Ford Motors is betting its second century that customers will buy today's concept cars for the roads of the future.
"You buy certain cars … because they're prepared to spend a part of their life with it," said J. Mays, Ford's chief designer. "And it's exactly the same relationship that you have with a girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse or loved one."
Mays thinks he knows what drivers are really after.
"[Drivers] will tell you they want great value and practicality, but they'll be lying to you," said Mays. "What they want is a better life. And that's what we're trying to give them."
For 100 years, Ford has been building icons of the American lifestyle — from the Mustang to the Thunderbird model cars, from the most popular pickup trucks in the world to the Explorer, which touched off the SUV craze.
Steve McQueen drove a Ford. So did James Dean. And Ford had plenty of real-life fans as well.
"Bonnie and Clyde, when the V8 engine, the V8 car of Ford came out, you know there's this marvelous letter that Clyde Barrow wrote. You know, basically, 'Dear Mr. Ford, you got the best car. I can outrun the cops wherever I go. Thank you,'" said Douglas Brinkley, a historian of the Ford company.
Mr. Ford, of course, was Henry Ford. He created the icon that started it all: the Model T.
"Will Rogers once said about the shadow of Henry Ford, 'I don't know whether he left us better off or worse off, but it's sure a lot different world than it used to be before Henry Ford entered the picture,'" said Brinkley.
Henry Ford did more than put the country on wheels. His factories changed American society.
"He didn't invent the automobile. He didn't create the assembly line. But he created the middle class," said Brinkley. "And he did it by giving them the $5 a day [salary]. When he raised the wages in 1914, paying all of his workers five bucks, many of them were making a dollar a day — $2. Now they're making $5."
Which is why so much of the Ford legacy can be seen in the people who build the cars, as well as in the cars themselves.
"I didn't know of anyone that did not admire Henry, the old man," said Alvin Ford, son of Roosevelt Ford (no blood relation to Henry Ford, but a member of the Ford family).
In 1921, Roosevelt came to Detroit from the Deep South, to work at Ford. There were thousands like him, many recruited by Henry Ford. The Fords — Roosevelt's descendents — were shaped by the Ford Motor Company. Four of his sons worked for the company, including Carl.
"More people wanted to work for Ford than any other company," said Carl Ford. "Now Ford had that badge that you used to wear. And you, you used to have to have to show it to get in the gate. And people were so proud, especially black people, were so proud of Ford Motor Company, having the job at Ford Motor Company, they would wear that badge to church on Sunday."
The next generation saw eight Fords go to work at Ford, including Maria and Patricia.
"I went to school out of state," said Patricia Ford Turner. "So if I came home for a job interview for the summer, if I rented a car other than a Ford, my father said, 'Don't even come, don't even come pull up in the driveway.'"
Even today, if there are Fords inside the house, there are Fords outside. Kevin Jr., who works on the Mustang assembly line, is one of two fourth-generation Fords on the job.
But for Kevin's generation, life at Ford hasn't been such a smooth ride.
"Ford has come off of a great 100 years, and they enter the new century in a bit of trouble," said Csaba Csere, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine.
Csere points to a series of problems at Ford in recent years. Although its pickups have been best-sellers, analysts say Ford has relied too much on truck sales and neglected cars.
Imports have taken sales away from the American Big Three. And Ford has had some public relations fiascos, such as the Ford Explorer/Firestone Tire rollovers and the exploding Pinto fuel tanks. It wasn't long ago that many thought Ford might overtake industry leader General Motors. But since then, Ford's market share has slipped. The company lost $6.4 billion in the past two years.
Henry Ford believed in establishing consumer loyalty and a brand name. He thought Ford should be synonymous with cars much the same way Kodak meant film and Coca-Cola stood for soft drinks. But now the name may not be enough. The company will need to draw on some of Ford's other original philosophies.
"Henry Ford would say they've lost focus on the basics, that they have to get back to building excellent cars with very high quality at a very good price, and forget about all the luxury and the gingerbread," said Csere.
Nick Scheele, the president of Ford, is hoping to turn the corner with a series of new models. The company plans to roll out everything from its Freestar minivan, to a new F-series pickup, to the GT high-performance sports car.
"In all, we're looking at 65 new products in five years," said Scheele. "We think that gives us a product onslaught, which is going to pay in terms of increased share for us, and obviously pay in terms of increased choice for customers."
Still, there's not a lot of excitement in Ford showrooms these days, at a time when brand loyalty seems to be a thing of the past.
"At this point, the business is total dog-eat-dog," said Csere. "Nobody really has a big advantage, nobody gets automatic sales, nobody gets automatic profits. You got to be out there with the best product, at the best price. And that comes from not only your design and your engineering, but your ability to build these things very, very efficiently and build them perfectly the first time around."
J Mays, the design chief at Ford, has his work cut out for him.
"There is no such thing as a bad car anymore from anyone — foreign or domestic," said J Mays. "You can go into a dealership and you will find almost parity in terms of quality. You'll find parity in terms of safety, in terms of durability. And so when people walk into a dealership today, it has to do with image as anything else."
His images include the Ford 427, an edgy concept car. J Mays says he doesn't think cars of the future will have gasoline engines, and don't be surprise to see hybrid hydrogen engines in 20 years.
Hydrogen powers the Model U, a concept car that Ford calls the Model T of the 21st century. The U allows you, the driver, to customize much of the car, which is made out of recyclable materials such as corn and soy products.
Other hydrogen-powered cars don't look much different from the cars of today, and they are being driven every day around the Ford Product Development Center. They emit almost no pollution.
Primarily what's coming out of the exhaust is excess air and water vapor, so it smells very much like a dryer vent.
But there's that proverbial chicken-and-egg problem: It's hard to sell hydrogen cars, when there's no place to buy hydrogen.
Edsel Ford II is the great-grandson of Henry and is on the Ford board of directors. His first name is a reminder of one of the great flops of all time — the Edsel of the 1950s, but his last name carries on a proud tradition.
"We've been around 100 years and I like to make the point that for all 100 years there's always been a member of the Ford family working at Ford," said Edsel Ford.
These days, the company CEO is Edsel's cousin, William Clay Ford, also a great-grandson of Henry.
Edsel says the basic car today is the same one that Henry Ford brought to customers in his days. He explains today automobiles have four wheels, a steering wheel and runs on a gasoline engine in the front, just as cars of past decades did.
"I always sometimes wonder what would Henry Ford say if he came back today," said Edsel Ford. "I think he would be amazed at how much has changed, but how little has changed. I always like to give the example of what we did with the model T. The windshield was always very big and the rear view mirror was always very small and that, I think, was Henry Ford's vision of you always have to look forward. The future is always in front of you."