We’re at Ford’s Lommel test track on the Belgian-Dutch border. Raj Nair is talking animatedly with a group of his engineers, making classic cornering gestures with his hands as they walk towards the glassy, chalet-like cabin the dynamics team maintains for conferences and meetings.
It is hidden well away from the admin offices, squeezed between an enormous skidpan called The Black Lake and the now-famous Track Seven handling circuit. Here, every European Ford of the past 20 years has had its steering and handling polished to market-leading levels.
A year ago, 48-year-old Nair was appointed to a job that has become iconic both within Ford and beyond. The title is vice president, global product development, which means that, across the 110-year-old group’s worldwide empire, Nair leads the teams that create every new model and takes personal responsibility for making them good.
Why does this job matter outside Ford? Because two recent incumbents, Richard Parry-Jones in the ’90s and Derrick Kuzak in the 2000s, brought enormous improvements to the driving quality of traditionally indifferent Fords – and then sold the idea of good dynamics to customers so effectively that Renault, PSA, Opel and even Volkswagen were forced to lift their game.
It is no exaggeration that because of Ford’s progress with the Focus, the VW Golf, formerly a champion of the cheap-to-make torsion beam rear suspension, was forced to adopt a multi-link layout to match the Ford on ride.
Like the most modern managers, Nair is modest about his elevation and you get the feeling that self-deprecation has always come easily. “This is the dream job,” he says, “until you get it. I’m not sure I ever saw myself in a job so big.
"In fact, it’s best not to think too much about the number of people who technically work for me [later revealed as 20,000]. You’re better concentrating on the decisions you’ve got to make. And Ford has great people to help me with those. I’ve worked with a lot of them already.”
Nair is the ultimate car guy (he calls it “gearhead”). As a newly licensed kid in St Louis, he crashed his father’s Dodge estate, then persuaded him to replace it with “something we could both live with”: a Dodge Cordoba coupé with a 6.5-litre V8 and four-barrel carb.
At his old college – he won a place at the GM Institute in Flint, Michigan, now renamed Kettering University – they tell stories about him riding a motorcycle to Atlantic City, breaking his collarbone in an accident, then riding 700 miles home.
While studying, he also saved enough money working in GM’s St Louis truck plant to put himself through the Skip Barber racing school, getting good enough to race the instructors and progress to Formula 2000. “You think you’re good,” he says dismissively, “and then you meet the guys who really are. I enjoyed driving, but it made much more sense to stick to engineering.”
Understandably, given his background, Nair is quick to acknowledge the role of car enthusiasts in the creation of good cars. “They’re big influencers,” he says. “People look for the guy who knows cars, to see what he thinks. But we like them for other reasons, too. They understand the emotional side that also sells cars. And we like making the cars that excite them, like that Fiesta out there.”
He gestures at a gleaming red ST visible through the glass. Later, Nair and I take to Track Seven, in both the ST and an astonishing prototype of the forthcoming 1.0-litre Mondeo, where he swiftly demonstrates that he is a quick, smooth, analytical driver.
Back in the chalet, Nair briskly dumps my suggestion that despite One Ford, a model from one part of the empire might not fit another. He insists even the Mustang, an American icon once renowned for soggy handling, will hit Ford’s global standards and give a good account of itself in Europe. Specifically, he rejects my suggestion that the next Mondeo might lack “European edge” because much of the work was done in the US. “We don’t drape ourselves in any flag,” he says.
“Our teams have global experience. Our vice president of powertrains is a Brit, who is now based in Dearborn in Detroit and spent much of his career in Germany. Our vice president of engineering is a Vietnamese American. Our vehicle dynamics supervisor is a Belgian, working in the US to a global DNA. The guys who make our decisions are a cosmopolitan group, but what unites us is we’re all from Ford. Cut us and we bleed blue.”
None of which is to suggest that today’s Fords are perfect. Nair readily acknowledges “areas in our cars that cause concern” but points out that such an attitude makes them better. The Focus’s steering feel, loved in its early iterations, became less loved (while still being close to class best) when the third edition adopted all-electric power steering. It’s clear from his expression that Nair knows the subject well and it has received a lot of work.
“The latest set-up happens to be close to what was originally the European settings,” he explains, “but it’s no longer a matter of European or American tuning. We’re shooting for the same standards globally.”
Nair doubts that really big leaps – like the giant stride from Escort to Focus – are likely on his watch. “The spread between good and bad is tighter now. Future differences will lie in how you differentiate your products from others. What’s the vision? Which things are you going to prioritise? Everyone will have a view; right now, you can see big differences between Volkswagen and us. Getting that right will drive successful companies. And we intend to be successful.”