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No. 2 automaker looks down the road for answers

In a dramatic departure from tradition, Ford Motor Company has dropped the wraps on its '83-model vehicles up to a year early.

In most cases, the actual cars won't hit the showrooms till next fall and beyond. Whether this will hurt the sale of '82 cars now in the showroom, no one knows, but Ford clearly is willing to run the risk.

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Ford president Donald E. Petersen says, ''Ford Motor Company will launch more new products in the next 12 months than in any similar period in its history.''

Putting its money where its mouth is, the loss-plagued carmaker is spending cash as if it were being stamped out in one of its car-assembly plants. (Ford toted up a $1.06 billion loss in 1981, including $346 billion in red ink in the last quarter alone. Its losses in 1980 hit $1.5 billion.)

The No. 2 US automaker, which has just won a passel of concessions from its blue-collar workers in the form of a new contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), is spending some $3 billion on its upcoming '83-model new cars and trucks.

''That's the equivalent of $12 million for every working day in the next 12 months,'' reminds Harold A. Poling, head of North American automotive operations for Ford.

Leading off the parade is a brand-new downsized pickup truck, the Ranger, which cost Ford $600 million to develop and goes on sale next week. Built in a newly renovated assembly plant in Louisville, Ky., the Ranger is aimed squarely at the imports as well as the new General Motors pickups, the Chevrolet S-10 and GMC S-15, and Chrysler Corporation's Dodge Rampage.

A Mustang convertible with usable rear seat will hit the traffic stream this summer.

Heading onto the road next fall are a downsized Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis, streamlined Thunderbird and XR-7, and a small Bronco II utility wagon. In early '83 Ford will launch a new line of front-drive successors to the Futura-Zephyr: the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz, with a standard, all-new, push-rod 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed manual gearbox. The coupe and sedan series is based on the Ford Escort platform but is larger. Ford also will unveil a new high-performance Mustang for '83.

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Spotlighting future product plans has been frowned on in the auto business. Carmakers have worried that it could jeopardize present sales if motorists like what they see down the road. But with today's sales modest at best, Ford feels there is only one way to go, and that's up.

At the same time, the automaker is taking a chance with the styling of its upcoming new cars.

Instead of continuing the trend of boxy shapes on wheels, popular with designers because of the extra space they provides inside the car, Ford is planning rounder bodies, flared fenders, and steeply sloped windshields in its effort to stand out from the crowd.

Pointing to the upcoming new Ford Thunderbird, Mr. Poling asserts: ''Aerodynamics is the name of the game for '83.'' By smoothing out the air flow over, under, and around the car, gasoline mileage goes up.

Yet mileage is far from the full story of Ford's future plans. Alluding to the ''muscle car'' era of the '60s, Poling says that more and more of today's motorists want better performance in their cars as well.

''We'll also have more high-performance engines down the road,'' he declares.

''The optional 5-liter engine in the Mustang and Capri have been extremely well received all across the country. Young people are attracted to the Mustang mystique.''

Underscoring its interest in higher-performance engines for its cars, Ford got back into auto racing last year on a limited scale. ''We will not participate to the extent we did in the '60s, however,'' reports Poling.

Buoyant over the restyled labor contract with the UAW, Poling says ''the first 50 days of the year have been much improved. Ford Motor Company's share of the car market since Jan. 1 is 17.1 percent, up nine-tenths of a percentage point over the fourth quarter and 3.4 points better than a weak December.

''Dealer inventory has been reduced from a 113-days supply of cars on Dec. 31 to 66 days on Feb. 20, and on March 31 we project it will be less than 50 days.'

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