Judging by the 2001 Detroit auto show, it seems clear that the retro movement that inspired the Volkswagen New Beetle, BMW Mini and Chrysler PT Cruiser is not a fad.
Once again, the most eye-catching vehicles at the show were generational throwbacks: the Ford Thunderbird convertible, Ford Forty-Nine, Volkswagen Microbus and Buick Bengal.
To be sure, retro is a one-size-fits-all category that does not do full justice to the inventiveness of the vehicles. While the VW Microbus' exterior reminds one of the original, its interior features a futuristic instrument panel plus an innovative flat panel display for passengers.
Likewise, the Forty-Nine's instrument pod, cantilevered seats and interior aluminum trim looks like a 1950s-era vision of the future. Which suggests that the Forty-Nine might be better described as retro-futuro ... but never mind that.
During the show, we chatted with J Mays, 46 - Ford's top designer and retro enthusiast - about the theory of retro design. It should come as no surprise that he liked Volkswagen's Microbus. It also became evident that Mays seeks inspiration from some unlikely sources. Here are edited exceprts:
Let's start with the Forty-Nine. What is the philosophy of retro design?
We don't get phone calls from customers who say they crave futuristic cars. That's not at the top of any customer's list. What is on the customer's mind is, `What is meaningful to me? What are the things that I aspire to own? What do I want to cherish, to keep? What do I want as a little piece of me?' That's not any different from somebody wanting a watch that has an analog movement, rather than digital.
I call these vehicles living legends. They are a wonderful part of our culture. If we can reinterpret that and give it back to the customer, that's a bigger innovation than some crazy advanced design that means nothing to anybody.
Are there any possibilities in Europe for retro designs?
I don't know. Do you have any ideas? Perhaps the Cortina and Capri - the Cortina because of its rally heritage. I'm not looking to rush off and do something. But I think the brand can handle four or five of these, maybe. We've got three now.
Retro cars can give your brand a halo effect. In Europe, you could use a little excitement.
Well, I agree with you. By the end of the year, you are going to see a rejuvenated Ford brand in Europe. You are going to see three contemporary autos on the market, once we eventually get the Fiesta out. I feel pretty confident we are heading down a successful path.
Will Ford of Europe's new multipurpose vehicle, based on the next-generation Focus, be a new edge design?
It will be some version of that. It will not be retro like the PT Cruiser.
You've got Briton Gerry McGovern leading an international team to develop designs for Lincoln, a brand that is supposed to be uniquely American. How is he going to achieve that?
Gerry's boss is an American. Without a doubt, when you see the first design concepts coming out of his studio, you will see that it is an American vehicle.
But there is talk about developing a smaller Lincoln that you could sell overseas?
Oh, yeah. I'm not suggesting that Lincolns should be lead sleds, or that they should be oversized. But the design should be instantly recognizable as a Lincoln. I am very sure that we have found a design that we can proliferate through the other Lincoln nameplates. You will see that this year.
At the New York auto show? In Chicago?
We're talking about Chicago or New York. In one of those shows, it will turn up.
What role will your new London design studio play? London is a hot town for design. Are you using it to bring in ideas from other fields?
London is one of the hottest design areas. It's a think tank for our European brands. Part of that is for the Premier Auto Group, obviously. One is more mainstream, for the Blue Oval. It's a think tank for our designers to think differently about the customer.
Who will run it?
I haven't announced that yet. I'll announce it in the next eight weeks. It's not a facility for making clay models. It will help us learn how to connect with the customer in a very different way.
You hired a couple of designers from Nike, the sneaker manufacturer. What will they contribute to Ford design?
They will give us a different point of view. We are an extremely insular industry. We end up talking to ourselves all the time. The more we can get input from people that experienced different types of customers, the better off we'll be when we actually sit down to design something.
You can't get much more fashion conscious than the clothing industry. Is that what you were looking for?
In the case of those two designers, yes. I've got a team of people working on youth-oriented vehicles and only youth-oriented vehicles. That requires a very different mind-set than any of the things I was talking about for Ford. However, it's not crazy or wacky.
You might think that what youth wants would be really crazy. But it's not always so. Sometimes they want something extremely conservative, and they want high quality every time. I've got people looking at that.
Is that one of the benefits of exhibiting vehicles at the SEMA show? (SEMA is the annual automotive aftermarket products convention in Las Vegas.) Do you want to see what appeals to that crowd?
SEMA is a little different. It appeals to the hot rod auto enthusiast, rather than to youth. I don't think youth are as auto-oriented as we were, as kids. There are too many other things to attract their attention. A couple of years ago, Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple Computer) said the personal computer is the hot rod of the 1990s. I think he's right. If you ask kids what they can't live without, they don't say they can't live without their car. They can't live without their computer. It's mind-boggling to me, but I fully understand it.
We are seeing crossover vehicles in the United States and in Europe. Do you expect those design trends to intersect at some point?
Something will rub off from there. The cross-fertilization of ideas is bound to rub off. Some of that is really good, and some of that just makes the water really murky. Some people say everything has to be a cross-trainer of some sort. I don't really follow that thought. Everything doesn't have to be a big, flexible, multi-tasking car. You need the right horse for the right course.
Last fall, you went to Milan to see a furniture exhibition that featured Las Vegas styles. According to AutoWeek magazine, you joked that the furniture there was 'craptastic.' Can you actually get any design ideas from such an event?
We were having fun. I don't take myself so seriously that we can't have fun in a place like that. I don't feel like I know as much as I'd like about design. There's a lot in design going on out there that 95 percent of this industry never sees. If we can learn from that and incorporate some of it back into autos, then everyone benefits.
You've said that it's easier for a furniture designer to make a statement. Is it because a furniture designer can make fewer compromises than an auto designer?
Yes, and a piece of furniture comes to market quickly. The trends you see on a concept car here today might take another three years to get to market.
You went to Milan with one of your designers, Mark Dusen.
Yes. He did the 021C (a concept car that debuted at the 1999 Tokyo auto show).
Dusan is an Australian, right? He was not originally an automotive designer, was he?
He was and is a product designer and an environmental designer. His big claim to fame was furniture and restaurant interiors. He also designed this watch. (Mays gestures to his wristwatch.)
He was another designer that you brought in from outside the industry.
Are you finished hiring designers? Do you finally have your team together?
No. This is a very evolutionary process. I'll still be hiring people in five years. You're always thinking, 'Ooh, I'd like to do something with them.' We are a lot better than we were three years ago - a lot better. But we aren't there yet. We are growing by leaps and bounds. Before I got here, Ford designers did the Forty-Nine and the Thunderbird. So I have good feelings about the personnel we have.
But you lost about 15 designers last year. Is there tension inside Ford's design studios?
Six designers went to dot-com companies, which is disappointing, but that's OK. One or two went to General Motors, and a couple went to work for their parents. It wasn't any blip on my radar screen that was upsetting me. Somebody wrote an article about it, but what they didn't write was that I hired Gerry McGovern and 45 new guys for Lincoln. These are new people who weren't in the company.
Is there a bidding war going on for designers?
I hope so.
Seriously. Is the price for a new auto designer going up?
If you look at what's going on in the industry with quality and durability, everybody's got the same road map. When all of those things become equal, what's going to be the differentiator?
Seventy percent of consumers make purchase decisions based on the way something looks.
What can a newly hired designer expect to make in the auto industry?
It's a range. It starts at around $40,000 to $45,000. Something like that. It's much better than a few years ago. I won't say what the upper end of the pay scale is.
I heard it was $100,000.
They would have to be pretty hot to earn that much. I haven't offered anybody that kind of money.
E-mail Editor David Sedgwick at [email protected]