2004 Man of the Year

Ford's loss could be someone else's gain.

0402 Leach 01 Z

Mazda is currently producing the kind of cars we love at Automobile Magazine--affordable, stylish products with real character. Just think of the outgoing Protege, the 6, and the RX-8. Without Martin Leach, those cars never would have happened. The forty-six-year-old engineer shook up Mazda's R&D and product-development processes from 1997 to 2000 as managing director of product planning, design, and programs. Leach also has been responsible for Ford's product offensive in Europe, having served as vice president of product development, then as president and chief operating officer prior to his sudden departure from the company last August.

It might seem strange that we have given our Man of the Year award to a car company executive who is currently without a job, but Leach is exactly the kind of person car companies need, and his departure is symptomatic of the current problems at the blue oval. He's a certified car nut, one of the very few visionaries of the trade, an excellent engineer and driver, a pragmatic team player, and a genuinely nice guy.

So why is he jobless? "I threw in the towel because Ford of Europe, which I ran for almost a year, was drawn into the political ping-pong initiated by Ford worldwide," explains the amateur racing driver and part-time soccer coach. "I am hugely sad about the way things went, having dedicated all my working life to this company--but these days everybody seems to be out to get everybody else at the top of the house." A Ford employee since 1979, Leach left Cologne with the intention of taking over the helm at Fiat Auto from Giancarlo Boschetti, but in the end, the post went to Herbert Demel because Leach failed to wriggle himself out of his Ford contract, which allegedly contains a two-year no-compete clause.

During his twenty-four-year tenure with Ford, the Australian-born engineer's responsibilities were wide and varied. Asked to name his personal career highlights, he answers: "One really big achievement was to take the European commercial vehicle division to the top of the table. The doubling of the U.S. light-truck business falls into a similar category. I am also very proud of my years at Mazda, where we developed a new product philosophy and brand strategy that was highlighted by exciting cars like the Mazda 6 and the rotary-engined RX-8. Last but not least, I had begun implementing the so-called 45 in 5 strategy at Ford of Europe, a plan to launch forty-five fresh products between 2002 and 2007, starting with the Fusion, the Streetka, and the C-Max."

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