Ford CEO: We won't make "a Mustang that's not a Mustang"

Jim Farley
Jim Farley

"Whenever someone starts telling me they know the future, I hear a warning buzzer in my head", says Farley

Jim Farley, president and CEO of Ford, has just qualified 13th.

It’s 2pm and we’re at the 81st Goodwood Members’ Meeting, where the Ford Mustang 289 V8 that Farley is sharing with Britain’s Steve Soper, the former BTCC ace, has finished in the top half of a stellar 30-car field in qualifying for the inaugural Ken Miles Cup.

It’s a special one-make event staged to mark the 60th anniversary of the Mustang’s launch.

Farley’s lap times are a second or so behind Soper’s and he isn’t pleased, despite the fact that this is actually prodigious performance. At 62, Farley is driving an unfamiliar and very potent car on a very fast track that he has tackled only once before. And although he loves racing, Farley really doesn’t have much time for it, given that his day job is to steer a £180 billion Detroit-based company whose 177,000 employees build 4.4 million cars a year.


The following day, in a 50-minute, two-driver race, the Farley/Soper car will cross the line in 13th place in a congested and action-packed contest full of current and former greats, without a single mark on its gleaming blue bodywork, even though most of the notchback Mustangs around it have had some kind of ‘tap’. Again, it’s a creditable performance.

Today, however, sitting behind the pits in a folding chair, comfortable in his driving gear, Farley’s mind is very much on the Mustang’s commercial aspects and especially its future.

He is deeply proud of the fact that the model has been such a backbone of Ford progress (“not many things in this industry last 60 years”) and especially of the fact that a risky decision to globalise Mustang sales, made around 2015 at the start of Farley’s own two-year stint as president of Ford of Europe, has resulted in much more prominence and success for the traditionally American pony car.

Despite the fact that Ford has many big-volume electric car programmes under way, ranging from the massive American F-150 Lightning pick-up truck to Europe’s compact Explorer crossover, which will soon be launched, Farley wants to stress the importance of the Mustang, which in future will appear in a variety of new iterations – potentially including a four-door model – but all of them with the same “performance and attitude” of existing versions.

Farley notes that Ford now makes the best-selling coupé in the world and says it’s protective of that: “[Other firms] haven’t had anything like the same consistency: they get in and then they get out again. They don’t sell many, but they still think periodically ‘let’s do another one’ and launch something else. Those models are like a tax on the company.”

Farley’s eye is on Mustang expansion. The recently launched, Nürburgring-honed, £240,000, 800bhp GTD is a “down payment” on the model’s new direction, he explains, although the game plan is firmly to keep making enticing cars that are attainable. Ford will never make “a Mustang that’s not a Mustang”.

That means V8 production will continue far into the future. And, emphatically, it rules out an electric model (although the Mustang badge has already been used for the Mach-E electric SUV).

Even if someone else at Ford wanted to make a Mustang without the correct credentials, Farley is certain the company’s executive chairman, Bill Ford, Henry Ford’s great-grandson, wouldn’t let it happen. “He’s a Mustang fanatic,” explains Farley.

“He owns the 1964½ Mustang that paced Jim Clark at the start of the 1964 Indianapolis 500; he was a little kid sitting in the back with his father driving. If I were to tell him we were looking at an all-electric Mustang coupé, he’d tell me he was looking at a new CEO…”

That’s all very well, I say, but how does that square with the 2035 date much of the world says it’s working towards for the wholesale adoption of EVs? Doesn’t that mean ICE Mustangs, and especially V8s, will have disappeared by then?

“Are you sure?” Farley shoots back. “I don’t think we know. When you need a Transit for your work, or you’re a rancher with a pick-up in the US, electric power is a terrible solution – and even the most radical, decarbonising politician can’t afford to be on the wrong side of the customers.

“Maybe the solution will be hydrogen. Or the sustainable fuels thing is coming along. Whenever someone starts telling me they know the future, I hear a warning buzzer in my head. There are no certainties in our industry. I’ve heard this stuff a thousand times: every car’s going electric, every car’s going hydrogen, every car’s going diesel. There have been a lot of blind alleys.”

While we’re finding out which alternatives for future propulsion will prevail, Farley says Ford will do as much as it can to preserve special ICE engines, such as Mustang V8s: “Most of our lowered emissions standards are achieved by fleets, so I believe we can still sell some special cars if the fleet business is strong.”

Farley’s European connection remains strong – with his wife and three children, he lived in north London during his two-year tenure as boss of Ford in Europe – and he’s well aware of what is now dubbed ‘the Richard Parry-Jones era’, when the late, great product development chief led Ford to a market-leading role in all aspects of driving quality, especially driving dynamics. I ask Farley if he is aware that in some cases the halo has recently slipped.

“Richard Parry-Jones is still very much in the company, in my eyes, and when I read that our team didn’t get it right, that’s very upsetting for me,” replies Farley. “We owe it to those great engineers that their work continues and gets perfected. I always want us to major on stuff we do very well, like suspension damping, steering feel, brake feel and so on. And we have got to get our cars lighter – and that includes our Mustang versions.

“Just because [the] Fiesta and Focus didn’t work globally doesn’t mean we should turn away from how those cars feel when you drive them.”

Farley agrees Ford’s number-one goal shouldn’t be just mechanical durability or software reliability: driving quality must make its cars different. “That excellence needs to be as obvious in a Raptor as any other Ford,” he says.

As the ground shakes while a field of classic Can-Am sports cars thunders past us, bound for a hectic practice session, Farley changes the subject to Ford’s latest aspirations in racing. Led by the Mustang, a new approach to racing is spreading across the world.

“We’ve stretched our racing to make a sustainable business,” he explains. “In the past, we’ve sponsored people to help them become successful, but now we’ve launched a customer business. We are making race cars to sell in numbers; I want to make it sustainable so the next CEO can’t take it apart. If it makes money, it’s less likely they will want to dismantle it and go yacht racing or something…”

This change of emphasis will have implications for Farley’s own racing career: this year, he will do the Mustang-based Dark Horse series – four 90-minute IMSA races driving a Mustang on his own – plus several other longer-distance events partnering other drivers. Sure, he enjoys it, but he also sees a business benefit: “How can I support the team if I don’t know what customers are saying about our cars? I want to know what they are whispering to their mechanics.”

Ford sees prospects in four or five different varieties of US racing, including IMSA and all levels of Nascar, and it’s involved at a high level in places like South Africa and Australia.

“A Mustang GT4 won its first race in Australia just yesterday,” says Farley proudly. “I don’t think there’s any brand more active in racing across the world.”