This is the first in a regular series that looks at Canada’s automakers over the last 25 years.
While the 25th anniversary of Toronto Star Wheels is nothing to be taken lightly, it pales beside the history of the longest-established automaker in Canada.
It was almost 106 years ago, on Aug. 17, 1905, that Canadian entrepreneur Gordon McGregor signed on with American Henry Ford to create the Ford Motor Co. of Canada at the Walkerville Wagon Works in Windsor, Ont.
This was three years before Henry’s Model T would go on sale and just two years after the Dearborn, Mich.-based company was founded in 1903.
In spanning almost the entire history of the automobile in Canada, Ford has created some of the most popular and iconic cars in this country, like the original “Tin Lizzie,” the Depression-era Model A, the trendsetting 1949 Ford, the 1955 Thunderbird convertible, the 1964 Mustang “pony car” and the perennially best-selling F-Series pickups.
During the 25 years that Wheels has been around, Ford has introduced numerous vehicles that have been popular with Canadian consumers and defined their segments.
These include the 1986 Ford Taurus sedan, with its revolutionary aerodynamic styling; the 1991 Ford Explorer, which kick-started the sports utility vehicle craze; the European-influenced 200 Ford Focus compact, and the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid SUV, the 2005 Escape.
Of course, Wheels has also covered some of Ford’s lows in the past 25 years.
The 1990s Firestone and Ford tire controversy (where there were an unusually high number of tire failures on some Ford vehicles), was a dark time for the automaker.
Some say the costs associated with the crisis prevented nearly bankrupt Ford from creating the new rear-wheel-drive cars promised by numerous Lincoln concepts in the late 1990s and forced the consolidation of Ford and Lincoln dealers and the dropping of the Mercury brand in Canadian in 1999.
During this era, Ford also made one of its early attempts to manufacture a “world car,” the 1995 to 2000 Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, documented in a damning review of the Mercury version by our own Jim Kenzie in February 1995.
Kenzie questioned if the billions of dollars spent and years of time to develop it were, in fact, worth it.
The beginning of the new millennium didn’t get any easier for Ford.
Despite the acquisition (and eventual dispersal) of import brands like Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo, Ford struggled on the sales charts.
“From 2000 to 2008, we were on a steady decline”, David Mondragon president and CEO, Ford of Canada, recently told Wheels.
According to Mondragon, the year he was appointed to his position was a low point for the automaker.
“But as humiliating as the ride down was, the ride back up has been 10 times more exciting for our dealers and customers,” said Mondragon.
During a time when its Detroit-based rivals were filing for bankruptcy and receiving bailouts from American and Canadian taxpayers, Ford kept its independence and stuck to a global product strategy — introduced in 2006 and dubbed “One Ford” — and rode out the crisis.
Mondragon says that over the last two years, Ford has “clawed back” that decline by listening to consumers and delivering the products they’ve requested.
The turnaround has been swift and substantial.
With sales of 267,871 in 2010, Ford of Canada finished as the best-selling automaker in the country, passing General Motors for the first time in half a century.
With almost 100,00 units sold, the Ford F-Series pick-up not only kept its title as the No. 1 selling truck in Canada for 44 consecutive years, it was the best-selling car or truck in the country last year.
One of the main reasons Ford has reached the top in Canada has been the automaker’s constant updating and introduction of new products.
“We used to be a global company that acted very regionally. [North America, Europe and Asia] didn’t talk to each other. We kept our blinders on. We missed the mark. Today we’re not doing that,” said Mondragon.
The proof is in Ford showrooms.
For 2011, the automaker has launched the all-new Fiesta subcompact; Lincoln’s first hybrid (the Lincoln MKZ sedan); the redesigned Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers; an all-new car-based Explorer crossover and all-new engine lineups in its bestselling F-Series pick-ups and Mustang sports coupe and convertible.
And there are more new Fords on the way.
At this year’s Detroit auto show, Ford showcased 10 new compact segment vehicles, led by the all-new 2012 Ford Focus.
While Ford has tried to launch a “world car” before (i.e. the 1981 Escort, the ill-fated 1995 Contour/Mystique and the 1999 Focus), this time around Mondragon says the cars haven’t been “watered down” to meet so-called North American car buyer needs.
Also coming later in the year will be the Ford C-Max, a compact minivan built off the Focus chassis, plus the start of Ford’s electric vehicle plans, including purely electric versions of the Focus, C-Max and Transit Connect, as well as a C-Max hybrid.
In 2012, Ford will replace its popular Escape with a production version of its Vertrek concept, also debuting in Detroit.
“The diversity of Canada allows us to introduce our global products,” Mondragon said. “The Canadian consumer is very educated, they are looking for value and functionality, and everyone is looking for greater fuel economy.”
Looking down the road, the automaker’s dependence on pick-up sales may be seen as a weakness. But Ford is already looking at how to make its trucks meet future and more demanding fuel-efficiency regulations.
Ford has already started the process with the introduction for 2011 of a turbocharged V6 in the F-150, making it the most- fuel efficient vehicle in its class.
“In addition to these new, high-tech engines, we’re looking at stop-start technology, better aerodynamics and lighter weight materials to increase the fuel economy over the next 5 to 10 years,” said Mondragon.
And although Mondragon has no complaints with the automaker’s sales in Canada, he’s even more optimistic about Ford’s manufacturing plans in this country.
Ford employs approximately 7,000 people in Canada, plus an additional 18,000 people in the approximately 440 Ford and Ford-Lincoln dealerships across the country.
Canadian plants includes the St. Thomas Assembly Plant, Windsor Engine Plant, Essex Engine Plant, and the Oakville Assembly Complex that became Ford’s first flexible manufacturing plant in 2004 and now builds the Ford Edge and Flex and Lincoln MKX and MKT crossovers.
And it’s these plants that hold the future to Ford’s manufacturing growth in Canada.
Mondragon says that while the Canadian new car market has returned to 94 per cent of its peak in 2002, the U.S. market is only at 72 per cent of its peak capacity.
Because 90 per cent of the vehicles Ford builds in Canada goes to other North American markets, the head of Ford Canada sees this as a “great upside.”
But he’s also realistic.
For 2010, more than half of Ford’s sales in Canada were trucks. And Mondragon thinks that’s not sustainable and not healthy for the industry.
“However, as we introduce new cars in the subcompact and compact segments, combined with the projected increase in gas prices by the end of 2011, we’re projecting that we’ll be 50:50 cars versus trucks by the end of the year, rising to a 60 per cent car ratio by 2012.”