the automaker plans to present potential buyers with a more affordable performance-oriented battery-electric SUV. And while customers will be the ultimate judge of the product, early analyst reviews of the Mustang Mach-E indicate the two-year redesign paid off.

"It has a better chance of success than it would have in its original form," said Sam Abuelsamid, an automotive tech analyst for Navigant Research. "Ford has never built anything quite like this."

Ford executives know that — and it has the team excited. That's why Farley calls the Mach-E launch the most important of his career.

"It was a really important proof point for us as a team of how this new business is going to come to life," Farley said. "There’s so many articles being written that the OEMs can’t compete, but look at this car. Can we beat Tesla? I can’t wait to compare the Model Y and this car. Let’s get going. Let’s get on the damn track and see what happens.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau