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Mustang is his driving passion
The '05 version of the car was designed by a Vietnamese immigrant. It's
a quintessentially American success story.
By Gayle Pollard-Terry
Times Staff Writer
January 3, 2005
DEARBORN, Mich. — Hau Thai-Tang was still a car guy in the making when
he saw his first Mustang, a white Mach One, in Saigon during the Vietnam
War. He was about 5, and that American muscle car — on display to boost
the morale of U.S. troops — looked nothing like the cars he had seen on
the narrow, tree-lined streets near his home.
"We had very few cars to start with, and the cars we had were mostly
French because we were a French colony," he recalls. His parents owned a
small, two-cylinder Citroën "Deux Cheveaux" — French for two horses —
that resembled a VW Bug, only more boxy.
"It was so big to me as a kid," he says of that early-'70s Mustang. He
got to see the car because his grandfather did business with American
Today, more than three decades later, his English is far better than his
Vietnamese. He's talking in his office in the Ford Product Development
Center, where he's the man most responsible for the widely hailed and
wildly popular new Mustang, which critics say combines the best of the
classic retro design with 21st century technology.
The workaholic car enthusiast, lean and intense but also prone to
telling jokes, is snacking on cheese crackers late in the day because he
skipped lunch while taking meetings and phone calls. The man behind the
Mustang is much in demand these days.
"He's an immigrant from Vietnam and he ends up the chief engineer of one
of the most American of American cars. It's a remarkable story," says
Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver, by phone from his Ann
The 2005 Mustang, which launched in September, is one hot car: Retail
sales are up 50% from the previous year as of November, according to
Ford, and 45,000 coupes are on order to be built. The January issue of
Car and Driver features a red one on the cover, as does Motor Trend.
And Thai-Tang will be in Southern California for the eagerly anticipated
worldwide debut of the convertible Wednesday at the Greater Los Angeles
As chief engineer, Thai-Tang took charge of all things Mustang,
including profit and cost, while leading hundreds of engineers and
designers on the first "clean sheet" model in the 40-year history of the
car. The inaugural Mustang was a Ford Falcon underneath that
Everyone, it seems, wants one of the 2005 Mustangs, including the
38-year-old Thai-Tang, who currently drives a red Lincoln LS, the last
car he worked on before the new Mustang.
"I have one on order," he says, while leaning against a red GT in the
lobby of the Ford Motor Co. Worldwide Headquarters. It's a stick, of
course, because no car guy would be caught driving a power car with an
But internal orders must wait until retail orders are filled, and that
could take until spring — or even longer, as the 2005 continues to be
one of the most coveted American cars in a generation.
So why all this love for the retooled Mustang?
"From a styling standpoint," Csere explains, "they've gone back and
distilled the best from the great Mustangs of the '60s. If you ever saw
the movie 'Bullitt' with Steve McQueen and you saw him drive a Mustang
in the greatest movie chase you will ever see, you would recognize the
2005 because it has the styling cues of that '68 Mustang embodied in
it." Csere also praises the car's performance — and its price.
"Building a cool car for $50,000 or $60,000 kind of gets people's
attention," the editor says, "but when you can build a really cool car
at a price everybody can afford, it goes gangbusters…. You order the V8
GT, and the base price is $25,000 and you get this great look,
tremendous horsepower … and a car that is tremendously fun to drive."
A narrow escape
Thai-Tang and his younger brother, Nam, were born into a middle-class
family in Saigon whose lives were upended by the war.
While their mother worked in customer service for Chase Manhattan Bank,
their father left his job teaching Vietnamese literature at Nguyen Trai
high school in Saigon to join the South Vietnamese Army.
"There wasn't a whole lot of fighting there [in Saigon] with the
exception of two times," Thai-Tang recalls. "One in 1968 — there was the
Tet Offensive, and there was a big battle in the city at that time. My
dad was part of that … but I was only 2 so I don't remember any of it.
The next time there was active fighting was when we left — 1975 — when
the Communists came into the country." The family flew out just before
the fall of Saigon on April 30.
Chase had a program through which it selected some employees to relocate
based on how easily it was thought they would be able to resettle in the
U.S. "Our family was very fortunate because, atypical of most Vietnamese
families, we had a small family — most families have seven or eight
kids," he says. "Both of my parents were fairly young. They were college
educated. They spoke a little bit of English.
"We were told to listen to Armed Forces Radio and as soon as we heard
Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas,' that was the code to get to this
predetermined meeting place. We had an hour to get there after the
song," he says.
For about a month, his parents listened for a Christmas carol on the
radio. "I vividly remember the four little bags by the door. We were
each allowed one carry-on," he says. When they finally heard the song,
they grabbed the bags, gave their car to his grandparents, hurried to
the secret meeting place and on to the airport.
After a brief stay on Guam, the family lived in tents for two weeks at
Camp Pendleton. From there, they went to Brooklyn, where Chase had
arranged an employee sponsor for them. Two days later, in mid-May,
Thai-Tang started school at P.S. 282. "I learned all about dodgeball the
first day because I got hit in the head a lot," he says. "[It was] pick
on the new kid."
He spoke five words of English: "one," "two," "three" and "thank you,"
picked up from a show with an American magician he had watched weekly in
Vietnam. "We learned real fast. It was total immersion," he says. "When
you're in the third grade, you learn quickly."
He doesn't recall a difficult transition. "I remember my peers in my
class were doing book reports, and I'd still be reading Dr. Seuss-type
level. But I would kick their butt in math. I learned the multiplication
tables when I was 4 because it's kind of the Asian thing to do. So I was
really good in math, and I wasn't too good in English."
That's all changed now — or at least the language part. "I'll go
somewhere and someone will say, 'Wow, your English is really good,' or
'Well, geez, I talked to him on the phone and he doesn't sound like a
Hau Thai-Tang,' " he says. He speaks idiomatic English without an
accent. A radio interview last year in Vietnamese for Voice of America
"That was really hard [although] I speak Vietnamese all the time to my
parents," he says, "It was hard when I was asked, 'What's the mission of
Ask him in English, and he'll tell you: "Flatter the novice and reward
the expert driver."
Motor oil in his veins
Make no mistake about it: Thai-Tang loves fast cars.
"Hau likes to drive very fast," his wife, Jenny, says. "I'm pretty used
to it. I scold him if he's doing it with the kids in the car."
He bought his first Mustang, a new 1988 GT-50 convertible (in the shade
of "vanilla ice") after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh and joining Ford. Thai-Tang joined the car company, with whom
he's spent his entire career, because he wanted to work in the
hyper-competitive automotive world. He started out as a chassis engineer
designing suspension and steering systems. While moving up, he has
worked on the Thunderbird, the Scorpio in Cologne, the 2001 Mustang GT,
V6, Cobra and special-edition "Bullitt" GT and the Lincoln LS. In
November he was named the director of advance product creation and
special vehicle teams.
"Cars are just toys for grown men. Grown women too," he says. "So it's
just a fun product to work on. You think about all of the songs, music
videos, movies and books that have been written about cars."
Especially fast ones.
He worked on some of the fastest while assigned to Ford's Motor Sports
Technology Exchange in 1993. "I had a chance to go work in the Indy car
series, CART [for Championship Auto Racing Teams] as it was called." He
tackled vehicle dynamics for the Newman/Haas Team, which had two
world-champion drivers, Nigel Mansell and Mario Andretti. "It was a
great experience…. We won the overall championship," Thai-Tang says. "I
love motor sports."
That racing experience paid off when it came time to manage the redesign
and engineering of the new Mustang, noted friend and co-worker Keith
Knudsen, who supervised the car's overall mechanical design and interior
package. "You can tell it's a power car," Knudsen says during an
interview on the Ford campus.
Both guys like car racing, whether it's watching or competing for the
best time on the Ford test track in the 2005 Mustang.
A tight-knit family
The Thai-Tangs live with their two children, Katie, 5, and Maddy, 2, in
an elegant two-story house in Plymouth, an affluent suburb west of
Detroit. His parents live nearby — while their friends were retiring
from New York to warmer climates like Florida and California, they moved
to Michigan when the first grandchild was born. His younger brother,
Nam, who is also a Ford engineer, lives close too. They gather weekly
for meals cooked by Thai-Tang's mother, Hai, "to remind them of the
"When people meet him, they think he's a very quiet person," Jenny says.
"He's actually very warm. He comes off as a bit reserved because he
saves his warmth for the people he really cares about. He can't fake it.
He's very committed and loyal to his family, to his parents."
She's the daughter of Chinese immigrants, born and raised in Manhattan;
he lived in Brooklyn and on Staten Island. The New Yorkers met at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She was a senior majoring in
psychology and communications who had refused to date "geeky engineers."
Her plans changed when she met Hau, who at that point was a Ford
engineer working on an MBA.
The story of his marriage proposal even has an automotive element. After
surprising Jenny with a birthday trip to San Francisco, Thai-Tang rented
a speedy Mazda Miata and tore up the winding roads of Mt. Tamalpais. She
almost got carsick before he could get down on bended knee.
On a recent Friday, his parents' 39th wedding anniversary, the Thai-Tang
family is in a relaxed mood, reminiscing about Hau. About how
competitive he was as a child — if his team lost, he would fuss.
About how others have followed his lead since he was young. "Hau liked
to raise [homing] pigeons when he was in high school. He worked so hard
to get money for the pigeons," his mom says. "He was so good at it," he
tied a garbage bag on a stick like a flag to signal the birds to return.
"The kids in the neighborhood were very amazed. They wanted to do it too."
About how a young man who wanted to become an artist became an engineer.
"That was my dream," his father, Huy, says. "In our family, we are three
generations of teachers. I didn't want to be a teacher. I tried very
hard to learn mathematics. My son is my extended hand."
And then there's all the recent publicity.
"There's a Vietnamese paper in Orange County. It's called Nguoi Viet,
which stands for 'the Vietnamese people,' " Thai-Tang says. "They wrote
a big article about me. [For] my mom, that was the biggest thing….
Forget the Wall Street Journal. Forget Motor Trend. He was in the
Vietnamese newspaper. That's validation that he's made it."
His mother explains: "We have my brother, my in-laws — most of our
relatives live in California. We have a large family, and there is a
large Vietnamese community in California.
"The name Thai-Tang is very special because it's not a very common
Vietnamese name. So when they saw Hau's name or they listened to Voice
of America and heard his name, it's like, 'Oh yeah, I know that family.' "
Thai-Tang has never returned to Vietnam, where he saw his first Mustang,
though he plans to go when his children are older. While in Southern
California, he won't have time to visit his relatives in Cypress, Irvine
and Long Beach. He'll be too busy hanging out with — what else? — a Mustang.