J. Mays' Haze
Retro is a dangerous game to play. It's been a hot design language, especially lately, but can, at times, be overwrought. Ford's Group Vice President of Design, J. Mays, has become the king of retro, making almost every new FoMoCo concept car look like something they've made before. While sometimes, as with the GT and the new Mustang, this looks quite good, it can also lead to disastrous results. The issue is that sometimes, you need fresh designs that look modern and striking. You can't always rest on heritage for an entire design. Instead, one should look to brands like Mercedes, BMW and even Ford-owned Jaguar and Aston Martin to see how a company can very successfully meld classic, brand-specific retro cues with modern shapes. To me, Ford has become a shop that specializes in building copies of old cars, much like the various original Shelby Cobra knock-off makers do (including Carol, himself).
When the current Thunderbird bowed in 2001, I had one thing to say, "Ugly." The proportions were wrong, the look was old, and I said it wouldn't sell. Furthermore, it was underpowered, and the parts-bin yielded cheap and bland materials in the interior, as it did in the T-bird's sister, the Lincoln LS. What was wrong was that the trunk was far too long, and tapered toward the back. This is not a look that has been successful on the whole. If there's a slight taper at the rear into a curve, perhaps with a lip, people tend to take a taper, but the T-bird just tapered straight off, and had no strong definition. In fact, it actually could be thought to be driving backward if you looked at it from the side (and perhaps from a distance so the grille, headlights and windshield didn't tip you off).
As I walked the floors at the car show that year, speaking my mind on the T-bird to those with me, no one listened. They all said I didn't understand the design, and the car would be sold out until they retired it. Well, for the first few months, sales were quite strong. Once the few people who actually liked the car enough to drop forty large on it got their car, sales plummeted. I mean really plummeted. Ford added more power to try to save the car, and that helped a bit, but it never really sold well. The result, the T-bird has been marked for non-renewal...at least no time soon. See, people, listen to me...I know what I'm saying!
Actually, a sign of the impending failure could be seen when Chip Foose was hired by Ford to do a one-off T-bird customization for the SEMA show that year. He had 2 basic comments that made the job hard in his eyes. The first was that the car was underpowered...grossly underpowered. Actually, that was his second concern. His first was the weak design of the body. Chip worked a lot of magic on the car. He thickened the rear end to deal with the tapering and how that really ruined the overall look, then chopped the windshield so it looked tougher, he added a beefier engine scoop and made the front facia more substantial (and modern) with a new front spoiler and grille, and added real rims. The result was a far improved look. I bet Bill Ford was a little let down that he didn't release that T-bird back in '01.
You could argue that the current T-bird failed because it was underpowered. I'd disagree with you, and have two key arguments to back myself up here. First, the PT Cruiser, Mini Cooper (not the S) and VW New Beetle are as retro, if not more retro than the T-bird, and are even more anemic. The PT was in such hot demand for the first year and a half, you could barely find one to test drive. Sales remained strong, though they did wane a bit, until the PT Turbo came out. The same goes for the New Beetle. Remember the gouging dealers were doing, with people paying up to $5k over sticker to get one? The Mini Cooper has sold tremendously well even in the non-S version with its wimpy engine. The second point that proves it's not the engine is that the T-bird got a shot of extra power for 2004, and that hasn't helped its fortunes. The design and execution are just poor. And, considering that the actual car looks almost identical to the show car, the execution can't really be blamed here. That leaves us with a finger pointed at J. No, not that finger, but a finger nonetheless.
The Failure, Part II
So, rather than learn from one's mistakes, Mr. Mays decided to try again. I commend his persistence, but, man, stop using the same cues that caused your last attempt to fail! Enter the Ford Forty Nine concept. While better than the T-bird, it still doesn't look impressive enough to me, and, worst of all, it's just another old car with slightly slicker, more streamlined sheet metal. Worst of all, it doesn't even look like the nicer Fords of the past. It looks like some strange cross-bread of a car from the 50s (headlights) and 70s (general body shape), and I'm not so sure it works. And if you don't see retro in the exterior (which you must see), then you'll surely see it in the interior. Just look at the seats. Those are straight out of the 50s and 60s. And, ergonomically and safety-wise, that's not a good thing.
See, this is all well and good for concept cars. It's ok to show some design creativity. The problem is, what of this design are you going to use in the new Ford design language? Hopefully, none. So, what are you doing here? Showing us that you still don't understand what everyone except you likes? See, I remember the press taking quite well to the Forty Nine as they did with the T-bird and the Pontiac Aztek. Thing is, when the Aztek and T-bird came out, they sang a different song. I can already see history repeating itself with the Forty Nine. Thankfully, Ford has not announced production plans, and I believe we're now in the clear since this was a 2002 concept car.
The $500,000 Pyramid
Thankfully, the Forty Nine has nothing to do with future Ford products. Instead, we look at the 500 for Ford's direction. You'll notice the new grille that's showing up in the new Focus (and on the European Mondeo that came out in 2002). You'll also see some Taurus-like cues here and there, which makes sense since this car basically replaces the Taurus, though is a bit larger and adds AWD as an option. The other car you may see in this design is the Audi A6. Yes, I said Audi. The Ford 500 is, to me, a different interpretation of the current A6 than Audi made when designing the next A6. And, I have to say, while I'm not a huge fan of every aspect of the new A6, Audi did a significantly better job than Ford. This to me, sounds like Ford needed a solid design language for their front and rear ends, and the overall shape of their cars. Instead, Mr. Mays has spent his time designing old cars over again, so Ford had to basically copy a successful design and add lights that are completely out of place on the body.
The 500 is an important car for Ford. It is the first of a slew of new Fords that we can expect. The new Freestar (Windstar replacement) was really the first of these models that all have names starting with an F, and it used the same lights as the 500, but I'm speaking about truly new cars. The Freestar is really just an updated Windstar, and, judging by both sales results and magazine reviews, it's not a good enough update. The 500 will spawn a Mercury clone (Montego, which, I think, is far uglier than the 500 due to its stubby front end, yet sports a nicer rear facia), and will also give rise to a cross-over (the Freestyle) that uses the same platform, AWD running gear, and basic structure. So, that the design of the 500 is an ape of the A6, and not a good one at that is very disturbing. When we consider that the head of Ford design was busy with his personal penchant for retro, we find this even more troubling as J's attention was not where it should have been.
The Final Review
So, can this retro thing survive at all, or should Ford just give up since they can't seem to get it right? Well, that's not totally true. If we look at Lincoln, we see 2 concepts that introduced a new front end (the Aviator cross-over concept and the Mazda 6-based Zephyr concept), and it works on both cars beautifully. It's also quite retro. The key is all things in moderation and in proportion. The T-bird and the Forty Nine are overdone retro-mobiles that end up appealing to no one. Their proportions do not appeal to today's car-buying public, and that's what Ford needs to do to sell cars. And, based on the past couple of years of losses, they need to sell cars pretty badly, and not because of huge incentives but because of quality product you can get a fair price for. J, if you're reading, pay more attention to the bread and butter, and less to the pet projects.