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Ford Names Chief of Irvine Design Studio

May 03, 2005|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Ford Motor Co. has hired a celebrated former Chrysler Group automotive designer in a bid to get its own design engine firing on all cylinders.

Freeman Thomas, 47, will become head of Ford's Irvine-based advanced design studio June 1. Thomas, who helped develop the popular Chrysler 300 sedan with its attention-grabbing front grille, resigned as a senior designer at DaimlerChrysler's Pacifica advanced design center in Carlsbad last month.

At Ford he will reunite with J Mays, Ford's vice president for design. The two were colleagues at Volkswagen in the 1990s and collaborated on the concepts for the Volkswagen New Beetle and the egg-shaped Audi TT coupe and roadster.

At Ford, Thomas will serve as director of strategic design, working both on future concept vehicles and on production vehicles for the company's North American operations. His design team will work on Ford, Mercury, Lincoln and North American versions of the company's European brands: Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover.

Analysts applauded the move. Ford has scored well with the designs of specialty vehicles, including the retro-styled 2006 Mustang and the exotic GT performance car. But designs for its high-volume models, such as the new Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle wagon, are considered to be middle-of-the-road and their sales have been disappointing. In the first quarter Ford's U.S. vehicle sales fell 5.2%.

"They clearly are struggling on their mainstream vehicles," said Wes Brown, an industry analyst at Iceology, a Los Angeles-based automotive market research firm. Ford needs "to create a stir among consumers, and Mr. Thomas is a great choice for that."

Thomas' hiring appears to complete an effort by Mays to build a cohesive design team at Ford.

"They now, all of a sudden, are stocked with a lot of top talent," said Gordon Wangers, chief executive of AMCI, a Marina del Rey automotive research firm.

Mays joined Ford in 1997, became group vice president for design in 2003 and recently transferred his headquarters to London. He hired another Volkswagen alumni, Martin Smith, to head Ford's European design team and appointed longtime Volvo chief designer Peter Horbury as head of North American design.

Thomas, who was recruited by Mays, said he saw Ford's Irvine studio taking on a more important role in the company's design strategies than in the past.

"I'll have responsibility for all North American strategic design and will be able to look 10 to 15 years into the future and use those ideas to help affect [near-term] production vehicles as well," he said.

A Southern California native, Thomas graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1983 and immediately went to work for Porsche. He joined Volkswagen in 1991 and DaimlerChrysler in 1999.

Ford's shares rose 11 cents Monday to $9.22 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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