"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.”