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Ford Has Designs on Revitalizing Mercury Lineup

Seeking to fashion a new identity for the brand, the firm breaks new ground by naming an exclusive design chief for the unit.

January 30, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in its 63-year history, Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury brand has its own design chief.

His appointment won't be formally announced until next week, but officials at Lincoln Mercury say the job has been handed to Darrell Behmer.

The 40-year-old Behmer previously was chief of design at Ford's large and luxury car center. Before that, he was head designer at Ford's Advanced Design Studio in Dearborn, Mich. He will report to Gerry McGovern, design chief for Lincoln.

Behmer is a graduate of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit--Michigan's answer to Pasadena's Art Center College of Design--and the place that produces many of the car designers who find employment with the traditional Big Three auto makers (Art Center graduates work in Michigan too, but are most prevalent in the West Coast design studios of Asian and European car makers).

Behmer's job at Mercury will be to develop a distinctive image for what has become an orphan brand--lost in the gap between the Ford's everyman products and Lincoln's luxury vehicles.

There were persistent rumblings in the automotive press last year that Mercury was destined to follow Plymouth and Oldsmobile into oblivion.

But Lincoln Mercury officials have insisted that reports of the marque's demise were erroneous. This month, Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. revealed that his cousin, Elena Ford, is the new brand manager for Mercury. He assured reporters that he likes his cousin and wasn't setting her up for a fall with the new job. Ford also has told global marketing chief Jan Klug to come up with a plan for fixing Mercury.

Insiders say Behmer's appointment as chief designer for the brand is further proof of the marque's staying power.

Mercury will lose the Cougar sports coupe and Villager minivan this year, but it is scheduled for a replacement minivan as a 2004 model.

And decisions are being made on proposals for a new sport-utility/minivan crossbreed, a high-roofed sedan with truck-like seating height, and the possible revival of the Cougar using a platform shared with the next-generation Mustang from Ford.

Wolfgang Reitzle, head of Ford's Premier Automotive Group--which includes Lincoln as a member but so far sees Mercury as a mere camp follower--says Mercury is the ideal brand to let Ford fully use its production capacity.

Upgrade the interior, redesign the front and rear ends and add a few Mercury-only design touches that could include special wheels and trim, and the Ford becomes a more expensive Merc with relatively little new investment by the company.

Dodging GM Bullet

The upcoming overhaul of General Motors Corp.'s design process isn't expected to do much harm to GM's Advanced Design Studio in North Hollywood.

The 2-year-old center, headed by former Volkswagen designer Frank Saucedo, has a staff of 40, including designers, model makers and support staff.

Saucedo says that although he hasn't been made privy to details, he's been told that his group shouldn't worry.

Overall, GM is expected to trim about 400 positions from a worldwide design staff of 1,200. Many of the targeted jobs, though, probably will be middle-management level--the infamous GM bureaucracy that is best known for slowing down things.

GM product development guru Bob Lutz, who ordered the overhaul of the design process, also is expected to get rid of the company's seven brand-specific design centers and its Advanced Portfolio Exploration group, or APEX, in favor of a system that pits teams of designers in competitions to develop new vehicles for the various GM marques.

Saucedo's studio was not part of the brand-specific system and has only two APEX group members, who also have other research and staff development duties that shouldn't be affected by the shake-up, he said.

Lutz, a big fan of speed in the product development process, has lauded the North Hollywood studio for designing and building the new Pontiac Solstice convertible concept in just 15 weeks.

The sporty Solstice won rave reviews when unveiled this month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Moving up at BMW

Designworks USA, BMW's advanced-design facility in Newbury Park, has appointed Christopher V. Chapman to head its automotive design team.

Chapman, who joined Designworks in 1994, replaces Adrian van Hooydonk, who late last year became president of the company. Chapman, who designed the exterior of the BMW X5 "sport-activity vehicle" and did the exterior of the X-Coupe concept shown at the Detroit auto show last year, recently returned to Southern California from a two-year assignment at BMW's central studio in Munich.

Although about half its income comes from automotive work for BMW, Designworks also does industrial, product, packaging and transportation equipment design.

Chapman, 36, will head a team of designers and model makers in the automotive unit. He is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design and worked for American Isuzu Motors before joining BMW.

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Highway 1 editor John O'Dell can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

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