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Past Is Prologue

It finally happened: J Mays, vice president of Design at Ford, has seen the light—or maybe better put, his boss allowed him to see the light and show that Mays really is passionate about the product.

It finally happened: J Mays, vice president of Design at Ford, has seen the light—or maybe better put, his boss allowed him to see the light and show that Mays really is passionate about the product. In January, 2000, at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), J Mays and his boss, Jac Nasser, proclaimed that in the near future the car was no longer going to be the driver, it would merely be the rolling platform for high technology communications. The 24/7 concept was Ford’s rather bizarre attempt to show the automotive product as irrelevant. Instead, it was, to paraphrase a computer industry CEO, proof that in the future the car would be nothing more than a “rolling JAVA browser.” This car of the future would be a product that could be likened to a cell phone: given away with subscriptions to the electronic services being the gold mine of the future. To those of us that are involved in this business in large part because of the product, such a statement is blasphemous. But what a difference a year makes.

A dive in the NASDAQ certainly has changed things. By this year’s show, J Mays had found religion, or maybe re-found it. As a gospel choir sang behind him, he introduced Ford’s Forty-Nine concept car, and talked of passion, the heritage of great design, how this industry is driven by a love affair with the product, and he stated that nothing is more important to that attachment than design. This kind of talk is quite a change from the corporate line presented a year earlier, eh? The Ford Forty-Nine does, in fact, possess the passion and style that make for great automotive design. Drawing from the 1949 Ford, which was the first new design of the postwar period (or maybe more honestly from the Mercurys of that time period), Mays and his staff successfully blended the retro look with more modern lines. The Forty-Nine, proceeded in Mays’s portfolio by his successful updating of the Beetle and his contribution to the soon-to-be-released T-bird, secures J Mays’s place as a designer with a knack for updating the old classics into new classics. Yet it does raise an interesting question: As so eloquently stated by the Editor-in-Chief of a certain magazine: Can’t he design anything original? That Editor-In-Chief also suggested that there is little in the way of new design from other participants in the North American Automotive industry. Why can’t the designers—or the management that approves the designs—get out of the “glory days” mentality and push the envelope to a new era of design glory? Is it because the customers have spoken by making the PT Cruiser, Beetle, and upcoming Thunderbird hot sellers? Or is that the current group of designers lack creativity? Or maybe there are few real visionaries in upper management.

Exide chairman and self-noted design expert Bob Lutz recently said that many of the concept cars at the 2001 NAIAS resembled angry kitchen appliances. And, in my perspective—albeit certainly not an expert designer’s view—he may be right. From the cold lines of the GMC Terracross, to the stagecoach look of the Honda Model X, there appeared to be many ideas that fail to stoke the interest of the buying public. And it is those concept cars that are supposed to excite and enthuse the car-buying public. According to Lutz, if the NAIAS concepts make it to production, he guarantees an over-capacity problem in the near future! While Lutz seemed to be aiming his barbs at the designers, it may have been more accurate to place the blame at least partially on the shoulders of the current crop of executives. The Chrysler designs of the last decade were generally regarded as industry standard, and Tom Gale certainly was the ring-leader. However, Lutz and others were strong contributors. With the exception of Carlos Ghosn at Nissan and Ferdinand Piech at VW, there are few executives that seem to be willing to force their designers to push the envelope.

Trevor Creed—the current chief designer for the Chrysler Group— and a long-time style leader, is much less critical of the current design trends but does say that we are at a real crossroads of design. According to Creed, the new concepts indicate there are many interesting ideas, including creative redesigns of great old classics. Yet he declares that no real trend has yet emerged.

Maybe Anne Asensio, General Motors’ new design hire, can be the one to take the lead. She had outstanding success in Europe with Renault. Perhaps her infusion of new creativity can combine with the immense design history of Harley Earl’s studios, inspiring GM to great design. She stands as one of the select few candidates who will likely replace Wayne Cherry when he retires. This would be a great opportunity to stand Design Studio on its ear by giving her the lead role.

Can companies match the old with the new, the retro with the cutting edge? The company that seems to be doing that best appears to be Ford and J Mays. Certainly the Thunderbird is a prime example of retro done right, and the Focus was a huge leap in design (at least for a U.S.-based company). And with the new Mercury Mountaineer they are showing some willingness to break away from the traditional truck design. Meanwhile, the Ford Forty-Nine further establishes the company’s grasp of the past. A forthcoming Mustang will likely continue that trend. Yet Ford must now take the next step. To push the envelope beyond the Focus and prove that cutting edge can be as hot as the past. Or, to recall those wise words of that Editor-in-Chief: it is finally time to design something original.

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