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Designing dreams on wheels

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As J Mays zipped down from the Delhi airport into the city, he was busy observing the other automobiles on the road. "Some like the three-wheeled buggies (autos) were fantastic, though a little amusing. But most of the small cars looked similar, " says the vice president of design of the Ford Motor Company. And that's something he hopes to change. On his first visit to India (" my wife was jealous I was coming here, " he laughs), Mays, who has a plethora of stunning cars - from Shelby GR-1, Lincoln C Concept, Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta, North America's Ford Taurus, Ford Mustang to Volkswagen New Beetle, Jaguar XF, Audi TT and Audi AVUS Concept - to his credit, is thrilled to be here at a time when automobiles are becoming an essential part of life.

Sitting in the business centre at Delhi's Taj Palace hotel, the 57-year-old Mays is keeping his fingers crossed for his company's new offering, Ecosport. "The fact that we're having a global launch of the car here shows how positively we're looking at the Indian market, " he says. And the fact that Figo pipped other cars in the race for the Car of the Year award in 2011, has given Ford the confidence to invest about two billion dollars in the Indian market and bring in eight new designs by the middle of this decade. The timing seems to be just right, asserts Mays, when "a lot of people are still picking up their first cars. This whole exercise is like a milestone in their lives - the whole family comes in and drives home soon after the car is blessed. It's a great, emotional experience". In comparison, he finds "the scenario a bit jaded in the West where buying cars is so matter of fact. We've had automobiles for so long that we take this transportation so much for granted. " Mays says this experience is much in tune with his company's founder Henry Ford's original plans - of putting as many people on wheels as possible.

That the Indian market is dominated by many other brands is no deterrent. "We're not interested in breaking any monopoly. For us, the fact that Figo is being called a game changer is enough of a boost, " says the guy who, as a young lad, had plans of becoming a journalist or architect. But four years into studying journalism, he found his calling in automotive design. "I still have a portfolio of badly made drawings of cars from the time I was six, " he laughs. Of course, the fact that his grandfather was a racer in the 1950-60 s could also have something to do with it. "Since he knew all the major car owners of the time, he'd come home (in Oklahoma) every six months with a new car. It was fascinating, " recalls Mays.

And since then, the journalist in the automobile designer believes in telling stories through his cars. "Like an article, each car must communicate and tell you a story. A movie, despite all its wondrous special effects, will still need to have a story, a message. Only then it'll work, " he asserts. And it is this connect with cars that makes him empathise with people even from another part of the world and sell them dreams. "I think the Indian customer has grown up looking and aspiring for Western - rather, German - cars, be it the BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi. But what they would like to have and what they can afford are two different things. We try to fulfill a part of that dream through our cars. "

Ask him if the Indian market can look forward to specially designed cars that suit its climate, topography and social conditions and he says, "Well, we can't be that specific. But cars like Ecosport with its highground clearance should do well here. We will market them in places that have similar conditions - be it India, Brazil or Thailand. " The idea, according to Mays is to design cars that can be sold globally, "so there will be a compromise somewhere, " he says talking about a "common thread that runs around the world". By this he means a belief that everyone aspires for something bigger, higher. "People want something they can't readily have, something that's upscale, looks expensive and grand".

And that is the kind of car he'd like to offer to automobile lovers in India - "something that looks classy even for the value-oriented customer. " With a long 14-year stint with Audi behind him, he says, "You must remember we design as good a car as we did for Audi but for a good price. " So, other than being "visually premium", Mays says his creations "have the essential design DNA of Ford that distinguishes it from the competition, is fun to drive while being meaningful to the customer. So, while we believe in silhouette innovation, it should look very identifiable as a Ford. " And his challenge is to have each car have a classic timelessness, so that people will look back on it later and say, 'That sure was a beautiful design'. For a guy who believes in just making people happy with his creations, one last question: what's the kind of car that makes him happy? "For me, it has to be a short-wheel base Ferrari 250. I'm a guy of very modest tastes, " he smiles.

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