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Mustang director turns dream into reality

SUNDAY DRIVER -

July 31, 2005|By JASON STEIN

As his world crumbled around him and all that he knew was slipping out of reach in southeast Asia, Hau Thai-Tang had a dream.

It was fast cars and American designs.

It was something a world away.

It was something he knew he always wanted.

Ask Mustang program director Thai-Tang what North America's most famous "Pony" car means to him and he responds with one word: "America," Thai-Tang said at last year's Detroit Auto Show. "It's freedom. It's every dream you've ever had. And every dream I had."

And the boy had a dream.

Thirty years ago, the 5-year-old son of a Vietnamese schoolteacher was following his father through the center of war-torn Saigon as Jeeps and tanks and trucks rumbled around them.

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Amid all of that noise and disruption, one image stood clear: "The Mustang," Thai-Tang said. "You couldn't miss the Mustang that the U.S. troops had shipped over to the bases there."

Ah, the horse.

How perfect.

The boy had been born in 1966; the year of the horse in the Chinese calendar.

And, oh, how the horse - and America - would eventually draw him in.

When his mother, an employee of Chase Manhattan Bank in Saigon, finally received the signal to leave the country that fateful day during the final 48 hours before North Vietnam took over in April 1975, it came from an American voice: Bing Crosby. For more than a month, the family listened to the radio to hear White Christmas. When they finally heard it, they fled to the meeting point.

Within two days, after a stop in Guam, they would be in Brooklyn, N.Y., waiting for a new life to take shape.

Thai-Tang attended Brooklyn's Public School 282 and excelled in mathematics and all things that involved numbers. He knew four words, which he learned watching a magician on Armed Forces Television,"one, two and thank you."

He made it through school with good-enough grades to be accepted into Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. After obtaining a degree in engineering, he headed straight for Ford in 1988, first in the United States and then in Europe.

But he always found his way back to the horse.

His first car was a Mustang, and his job would eventually lead to the Mustang.

After a stint as a young engineer at Ford, Thai-Tang moved to the rear-drive-platform team where he was eventually placed in charge of the next-generation 2005 Mustang program, the fifth incarnation of a vehicle that was America's top-selling sports coupe and convertible for nearly two decades running.

It was serendipity. Or destiny. Take your pick.

Ford styling chief, J Mays, picked a retro theme and Thai-Tang worked around it.

What he has created has turned into an instant icon and a new symbol of American speed and muscle.

"There are 18 million Americans who have a personal stake in this car," Thai-Tang once told the Detroit News. "That was the big pressure. The good news is everybody knows what a Mustang should be. The bad news is everybody knows what a Mustang should be."

A soft-spoken workaholic, Thai-Tang threw himself into the project and produced a winner, a car that everyone wants and that no one can really get their hands on fast enough. After working with legendary car enthusiast Caroll Shelby, Thai-Tang has a hit for a company that could use a string of them right now.

Thai-Tang, now approaching 40, even received a promotion. He's now the new director of Ford's Special Vehicle Team, the company's high-performance unit, with the Mustang as the lead car in that program.

And his family has been with him the whole time. His brother is a Ford engineer. His parents live nearby. And, of course, Thai-Tang married and has his own children now.

But he will never forget where he came from or what it means for him to be doing what he is doing now.

"The context of my connection to the Mustang is different," he told the Detroit News. "But my love for the car, really, has the same root as somebody, like one of my colleagues, who grew up in Iowa and took his dad's tractor apart when he was 12."

Fast cars and American designs.

Something no longer a world away.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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