And yet, at the recent British Motor Show, Ford had the most intriguing and meritorious display of new cars of any of the British-based mass makers - and among the best range of cars in Europe. In the space of a few years, the one-time disseminator of Dagenham dustbins has launched a raft of really good cars. The latest is the Ford Ka, which is not only great to drive but looks special too.
Why the change? Not so long ago, Fords appealed to unpretentious folk who wanted simple transport. Cars such as the Cortina offered simple transport, if nothing else. But, while technically and stylistically bolder Minis and Morris 1100s and Citroen GSs and Alfasuds were regularly found littering motorway hard shoulders, the Cortina kept on keeping on. Fords were cheap, there were loads of dealers, and you knew what you were getting. It was a continuation of the old Model T philosophy, that was Ford's hallmark.
Just occasionally Ford tried to get bold. The Sierra, styled by German Uwe Bahnsen, was a forward-thinking car that invented the "jelly mould" organic styling philosophy of the Eighties. But, predictably, conservative Ford customers hated it. They bought Vauxhall Cavaliers instead. Little wonder that Ford retreated back into its shell after the Sierra shock.
The last Escort, launched in 1990, was the turning point. Sure, it was reliable, and sure, there were loads of dealers. The flip side, though, was that it had embarrassingly poor handling/ride/steering and was noisy and unrefined. At a time when European and Japanese makers were offering attractive, mechanically refined little cars which were reliable to boot, an unsophisticated little tin box was never going to be good enough. And the punters said "no". This shocked Ford, who had never credited the car buyer with much discernment.
Things got better after that, starting with the Mondeo - one of the nicer driving cars in the class, if one of the duller looking. But sales were still slipping in Britain. A car company which once had 30 per cent of the market with five models had slipped to 21 per cent with seven. Dull product was the reason. And Ford belatedly realised it. This also coincided with a management shake-up (falling sales usually do).
There were two key appointments. One was the gravelly-voiced, Lebanese- born Australian Jac Nasser, as head of Ford of Europe - a man with both a passion for good cars and a sharp business brain. The other was Welshman Richard Parry-Jones, appointed chief engineer for vehicle development. Parry-Jones is without doubt one of Europe's finest car engineers. (Both have since been promoted. Nasser is now president of Ford, based in Detroit, while Parry-Jones has worldwide responsibility for the engineering of all cars of Mondeo size and below.)
The big gamble came a few years later, in 1994, with the latest Scorpio. This was Ford signalling, in a rather unsubtle way, its intention to be different. The styling execution was lousy - the Scorpio is one of the most hideous cars ever unleashed on unsuspecting motorists (its nickname is the Ford Frankenstein). But at least you have to admire the guts behind it. In a class full of me-too motors, here was a real head-turner, even if it turned some stomachs too.
The latest carp-faced Fiesta is another example of Ford style which owes more to the fish tank than the catwalk. But it is the best driving small car in the world and - in 16-valve form - it has one of the best engines.
The new Ford Ka and revised Mondeo, both stars of the Ford stand at the recent Motor Show, prove that Ford's stylists are now starting to design cars that look different and look good. On the road, both are class leaders.
Ford, former frump of the car world, is now one of the innovators. Next up in two years is a new Escort, traditionally Ford's most basically styled and minimally engineered machine. But the new one will be a radical looker and is bound to drive well, given Ford's recent track record.
Ford's transformation will encourage other makers who have traditionally trod the technically minimalist path to try a bit harder. That's invariably the upshot of the market leader moving on. The result should be cheerier roads, with better looking cars that are fun to drive. Ford also hopes the upshot will be a growing market share, after more than a decade of declining sales.