Ford chief points to possibility of more price-cutting

By , Automotive Editor of The Christian Science Monitor

" We'll do whatever we have to do to beat the thing back to life," hammers Louis E. Laitif, head of the Ford division of the Ford Motor Company since last January, who was in Boston to address the National Association of Broadcasters.

"We just can't close our eyes to price sensitivity and go on our way," he asserts.

Pointing to the pricing come-ons already posted by the company in a drive to move its '82-Model cars, Mr. Lataif agreed that consumers aran't confident about a lot of things, including the purchase of a new automobile.

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In fact, he laments, "the stock market is weak, interest rates are high, and the debate goes on over whether the Reagan program will work.

"So people are unwilling to make a big commitment for a new car."

If Ford Motor Company and the other domestic car manufacturers cannot sell their '82-model cars at a faster pace than the introductory days indicate, the US auto industry will be in even deeper trouble than it is now. Cutting the price is one way to get-the attention of the buyer. At some point, the carmakers reason, the public will grab the bait and buy.

Ford is trying to battle back to a more viable position in the marketplace after a red-ink bath of monstrous proportions.

In 1980 the company lost more than $2.1 billion on its North American automotive operations and high losses have continued this year. Helping to soften the blow was a 1980 profit of $323 million from Ford of Europe; yet that, too, was off from $1.2 billion the year before.

Part of the Ford dilemma was its slow shift to meet market demand. General Motors, for example, is generally figured as at least two years ahead of Ford in reshaping and downsizing its cars.

Even so, Ford is battling ahead--cautiously, the Ford management asserts.

Ford, for example, is far behind its big rival, General Motors, in retailing a diesel-engine car. But that makes good sense to Ford, according to Lataif, who says the company could not have stood up to the heat that has swept around GM over its problematic diesels.

Some West Coast used-car books are even putting a negative value on some of the GM diesels because of their reputation.

Ford, however, will be joining the car-diesel fray within the next couple of years.

Several passenger-car and truck diesel-engines are on the way from Ford's Japanese affiliate, Toyo Kogyo (Mazda), as well as BMW-Steyr of West Germany. Ford, also has a contract with International Harvester for diesel-engine development.

Toyo Kogyo will provide small diesels for the Ford Escort/Mercury Lynx as well as the Ranger, Ford's new minitruck due out next spring as a 1982 model. In 1984, the BMW Steyr diesel will go into Ford's luxury cars and after that, in some other larger cars as well.

Ford of Europe also is developing its own small diesels.

"All of the new diesels are honest-to-goodness diesels that are being designed from a clean sheet of paper, not adapted from gasoline-fueled engines," Lataif says.

The future of the diesel engine is still in doubt, anyway. If someday the federal government decides that it can't stand the particulate emissions, or soot, it could regulate the diesel out of existence.

"Maybe GM could stand that bath, but Ford Motor Company could not, " says Lataif.

In Ford eyes, (a) a dieselized gasoline engine is not a very good engine; (b) the soot issue is very real; and (c) a diesel engine is not cost-efficient. In other words, it takes a long time, possibly forever, to recover the added cost of a diesel engine in fuel saved.

Laitif says that "Ford Motor Company in its current condition would do better to bring-out the 'new-car car' than to pioneer on diesels, which may not live for any one of those reasons.

"When we do get them, we ought to get them right." Meanwhile, he reports:

* The big-car Ford LTD will continue to be built so long as there is a viable market for it.

"I think the LTD in its present form might live for a long time," he declares. "So long as there is enough volume to support an assembly plant there is no reason not to continue it," he says.

* A super-small Ford-built car will be on the road, perhaps in the mid-1980 s--smaller than the Escort--with a lto 1.2-liter engine.

"We've been talking about such a car since the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74," Lataif says. "It's very much a part of our future plans."

* By the 1990s, there will be utility 4-by-4-type vehicles, small in total size but boxy, as well as smaller vans and club wagons. Also, pickup trucks that get 25 miles or more to a gallon of fuel and seat three across, instead of two as in the Japanese compact pickups, and yet have room for functional things, such as boxes, inside.

"It'll be the sort of thing you could take to a football game, for example," Lataif predicts.

"It probably won't look much like a truck does today, but it would be boxier and garageable--perhaps smaller in overall girth, than today's compact pickup trucks, but, commodious in-the way it is laid out," he adds." I don't know whether it would be sold as a car or a truck, but I think there will be a need for multi-passenger vehicles and it won't be just the downsize front-wheel-drive cars but something else."

Ford will bring the turbocharger back in the 1983 Mustang after being out of that side of the market since 1979 after major problems with the concept. Beyond the Mustang, the turbo will go into other cars later on.

Returning to the diesel, Lataif reports:

"I don't know what its environmental dangar is, but what I do know is there is a very good chance, depending on who the lobby is, that it will be judged to be bad whether it's bad or not. Some of what has been judged to be bad in current emissions is not bad."

Lataif says that 96 percent of the hydrocarbons, compared with those in unregulated cars, has been eliminated. "There are more emissions from painting a house than there are in driving a car for a couple of years," he complains. "But no one is legislating against painting houses."

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