“The realisation that we were moving into an era of accelerated change started to be evident 10 or even 15 years ago when electric cars started to get fashionable,” explains Odell, who joined Ford in 1980. “Everything was going to be electrified, we were told by the new experts. That world tended to write off the prospects of companies like ours – with share prices and investment ratings – in the belief that we were too big and too inflexible to operate in the new way. But that’s wrong. The global car companies very much will make it, and they’re starting to prove it.”
There are serious hurdles to overcome, admits Odell, but Ford’s hard-won financial stability will be a major asset as investment in new models and new infrastructure has to be made. He says: “Seven or eight years ago, there were only a handful of electric models on the market, and the demand was a couple of per cent. Now there are upwards of 50 offerings, and the market’s still only 3.5%. The challenge is taking the customer with us.” Odell sees a similar model structure to today’s – Fiesta, Focus, Transit, Mustang, F-150 – but believes the cars themselves will be very different. “How people view things will be vital,” says Odell. “An electrified Mustang can either be a problem or the fastest-accelerating machine you’ve ever owned. An electrified F-150 can be just a load hauler or a mobile business centre on a building site with its own power supply and communications centre. We’ve got to lead opinion.”
Given that taming manufacturing capacity has been such a big part of his recent life, Odell’s impressions of current world car-making potential are fascinating. Capacity and demand are broadly equal in the US’s 17.5 million unit market, Europe (though not Ford) still has a car-making surplus and China’s explosive market may well be reaching a point where capacity starts to outweigh demand – a situation that might favour home-grown makers because they will have cost advantages.
Odell is proud of his time at Ford-owned Volvo, during which the company was configured for an orderly sale to Geely (“They’ve made a very good job of partitioning it, which is what Chairman Li [Shufu] said he’d do”) and, yes, he feels some pride in having set Ford of Europe back on a profitable track, even though it couldn’t have happened without the closures. “I did what was necessary for Ford,” Odell says.
“Anyone who feels good about such a thing is either not telling the truth or not a very nice person. I’ll have regrets for the rest of my life, but we made it work. It’s ironic to me that GM now gets credit for pulling out of Europe and selling to PSA – because they couldn’t sort it out – whereas we’re criticised for taking the tough decisions and staying.”