Designing Minds - Part 2
By Bill Moore
The Ford Reflex concept car is not your average family car. It's a far cry from a Focus, but in the eyes of Ford’s head of Strategic Design, Freeman Thomas and his chief designer, David Woodhouse, that's the point.
The car's two-plus seating -- meaning there's a rear seat that will fit two young kids or one adult -- is designed to meet the needs of a young family who aren't ready to give up the fun and appeal of a sports car for something more functional -- and frumpy -- but have a coupe of kids to bundle about.
At a time when it's often hard to tell one car brand from another and where the only thing really new at car shows are retro designs, both Thomas and Woodhouse told EV World that they think the design of the Reflex is "fresh and new". [See also Part 1 of our interview, as well as the interview with Michael Tamor.]
"It's not tipping its hat to anything in the past," Woodhouse said. "It's really a fresh take and a fresh look."
For Freeman Thomas, who helped redesign the venerable VW "Beetle" and designed the Audi TT, the Reflex is "pure emotion".
"It's this balance of pure emotion and responsibility in a name; and all of it is looking forward and not backward."
Thomas is especially taken by the original design elements found in the fenders, as well as how light plays off the "highlights" on the car.
"It's this balance of something inside of you, your heart and your emotions sort of thumping away, saying ‘God, I just love this car' from the pure emotional aspect of it. But then you start to dig into the car... a really good design has many layers and the more you cut through those layers, the more that this car, the Reflex, becomes smarter, more intelligent... it's... guilt-free performance."
Well, not entirely. The car still burns diesel fuel, but it does so in a more responsible and efficient manner -- or at least, it would, if it actually had an engine and were built. Like most concept show cars, the Reflex wasn't actually fitted with a turbo-diesel, hybrid-electric drive system, but it was engineered to accept such a power-plant if it or a derivative actually were put into production.
For now, it's just a styling exercise to help Ford better visualize its own future, one where smaller, more efficient vehicles that could command a higher price because of their appeal, are likely to become increasingly in demand. It is a tip of the hat to a world where energy will be at a premium, where small and nimble replaces big and brawny.
Thomas noted that at 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, competing carmakers debuted retro-style, gas-guzzling "muscle cars" that he considers "not very responsible." For him, the Reflex shows that, as designers, "we really are responsible and we love doing these kinds of ideas and we want to move forward and we want to look into the crystal ball of the future."
Woodhouse interjected that while both he and Thomas love classic cars, they are both, at heart, "modernists."
"We want to see things move on," he said.
By bringing the Reflex into existence, Thomas explained, the concepts its embodies are now part of Ford.
So what separates bold, innovative design from the vulgar?
Thomas responded, "there is a certain harmony of great design. [It] is timeless. It doesn't matter if it's a timeless piece of furniture, a timeless example of architecture, a beautiful person, fashion..."
"There have been designs for the sake of shock," he continued, "just for the sake of conversation, just for the sake of debate. There are major manufacturers that are adopting this kind of philosophy, but personally, I think this degrades their brand, instead of moving it to the next level."
For Thomas, it is an honor to design for Ford, because it is such an iconic American brand and piece of its history "like Thomas Edison, like the Wright Brothers."
"It is part of the cloth of America."
In contrast, "some brands out there are made up," he stated. "They're marketed, there's no substance behind them that is philosophical."
"Iconic design is more than skin deep," added David Woodhouse. "It's not just style; it's substance with style."
It's obvious that both men thoroughly enjoy what they do. Thomas told me that he'd be willing to do this job regardless of what Ford paid him -- though I am sure he's well compensated since Ford had to hire him away from DaimlerChrysler.
"It's a passion. Nothing goes out the door of my studio that doesn't have the sense of rightness, the sense of philosophy... in a sense a foundation to it. It's like a great school. You go to a Harvard or a Princeton or you go to... Oxford. You know, their role is not just to spit people out into the world. It's to create a foundation, a philosophy so they can go on into the world with soul. Design is like this, because our responsibility [is] in every product we design."
Thomas commented that Ford's senior management, including Bill Ford, Jr and Mark Fields are very much a "part of the conversation" in terms of their being onboard this program of design innovation.
"We have a new innovation process... I get all the top leaders in-house here in Irvine four times a year in these major, major meetings where they green light my programs, and those programs are earmarked for being included in what we call the Cycle Plan. This is unprecedented now, where advanced design and concept are so linked with the absolute future."
Pressed to wrap up the interview because they had another conference call to take, I asked them what forces did they see driving design in the future. As might be expected, they agreed that it would be a combination of several factors including concerns for the environment, energy prices and advances in technology like hybrid drive and solar panels.
"It's coming up with fresh, absolutely drop-dead gorgeous styling that makes you desire and want the vehicle. It's technology that is efficient and useable and meets what customers' demands are [for] power and performance and efficiency and low fuel consumption... And it's environment, saying that we're responsible... It's choosing the right thing for the future."