DEARBORN, MICHIGAN—There was some actual news coming out of a recent Ford press event in its hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. Here are the headlines:
- The new Focus RS, last updated in 2009 for a model offered only in Europe, will become a “world car,” in major markets around the globe, including the U.S. It’s part of the One Ford initiative, which aims to end the insane practice of selling a dozen different versions of the same car in different countries. The little rocket (faster still than the ST) is one of at least a dozen new performance cars that will be introduced through 2020 and consolidated under the name Ford Performance. “2014 was a good year for Ford, but 2015 will be a breakthrough year as our investments pay off,” said Mark Fields, the new CEO, who announced the RS.
- An all-new SYNC 3 infotainment system is coming sometime next year, with Siri voice commands. Responding to widespread complaints about earlier systems, Ford has made the interface much simpler and fully integrated with apps such as Pandora and Spotify. It's long overdue. The new SYNC 3 is faster, and you can say “P.F. Chang’s” instead of "P.F. Chang’s China Bistro,” its formal name. The MyFord Touch name is relegated to the dustheap of poorly implemented great ideas.
- The company and partners Magna and Verizon are putting $2 million into a program called Techstars Mobility, which is aimed at mentoring young mobile-oriented start-up companies. Thirty companies chosen in a competition will receive $120,000 investments and lots of good advice. Apropos of that, Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman and former CEO, told an anecdote about his first encounter with Zipcar. Although the stated aim of Zipcar is to take cars off the road, Ford said he realized that car sharing “was going to happen with or without us.” And Ford ended up in a deal with Zipcar to put Ford-branded sharing cars on 250 college campuses.
Because I had some afternoon downtime, I chose to spend it not lounging around the Dearborn Inn but investigating the nearby Henry Ford Museum, which has ‘ol Henry’s personal stamp on it. He had eclectic tastes, and although the Henry Ford has an impressive car collection (including the President Kennedy death limo), it shouldn’t be seen strictly as an auto museum.
The George Washington section is unparalleled. (Yes, the Ford Museum has a section on Washington. Like I said, the guy was eclectic.) I couldn’t get over his simple camp bed. I also saw the bus that Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of, Buckminster Fuller’s groundbreaking and affordably circular Dymaxion House (the only survivor), and (shades of Spruce Goose) the Ford Trimotor, an immense airplane that was the first with all-metal construction.
But the cars! Here was a Bugatti Royale, one of six, with a fascinating story behind it. It was bought by a German physician, Dr. Josef Fuchs, for $43,000 in 1932. That was the equivalent of 31 years of the average workingman’s wages at the time. Fuchs fled Hitler, taking his Bugatti convertible to China, then Canada, then New York, where its engine seized during a cold winter. By 1943, it was in a New York junkyard.
Charles Chayne, chief engineer for Buick, bought the Royale when it was inches from the crusher, restored it, and donated it to the museum in 1958. Since Royales come up for sale so rarely, this once-junked treasure is now worth a large fortune, $50 million or more.
I saw Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln once before, years ago. It’s nestled among limos and carriages belonging to Presidents Roosevelt (both of them), Reagan and Eisenhower. Two things: Kennedy’s Lincoln was enclosed following the assassination (LBJ used it that way), but the work is surprisingly crude, with exposed screw heads. And the windows on FDR’s Sunshine Express (a custom-built ’39 Lincoln) are delaminating.
There are some great pairings at the Ford, including a ’59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible and a Ford Focus Electric. “Which one would you choose?” the display asks. I liked ‘em both. The very first Mustang (a convertible belonging to a Canadian airline pilot) sat next to the fanciful Mustang 1, a 1962 concept car. An ’86 Taurus with revolutionary (for Ford) styling is on the same stand as a ’55 Corvette that pioneered the use of fiberglass.
The museum impresses visitors in its determination to tell the story of the automobile, not just the history of Ford. Here are such milestones as a 1984 Chrysler minivan, a 1960 Corvair and a Dodge Omni. One unassuming display I loved was the very first Japanese car produced in America, a 1983 Honda Accord LX. Boy did that open the floodgates.
And I can’t end this piece without mentioning one of the ugliest—and safest—cars ever made, the 1957 Cornell-Liberty Safety Car. Keep in mind that in the mid-50s most cars did their best to make sure you didn’t survive an accident, with knobs like swords, no seatbelts and hard metal dashboards. Among the safety car’s features were a panoramic windshield, steering handles, front passenger restraints, headrests, a center driver’s seat and rear-facing passenger seat, accordion doors and wraparound bumpers.
Sure, it was safe, but it made the Edsel look like a beauty contest winner. The museum’s collection also includes an original 1948 Tucker, almost as rare as the Royale, with some important safety innovations of its own, including a “Cyclops” eye headlight that rotated as the steering wheel turned.
Here's a closer look at that Bugatti on video: