Ford kills clean-sheet Mustang — again; may sack 10,000 engineers

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(December 25, 2017) According to sources who have spoken on the promise of anonymity to The Virtual Driver, Ford executives, under the direction of new CEO Jim Hackett, have canceled the S650 Mustang program, and will cull up to 10,000 development personnel from the company’s engineering ranks by late next year. This happens at a time when GM is moving forward on multiple fronts, and the U.S. economy is growing at levels not seen in decades.

The winnowing of the development engineering staff, multiple sources claim, is based on an internal study that claims Ford has many thousand more development engineers on average than its major competitors, a number some inside the company dispute.

Yet this downsizing comes at a time when Ford is embarking on an electric and autonomous vehicle push designed to bring it on par with industry leaders, and show Silicon Valley-obsessed Wall Street types that Ford is not an old line automaker, but is instead a tech-savvy mobility company focused on the future and deserving of a higher stock price.

While the proposed engineering layoffs could have the greatest long-term effect of Ford’s ability to design, engineer and develop new cars and trucks — and, therefore, have the greatest effect on its future viability — it is the cancellation of the S650 Mustang that highlights concerns over the company’s direction, leadership, and its ability to remain a full-line automaker.

This is the second time in less than a decade that Ford has canceled a clean-sheet Mustang. Early planning for the current (S550) Mustang centered around a lightweight rear-drive chassis, previewed by the Evos Concept that debuted at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Rumored to be as much as 700 pounds lighter than the 2005-2014 Mustang, that platform was shelved, our sources at the time claimed, when Ford executives, led by Elena Ford and supported by Mark Fields, pulled their backing for the rear-drive Lincolns that would share the platform. Those cars, a mid-size performance/luxury sedan and coupe, as well as a proposed full-size sedan with overtones of the early 1960s Continental, were superseded by the MKZ and Continental, both of which are built on the CD4 platform that underpins the current Fusion. S550 was moved to a heavily modified version of the 2005-2015 Mustang platform (S197).

Benchmarked against BMW’s 3 and 5 Series, the S650 Mustang would have offered both conventional and hybrid powertrains. The V8-powered GT would have been joined by downsized turbocharged engines (I4 and V6), and a torque-biased, high-mileage hybrid with limited EV-only driving range.

However, as was the case with the initial S550 design, for S650 to be cost effective, Lincoln would have to build at least one vehicle off this platform. A few vehicles were penciled in to the Lincoln product plan, but never were locked in. Meanwhile relative newcomers like Hyundai and Kia have co-developed surprisingly effective rear-drive platforms to support a number of rear-drive sport/luxury models, while Ford has dithered and fallen further behind. Also, in the time it has taken Ford to refresh S197 and launch the current Mustang, GM was able to relaunch the Camaro in 2010 on the Holden-developed Zeta platform, and move it to the lightweight, modern Alpha platform it currently shares with Cadillac’s ATS and CTS.

The Fusion, Ford's popular maintream mid-sized sedan, is reportedly on the chopping block

Depending on how you slice it, you can make a good case that Ford’s last clean-sheet car platform was DEW98 which was used for the Lincoln LS/Jaguar S-Type/Ford Thunderbird and first-generation Jaguar XF. It was a simplified offshoot of what had been a “jack-of-all-trades” platform designed to replace Ford’s global front- and rear-drive mid-size and above models.

Ultimately, it proved to be too complex, too costly, too heavy and too compromised to effectively compete in the targeted segments. The 2005-2014 Mustang (S197) was pulled from that platform, then heavily modified to create the current version. Ironically, a number of Ford engineers suggest the modifications necessary to increase the older platform’s rigidity, NVH performance, and add an independent rear suspension ballooned both weight and cost to the point where a new platform might have been less expensive in the long run.

Given Ford’s lack of a modular platform, like VW’s MQB or Toyota’s TNGA, and the need to create an EV architecture and autonomous vehicles, jettisoning 10,000 development engineers seems foolish at best. However, it is the continuing inability to develop a competitive rear-drive platform, coupled with its confusion over the role, products and continued existence of Lincoln that that creates the most concern for Ford’s future.

Combined with CEO Jim Hackett’s recent hint that Ford would not replace the Fusion and its European sister, the Mondeo, in 2021 (leaving Ford with just the Focus and Mustang in North America), Hackett’s record at Steelcase, and the lack of a clear and cohesive vision for the company’s future, you begin to wonder if the Mustang has a viable long-term future, and if Ford will be able to survive as a full-line automaker.

The Virtual Driver