The international auto market is in major flux as Ford sells Volvo at a loss to a Chinese company
IT WAS a fascinating coincidence, with metaphorical potential: the same day that Ford Motor Company's sale of its Volvo car unit was finalized, was also the day that the death of the designer of Ford's most famous car designer was announced.
At the end of March, the Hangzhou, China-based Zhejiang Geely Holding Group (ZGH) agreed to buy Volvo from Ford for $1.8bn (€1.34bn), $1.6bn of that in cash. ZGH's subsidiary, Geely Automotive Holdings is the twelfth-largest car maker in China, but that nation's second largest privately-owned auto manufacturer.
With the Volvo acquisition, for the first time a Chinese company is now in charge of a worldwide automobile brand. ZGH expects to sell 200,000 cars/year in China, and intends to open a Volvo plant there in the future. ZGH also expects Volvo's European division to be selling 600,000/year to Europe and North America.
Ford paid $6.4bn to acquire Sweden-based Volvo in 1999. Ford's strategy now is to divest itself of non-core units: Starting in 2007, the company sold off its high-end - and expensively purchased - Jaguar and Aston Martin lines.
One brand Ford will probably never let go of, though, is Mustang - a line practically synonymous with the company.
Although he passed away at the beginning of March, the death of Donald Frey, the Mustang's chief designer, was not publicized more widely until the end of the month: The New York Times obituary appeared the same day as the Volvo deal was announced. Born in 1923, Frey was 86 when he died.
Lee Iacocca and Donald Frey with their creation, 1964 (at right)
Called "Detroit's sharpest idea man," by Time magazine in 1967, Frey was so praised by car enthusiasts that at auto shows, he was treated like a movie star, autograph hounds included.
But in the early 1960s, smarting from the financial failure of the Edsel, Ford wasn't interested in a new sports car, and under the auspices of Ford's then-general manager (and future CEO of Chrysler) Lee Iacocca, Frey and his team worked in secret.
(Left) Frey at a speedway in the mid-1960s, watching product being tested
Frey had been partially inspired by his children, who told the engineer, "Dad, your cars stink. They have no pizazz."
"The whole project was bootlegged," Frey said in a 2004 interview with USA Today. "There was no official approval of this thing. We had to do it on a shoestring."
The rest is history.
HOLLYWOOD LOVES CARS, AND DETROIT LOVES HOLLYWOOD
It is ironic that Ford once owned Aston Martin, as the first time most people saw the Mustang, it was being torn apart by an Aston Martin.
While the Mustang was initially introduced at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, it was through the medium of film that even more potential customers got a look at the sportscar: Iacocca had finagled the vehicle's appearance in what was then "the next" James Bond film, Goldfinger, offering the producers several autos to use.
The Mustang is driven by one of those beautiful and unfortunate women who routinely fall for the superspy, and at one point, Bond uses his MI6-tricked out Aston Martin to shred the Mustang's side panels and tires.
Thankfully, Steve McQueen showed up a few years later with the police thriller Bullitt and set all that right, with an incredible chase through the streets of San Francisco: McQueen's Mustang Fastback chasing a 1968 Dodge Charger.
Not to be outdone, several years after that, the producers of the James Bond films put 007 behind the wheel of the 1971 Mustang for Diamonds Are Forever.
Vroooom! (Those were the days...)
[Photos courtesy of Ford Motors]