Meet Ford's Brave New `World Car'

Ford Motor Co.'s concept seemed great at the time--building a new "world car" that would satisfy every taste from Detroit to Dusseldorf. But the result, the Escort, proved to be one of the grandest corporate foul-ups ever. To make the Escort, Ford set out to pool design, engineering, and manufacturing from both North America and Europe. But rivalries were so intense that Ford ended up producing two very distinct models. When they finally hit the road in 1981, the North American and European versions shared nothing other than one part--a water-pump seal the size of a thumbnail.

Hoping history won't repeat itself, Ford now is betting $6 billion on the Mondeo, an even more ambitious world car. The front-wheel-drive Mondeo, priced at around $18,000 in Europe, is designed to replace the aging, 10-year-old Sierra line in Europe and next year the Tempo/Topaz line in the U. S.

Ford executives figure that the convergence of emission standards, safety regulations, and, above all, consumer tastes in the Old and New Worlds make a single car worthwhile. If they're right, the Mondeo program will set a benchmark for future joint projects in the late 1990s. Regardless, the experience will have some spin-off benefits for other models, such as developing worldwide supplier relationships and teaching cost-control.

PAINFUL MEMORIES. Unlike the 1981 Escort, the U. S. and European versions of the Mondeo will have 75% common parts, although the U. S. version will be slightly longer and have more chrome. While initial costs are higher, they are more than offset by the savings from engineering one, rather than two, cars.

Of course, the program had to overcome many obstacles. Five Ford design studios from the U. S. and Europe had to compromise on design proposals that ranged from a soft and rounded body to a sharply an-gular one. Although Ford's European operations maintained the project leadership, key responsibilities were divided. The U. S., for example, took over automatic transmissions, with Europe handling manual. And with Escort memories so painful, senior executives from Chairman Harold A. Poling downward took a keen interest in the Mondeo's development. In fact, Poling, along with then-President Philip E. Benton Jr., selected the Mondeo name from a short list of half a dozen. And one insider says that Poling took the advice of consultant and former ace racing-car driver Jackie Stewart and ordered changes in the car's suspension.

Even so, Ford execs admit, the final product isn't a dramatic head-turner. Ford is counting on such features as standard airbags and side-impact bars, plus good fuel efficiency, to produce a winner. Early critical response has been warm. "It's very tidy and handsome and probably the sort of car Ford needs to ward off the Japanese," says Gavin Green, editor-in-chief of Car Magazine. If so, Ford's world car will be more than just a grand concept.