Mustang 05 Article

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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 troops.
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 Arbor office.
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 Auto Show.
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 revolutionary styling.
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 automatic transmission.
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 proved challenging.
"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 Mustang?' "
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.
Thai-Tang won.
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 Vietnamese culture."
"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.
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