The man who brought Ford in from the cold

The man who brought Ford in from the cold: Richard Parry-Jones

Words Nathan Chadwick Pictures Simon Thompson

This interview is part of Modern Classics magazine’s May 2018 celebration of the Ford Focus’s 20th birthday, which features a dream drive in an RS and details on why you should pick up an ST170 right now. Find out more here


 

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 ‘I was all packed and ready to run a factory in Valencia,’ says Richard. ‘I had my house and school sorted, and then I got a phone call. “We want you to go back to research and development, and take over vehicle engineering,” they said. “We’re in trouble.’”

For Richard Parry-Jones, the call was irresistible. After all, he is Blue Oval through and through – he started as an undergraduate trainee engineer in 1969. The son of slate miner, his passion for engineering came from watching the RAC Rally. He’d played an important part in the game-changing MkIII Escort and Sierra. Ford, reeling in the wake of the disastrous Escort MkV launch and the vital Mondeo project stuttering, needed his help desperately – so Spanish lessons were put on hold. It was the lessons learned during the Mondeo project that went on to help make the Focus so great.

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And boy did they need him. The Escort MkV had been a disaster, one borne out of an old-school mentality, according to Richard. ‘I’d worked for Ford for 20 years and for most of that time, the company was really good at selling to fleets, and didn’t really sell to retail buyers – hence the focus on costs. Fleet buyers didn’t really get a choice, and the price is what determines the fleet manager’s decision. As such, there wasn’t much about that the user actually wanted,’ he explains. But big changes were afoot – the Japanese and French had become wise to the profit margins possible in the UK market. ‘As the market changed and more user/choosers came in, more imports took away Ford’s margin, then profitability evaporated.’

The reception to the Escort MkV truly shocked senior management at Ford. Worse still, its critical Sierra replacement, the Mondeo, was heading the same way. ‘The project had started off quite well,’ says Richard. ‘It had been the first attempt to build a car in a scientific manner, but somewhere between the advanced prototype team and the production team the message had got lost.’

When he arrived, the was in bad shape, and was behind schedule – but it wasn’t fatally flawed. ‘It was just a bit mishandled – I found that many targets for stiffness and so on had been set, but not enforced. I began to ask what was needed to fix it.’

Richard never accepts the answer that it can’t be done. ‘The only question is how can we do it? It might take too much time, or too much money, or it might take both. But give me some options – don’t say it can’t be done, show me how,’ he says. ‘This approach is quite refreshing for engineers. They are very smart people and realised that they couldn’t go to meetings and say it’s impossible. It’s amazing how once you start that conversation how inventive people become. Eventually they start having fun!’

It still took time – there were plenty of six-hour meetings to sit through. ‘I was chief engineer and I knew I couldn’t really do this – but I had to. I had to train and teach them the skills and set standards they’d lost over many years.’

He quickly sought to change the company’s entire philosophy. ‘We needed to make these cars appealing to ordinary retail buyers, not fleets. They must be something people desire and then really enjoy owning – a fundamental change. I had a lot of people fighting me, but there were a lot of people hurting from the Escort launch and wanted a change. Luckily I had two bosses, Albert Caspers and John Alford, who absolutely wanted a change. So whenever I ran into internal trouble, I would go before the bosses and they would listen to the case for and against, and they started to back me. Eventually it was easy because everyone knew there was no point going to the bosses – people found they may as well do what I want.’  

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The Mondeo turned out to be a great success, and won European Car of the Year and proved to be a sales hit. This, along with the successful launches of the Puma and KA, plus the well-received Fiesta and Escort facelifts, gave Parry-Jones the clout he needed to make the Focus the way he wanted.

There were key lessons learned from the Mondeo, which he imbued into all future products. Firstly, the appliance of science, data and not settling for ‘that’ll do’. The other, Richard says, was much more personal and had a lot to do with multiple Formula One champion Jackie Stewart. Ironically, it was about doing things slowly. ‘My evaluation skills weren’t bad, but when I watched him evaluate and talk about a car I thought my God, this is a different league. I spent a lot of time with him, watching and learning, observing. He was very open, sharing everything, and I emerged from that 18-month period with a Mondeo that I’d been able to tune to a very good level. The whole team had a whole new skill set.’

As a result of this, the way cars were evaluated started to change. A new method of evaluation was launched – the 50-Metre Test. It’s subsequently become industry standard. ‘What Jackie taught me was that a lot of engineers and journalists go to tests or press days and the car is presented full to the brim, the engine is warm and running, the door is open. They then get in the car and drive flat out round the track, and learn nothing,’ says Richard. ‘Jackie told me this is the wrong approach. Instead, insist the car is parked overnight, not moved, not started and ideally only fuelled half-way. You arrive to a cold car, and do everything yourself, even opening the door.’

For a generation of pampered journalists this must have been torture. Richard continues, ‘You listen to the noise and feel the compliance of the handle, you slow down everything to create the time window to absorb detail.’

It’s unlikely any customer goes to this level of evaluation, but Richard points out that they do it hundreds and thousands of times, so they find everything that’s wrong. ‘Our job – we don’t have long, and there’s not many of us – is to find everything a customer might find. So we need to slow it down to analyse these things, and find out what might be causing it from our senses. We could then measure everything.’

This measurement focus applied to other cars. ‘If we found good compliance in a door handle, say the VW Golf, we’d measure it. If we liked it, we’d quantify it and set a target. Not only the ‘number’, but the curve of effort to travel. We set targets for everything.’

The 50-metre test’s aim is to use the first interaction with the vehicle to learn a lot about the quality. ‘Slow everything down – don’t even start the engine,’ says Richard. ‘Don’t even get in the car, start these things with the handle. Have a look, is it inviting? What’s your impression? Touch things, not in a superficial way. Then get in, close the door, operate the glovebox, the stalks and so on.’

Simply jumping in a car just won’t do, Richard points out. ‘Without the engine running, you hear the sound quality much better. It’s not masked, you’re able to absorb everything. Then eventually, after at least five minutes, you’re allowed to start the engine – but you’re not allowed to drive off.  You analyse how it started, and then shut it down; how did it shut down? Start it again – how did it sound, how did it vibrate? You operate different things – is there play in the throttle and so on.’

Eventually you can drive off – but only at car park speed. ‘This allows you to test for steering friction – it’s easy to make steering light for high speeds, but at low speeds that’s really something good. I’d summarise this to my engineers – imagine you had to do your entire evaluation in fifty metres. Instead of the usual testing – redlining it everywhere – this method allows you to find things you might otherwise miss in the hurly burly and excitement.’

The critical part of the Focus, and the chief reason why it handles so well, is the Control Blade rear suspension. However, though it was on the car very early in the project, its inclusion wasn’t all plain sailing. ‘It was fundamental. If you’re convinced about something, you have to fight for it. I had all the data, and I was convinced we could deliver ride comfort, good NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), steering and handling that no other manufacturer with twist beam suspension could do. Even so, it cost an extra fifty dollars per car.’ That might not be a problem for a premium brand, but for Ford, and its public perception, it was a tricky sell. ‘Will people pay extra for that? No, they won’t – not immediately. But they might buy the car and recommend it to their friends,’ he explains. ‘It’s not really about price; it’s about reducing discount, driving volume and converting loyalty and brand image. It’s an investment, really. When it came to the crunch, the management I worked for backed me, and for that I’m grateful. More importantly, I think all the customers were grateful too.’

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The Focus team knew it was a good design, but there was more to come. ‘We didn’t know how good it was until we discovered how much more we could do with the car as a result of this design.’

As for benchmarks, ‘the Volkswagen Golf was obviously the focus – pardon the pun’ – but the biggest influence on steering and handling came from within Ford – the Fiesta MkIII. ‘It just didn’t have the rear axle we wanted,’ says Richard.  ‘Unlike the Fiesta or the Mondeo, where we used the Peugeot 205 and Nissan Primera as benchmarks, we couldn’t really find something. I learned that if you over-specify something, you copy them, rather than overtake them.’

The atmosphere in the project was upbeat and positive. ‘We’d turned the ship around and started to aspire to be delivering the best products, not the cheapest. The problem is that the customer doesn’t automatically see that, so your prices are pinned down by your past reputation. But your costs go in to match the aspiration. We had to be quite cunning – we couldn’t spend that much money,’ Richard says.

He believes it’s much easier to build an exotic car than a mainstream one. ‘In a mass-market car you have so many cost constraints – you have to be very innovative without using exotic parts, without spending money – you have to use brains. All the special bits in the Focus are mild stamped steel – there’s nothing fancy. It’s all about trying to find the performance you want, using physics to analyse carefully and to synthesise a simple solution.’

That plays into Richard’s wider philosophy. ‘The simplest design is the best design. ‘You have to factor in a certain amount of feeling, of soul, of taste. You have to work on how you present the car, work out what you want the emotional response of the customer to be – you can’t do everything by the numbers,’ Richard admits. ‘But I’m very data driven. If you get the numbers right first, using analysis, measurement and calculation to avoid making basic mistakes in the design, you buy yourself the freedom and the right to tinker and perfect the product, not spend all your time fixing problems. If you have a bad design, you have no time to caress and polish it, to get these subtleties right.’

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Getting the design right was the biggest early challenge. In the early 1990s, contemporary design trends pointed towards family cars imbued with sporty styling – Richard cites the Mazda 323F as a good example. There was another trend appearing – taller cars, such as the Fiat Panda. ‘This was a clever response to the fact people were getting taller and heavier, and they needed more space. People were also starting to get more and more stuff, and stuff needs space in the car,’ Richard explains.

Most of the early sketches were low-slung, Mazda-style designs. One from a UK stylist, caused him to stop and think – it added 60mm to the height of the car. ‘It was taller, but not by much,’ he says. ‘For the same length, we got a lot more interior space. I asked the designers to do a study based on this.’

At the time there was a big push within Ford for a bustle-back design, something the Escort was always famous for. ‘Even the 323F was a bustle back design,’ says Richard. But when the designers returned with their work, Richard wasn’t happy. ‘It looked like a Mazda 121! It looked like a Noddy Car. I said aw, shit, we’ve got to abandon the bustle-back and go to a Kamm tale.’

Despite some reservations from the German design team, work carried on. Richard still wasn’t happy. ‘It all started looking predictable. I wanted to go into the studio each week and go wow, and it wasn’t happening. We were running out of time.’

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The pressure was on. The team knew they had the package – the seating layout proved the interior dimensions worked well. The aero was looking very good, too. ‘But the design looked ordinary. But there was a young designer who showed me a sketch that looked interesting. I came back after two weeks, and they’d modelled it one side of a clay model, and on the other something else. This was the first time we’d put the headlamp high, and we blended it with the window graphic, in the way many people do now. It was new and dynamic in those days,’ Richard explains. ‘I said wow – you’ve found a way of making the car not look tall. We have all the space but it doesn’t look ungainly. If you look carefully, the roof has a curve in it, but it curves around the corner. The upper part of the glass dives lower than the roof, creating an arrow. The graphic of the window telegraphs a different story. Light up there at the back allows us to finish the roof like a cantilever, a hanging frame, without a pillar. I looked at all this and I thought, my God, I like this. Then we sent it out to research.’

The Focus’s styling may not seem too avant-garde, but back in the 1990s only the Alfa Romeo 145 and perhaps the Citroen ZX offered anything like as much extrovert styling in the mainstream car class. Richard knew the Focus would be polarising – but that was a good thing. ‘The thing about research is you have to be careful – don’t copy the winner. The winner is not the car that scores the best, you have to look behind the data, look at the people’s propensity to adopt change,’ he explains. ‘You show them other non-car items, like cooking implements and so on, so you can map them to see if they’re leaders or followers in design. Then you take the leaders and analyse their scores. On average, a design might polarise the responses, but this is an exercise to extract from the polarised data who are the people who’ll lead opinion, and favour those answers.’

Richard also spent a lot of time at customer clinics, and proved critical to the design’s forward momentum. ‘I would stand in the corner and watch the respondents that had been briefed in the anteroom, then come around the corner with the design,’ explains Richard. ‘I’m not only interested in their writing, but also their body language. I’m looking for how they react when they first see the car. The finished design caused more than at third of respondents to stop and go wow. That’s when I knew that was the one.’

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The interior, now the source of some mirth among some enthusiasts – including our editor – was very nearly, very different. ‘We had two themes in the final run off. One was more symmetrical, more rectilinear, and the one in the finished car. The one that we have now matches the exterior, and matches its swagger,’ Richard explains. ‘I think we got the broad brushstrokes okay, but to be candid I don’t think we got the calm cohesion of the German manufacturers. Ours had a lot going on, it’s very busy. I don’t think we had the right knowledge, or perhaps the money, to get the right materials with the right level of touch and finish. The interior might have been better, if I hadn’t spent 50 dollars on the rear suspension…’

Though the project was now gaining serious momentum, there were some challenges. During development, Volkswagen stepped up their galvanising programme and offered twelve-year corrosion guarantees. This was a big statement, and Richard believed this was a big value enhancer. ‘I decided we had to do it too. We did a six-week study and found it wasn’t hard to implement, even though it came quite late in the car’s development. It goes back to the philosophy – if you get most things right, you’re not panicking so you’ve got time to absorb one or two hits and deal with them.’

One early decision was to lose the Escort name. ‘Once we moved to a kamm rear rather than bustle back, which the Escort was known for, we knew we had to leave the Escort in the past,’ Richard says. ‘Once we realised the depth of engineering and what we planned for the Focus, we knew the Escort name would become an anchor to its wider desirability – the Escort MkV ruined the Escort name beyond recall.’ However, the Focus name didn’t come until much later in the project. ‘We didn’t know it was going to be called Focus until late. The process took three to four months, until then it was known as C170.’

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One area where the Focus was miles ahead of almost every Ford that preceded it was the improvements in noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Richard says the appliance of science was key – almost reverse engineering the car. ‘We created car soundtracks in the computer and eventually came up with the right sound for road, engine and impact noise. We used a jury of employees who were nothing to do with the problem to provide an overall view. Then we created computer models to cascade this end result target down through the system.’

But there is more to it than computer trickery. ‘If we take powertrain noise, it’s the product of excitation and response. Excitation takes two paths – one is structural, one is airborne. You have two transfer functions. For the airborne noise, it’s all about attenuation at the source. For example, you engineer all the brackets for the accessories and the mounts to have a resonant frequency higher than the peak second order (on a four-cylinder engine). That usually means 500hz minimum, so the bracket will never resonate engine noise, creating a boom. Then you go down to look at the isolation performance, and decouple the important mounting features of the powertrain system from the isolation features. You arrange the mounts to allow you to decouple those, then you look at airborne noise, then minimise the emission. The key is to put excellent sealing in place – most airborne noise isn’t transmitted by panels, it is leaked through holes. We pressurise the inside of the car and measure the rate of the leakage. It takes science, determination and resolve.’

Richard always wanted the Focus to have very good steering and handling, but the team went further than other cars by combining that with good NVH and ride. ‘I insisted you can’t offer a car to Ford customers where it’s only for enthusiasts, where the handling and steering are fantastic but it’s not good for every day. We have to offer the whole package. You have to offer the ride quality, quietness and refinement. The steering and the handling are a bit of a bonus, rather than an either/or. Nobody had done that before, and that’s not what the Golf was trying to do. It wasn’t just the Focus’s rear suspension, but it was the key enabler.’

Richard didn’t get his way with everything, however. ‘On the early MkI Focus, there’s an ungainly bumper indicator, but if you look at the headlamp you’ll see a cut-out section that has space for the indicator. It was always meant to go there, but the electrics and light people said that it would block headlight output. So we had to come up with a clumsy solution. I must have argued for weeks and months about that. I was convinced we could make it work,’ Richard said. ‘I didn’t win that one, and I forgot about it. Then I was in America from the end of 1997 to look after global R&D. Then I noticed this facelift (Mk1.5), and the indicator had moved to the headlight. I went back to the guys and said “I thought you said we couldn’t do this?” They said, “oh, we had another look and went back to the calculations and we were wrong.”’

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But every project has to end at some point. ‘When you’re developing a car, it’s normal to be paranoid. You can never relax, you can always find something to improve. In that way I’m a perfectionist,’ he explains. ‘I define perfectionism as somebody who redefines it as they approach it. Once you’ve ironed out three or four noise problems, suddenly you can see more problems that didn’t bother you before. The Focus team was always driving for perfection.’ There still had to be a time to call it a day, however. ‘I’m also a pragmatist. Although I could have carried on improving it, I knew we had a car we could be proud of. So I said let’s finish – it’s time to stabilise production and make sure not just the prototypes are great, but every bloody car.’

The team knew the car was good, but they weren’t prepared for the accolades it received. ‘We didn’t realise the journalist, public and competitors would go, “Shit! The game’s changed, we need to do something to respond.” I’m told the Focus changed the way the entire industry engineered all cars for dynamics. Less so for NVH, but even there this framework where you had to have good dynamics OR good NVH was largely abandoned. That’s professionally very satisfying.’

That was the key to keeping the team, er, focused during the car’s gestation period. ‘Most of the people had helped design the Escort. The skill and passion was there, we just needed to harness it. We needed to let people feel they were producing world winners, rather than things that would get slammed – that makes work fun rather than torture. The key is to build inter-dependency, so you can use everybody’s knowledge and they feel that they are making a difference, however small a piece they’re involved with.’

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The Focus was one part of the Ford 2000 project, which sought to consolidate global Blue Oval resources to create a true world car. It’s always been seen as a tricky job – what might suit a mother in Margate might not suit a miner is Massachusetts, after all. ‘People would say, ah typical Europeans, this would never work. But I’d say Toyota does it. If they can do it, we can too,’ Richard says. ‘The biggest problem wasn’t tuning a car for the North American market. We could get a design that both markets liked. The biggest issue we had were the tyres. North America uses all-season tyres, which were never as good for ride or handling as European seasonal tyres. They’ve got a lot better in the meantime, but in those days, there was a big difference.’

The car was received well, and is still the first and only car to win car of the year titles in North America and Europe. Everyone from Jeremy Clarkson to Prince William were spotted buying or, in the case of the latter, learning to drive in it. The Ford PR team didn’t know this until it was on the front-page of almost every UK newspaper!

On the subject of Clarkson, Richard smiles. ‘He was very sceptical about stability control at the time of its launch. The Focus was the second car in the world market to have it available (as an option). Jeremy came to the Normandy launch and the PR guys had told us he was questioning the system’s worth, calling it a waste of time – so we devised a test,’ Richard says. ‘One car had stability control switched on, and another had it switched off. We set up a lane change test on the racetrack, and I said, Jeremy, let me show you the difference. We drive up to the lane change at increasing steps of 5kmh, and we mark the car’s performance on a pass/fail basis. You pass if you don’t hit any markers, so you have to be precise. In the car without stability control, I fail. I also fail in the enabled car too, but at a much higher speed. Jeremy’s finding this interesting and I tell him to have a go. He tried to beat the system, and couldn’t. He turned to me and goes, “You bastard, it works doesn’t it?”’

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There were lessons to be learned. The Renault Megane Scenic was hugely popular; the Focus was too optimised for its four body styles to be adapted into an SUV. That thinking went into the Focus MkII from the start. The rise of diesels was also unforeseen, with a modern unit coming late in the MkI’s product cycle.

But what about the sporty models? Enthusiast magazines raved about the Focus in a way they hadn’t done about mainstream cars before. The 1999 Geneva Motorshow Focus Cosworth concept car hinted at something special, but it would take until 2002 for the ST170 to be released. This might seem ill at odds with Richard’s history. After all, he was inspired to become an engineer watching the RAC Rally, his first company car was an Escort RS2000, and his favourite was the Sierra RS500 Cosworth. He’s only recently given up rallying a Fiesta ST with his wife as co-driver, and after our interview he was off to the Monte Carlo Rally to support Elfyn Evans. Motorsport has always been in his blood, so why the delay? ‘I’d spent my youth driving a lot of Fords, aspiring to drive fast ones – Lotus Cortinas, Escort Twin Cams. However, the base cars were never that good,’ he says.

‘My instinct was to engineer lots of sporty cars. When we were doing the MkIII XR3, it was just me and a colleague. It eventually sold 125,000 units and made a lot of money for Ford, and it was our lease car.’

But when he came back to engineering, there was so much work to be done on the mainstream models, Richard had to inverse his priorities. ‘I had to make all the base cars really good, rather than settle for “that’ll do”, and let the hobbyist in me focus on the sporty models. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap my predecessors had done.’

The lack of suitable powertrains was also an issue. ‘Even with the ST170, we knew it didn’t have enough power, but it was the best we could do at the time.’

Despite that, Richard still has a fondness for the ST170. ‘It definitely had to be useable, accessible, without ridiculous insurance, have manageable tyre costs but an extra dose of fun,’ he explains. ‘I like the car – it’s very subtle. The RS is like a fist in your face, the ST170’s a velvet glove. It’s a lovely car to hustle along a great road, the (nearby) A458 for example. You can carry speed through every corner; you don’t need a lot of power as the handling and grip are so good, and the steering is uncorrupted.’

Richard was less involved in the RS – he’d moved on to America by then, but he concedes that it came to the product cycle far too late. That mistake wouldn’t be repeated for the MkII Focus RS, which he was deeply involved with.

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Nearly 25 years on since the project started, and 20 years since its launch, Richard looks back on that time fondly. ‘We had to work some ridiculous hours, but when you get the outcome you don’t mind,’ he says. ‘I was only 40 at the time, and to have the chance to do a car like that, and be trusted by the senior board and investors to spend around $3 billion was just amazing.’

Looking back at the Focus legacy, and the transformative effect the car had on the brand and market segment, that fifty dollars spent on extra pressed steel was well worth the investment.

But it took hard work, determination, faith, science and persuasion to make it happen. And that’s perhaps the biggest part of how the Focus came to be so great. The last word goes to Richard. ‘The three key pillars for persuasion are: do you have a compelling business framework? Do you have the scientific evidence, the data, which will support your argument that you can deliver what your promise? Then you have to show them how – which is codename for make them believe you can make it happen.’ And the third pillar? ‘Personal conviction. The boss may be looking at you and saying everything looks good on paper, but can I trust this person to deliver? Are they committed to deliver, even when they hit difficulties? You have to use your passionate conviction to convince them you can do it. The bad news is that you need all three – no one pillar can be missing.’