DEARBORN, Mich. — Hau Thai-Tang was still a car guy in the making when he saw his first Mustang, a white Mach One, in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He was about 5, and that American muscle car -- on display to boost the morale of U.S. troops -- looked nothing like the cars he had seen on the narrow, tree-lined streets near his home.
"We had very few cars to start with, and the cars we had were mostly French because we were a French colony," he recalls. His parents owned a small, two-cylinder Citroen "Deux Cheveaux" -- French for two horses -- that resembled a VW Bug, only more boxy.
"It was so big to me as a kid," he says of that early-'70s Mustang. He got to see the car because his grandfather did business with American troops.
Today, more than three decades later, his English is far better than his Vietnamese. He's talking in his office in the Ford Product Development Center, where he's the man most responsible for the widely hailed and wildly popular new Mustang, which critics say combines the best of the classic retro design with 21st century technology.
The workaholic car enthusiast, lean and intense but also prone to telling jokes, is snacking on cheese crackers late in the day because he skipped lunch while taking meetings and phone calls. The man behind the Mustang is much in demand these days.
"He's an immigrant from Vietnam and he ends up the chief engineer of one of the most American of American cars. It's a remarkable story," says Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver, by phone from his Ann Arbor office.
The 2005 Mustang, which launched in September, is one hot car: Retail sales are up 50% from the previous year as of November, according to Ford, and 45,000 coupes are on order to be built. The January issue of Car and Driver features a red one on the cover, as does Motor Trend.
And Thai-Tang will be in Southern California for the eagerly anticipated worldwide debut of the convertible Wednesday at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.
As chief engineer, Thai-Tang took charge of all things Mustang, including profit and cost, while leading hundreds of engineers and designers on the first "clean sheet" model in the 40-year history of the car. The inaugural Mustang was a Ford Falcon underneath that revolutionary styling.
Everyone, it seems, wants one of the 2005 Mustangs, including the 38-year-old Thai-Tang, who currently drives a red Lincoln LS, the last car he worked on before the new Mustang.
"I have one on order," he says, while leaning against a red GT in the lobby of the Ford Motor Co. Worldwide Headquarters. It's a stick, of course, because no car guy would be caught driving a power car with an automatic transmission.
But internal orders must wait until retail orders are filled, and that could take until spring -- or even longer, as the 2005 continues to be one of the most coveted American cars in a generation.
So why all this love for the retooled Mustang?
"From a styling standpoint," Csere explains, "they've gone back and distilled the best from the great Mustangs of the '60s. If you ever saw the movie 'Bullitt' with Steve McQueen and you saw him drive a Mustang in the greatest movie chase you will ever see, you would recognize the 2005 because it has the styling cues of that '68 Mustang embodied in it." Csere also praises the car's performance -- and its price.
"Building a cool car for $50,000 or $60,000 kind of gets people's attention," the editor says, "but when you can build a really cool car at a price everybody can afford, it goes gangbusters.... You order the V8 GT, and the base price is $25,000 and you get this great look, tremendous horsepower ... and a car that is tremendously fun to drive."
A narrow escape
Thai-Tang and his younger brother, Nam, were born into a middle-class family in Saigon whose lives were upended by the war.
While their mother worked in customer service for Chase Manhattan Bank, their father left his job teaching Vietnamese literature at Nguyen Trai high school in Saigon to join the South Vietnamese Army.
"There wasn't a whole lot of fighting there [in Saigon] with the exception of two times," Thai-Tang recalls. "One in 1968 -- there was the Tet Offensive, and there was a big battle in the city at that time. My dad was part of that ... but I was only 2 so I don't remember any of it. The next time there was active fighting was when we left -- 1975 -- when the Communists came into the country." The family flew out just before the fall of Saigon on April 30.
Chase had a program through which it selected some employees to relocate based on how easily it was thought they would be able to resettle in the U.S. "Our family was very fortunate because, atypical of most Vietnamese families, we had a small family -- most families have seven or eight kids," he says. "Both of my parents were fairly young. They were college educated. They spoke a little bit of English.