By Bill Moore
Have you ever wondered about what inspires a particular car design?
In the case of the cool, new turbo diesel-electric hybrid concept car from Ford Motor Company, would you believe music? Yep, and computers and images of urban living, all melded into the automotive equivalent of a music video, which chief designer David Woodhouse used to sell senior executives in Dearborn on a bold new design that would become the Reflex.
EV World had the opportunity to talk with Ford's head of strategic design, Freeman Thomas and his chief designer, David Woodhouse about the thought processes and design efforts that go into taking a concept from the mind of the designer to the show floor at the Cobo Center in Detroit in less than a year. Since Ford's Chairman, Bill Ford, Jr. has directed that henceforth, the company's designs will be bolder and more innovative, we wanted to learn how Thomas and his team planned to execute that assignment.
After all, what separates a Mustang from an Edsel when it comes to successful design styling? The first is hugely successful and nearly iconic, while the latter is remembered only as an embarrassing joke.
The first thing you need to know about Freeman Thomas is that he helped design both VW's New Beetle and the Audi A8 before going to work for Ford Motor Company in Irvine, both highly successful car designs. This tells you that Ford is not only serious about its styling, but has hired the talent necessary to make it happen.
The next thing you should understand is that car designers, like any profession, have their own language, starting with an alphabet of basic car types: A, B,C and D. The Reflex was a "B" segment design, meaning the car's length is around 4 meters or 156 inches (13 feet). The whole A through D segment classification comes out of European design. Thomas explained that in Europe the 5-Series BMW and E-Class Mercedes are considered D segment vehicles that "come alive" at 5 meters (195 inches). C-segments would be cars like the European Ford Focus and VW Golf. B-segments would be the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo.
David Woodhouse, who lead the Reflex design effort, explained that concept for the car came from what his designers envisioned where the needs and desires of a "young, urban family". He said that "connectivity" as expressed in the design and use of modern computer devices was a strong central theme in the entire Reflex exercise including its exterior and interior, as well as the use of solar panel in the roof.
He emphasized that there is nothing "old" in this car, especially in the materials used in the interior. There is no leather or traditional carpeting.
"Every material is new, it's cutting-edge. It‘s what you‘d expect from modern product design and interiors… very contemporary."
"This car combines the two most important aspects of digital and analog design", Thomas interjected. "It's that balance."
For car designers like Thomas and Woodhouse, styling a car is much like creating a sculpture or any piece of art work. A good design elicits emotion and for them -- and according to Thomas -- others who have seen the car in person, the Reflex does just that.
"It's this mix with future technology, the turbo diesel hybrid-electric with solar that sort of says, not only can you have this incredible vision of the future but it's this efficiency." The blending of emotionally appealing design with environmentally-responsible engine technology is intended to satisfy both the conscience and eye.
The process of designing the Reflex began on Tyler Blake's computer, Woodhouse explained. Whereas most designs often start as pencil and paper sketches, this project evolved entirely on computer.
While defined as a B segment vehicle, the Reflex doesn't stick to the classic European definition: it is wider, approaching that of a C segment model. Thomas explained that this is because American roads, garages and parking spaces are wider than European ones and that gave the designers a chance to experiment with widening the box while keeping its length with the B segment definition.
According to Thomas it's the added width that gives the passenger a sense that they're riding in a larger automobile. If there is a hint of family resemblance between the Reflex and the Mustang, it is intentional. The Mustang's larger, long hood, relatively short cabin and short truck deck are take-offs on the classic motorcar design that emphasizes engine power and performance. The Reflex echoes that configuration.
Freeman Thomas told me that he and David Woodhouse are both "car guys" who "wrench" on their own cars. They know the mechanical components that make up a car from its gearbox to its cooling module. They and their fellow designers use that knowledge to incorporate the very latest in Ford components -- available on the company's engineering computer network -- into both concept and pre-production designs.
The actual construction of a concept car like the Reflex is done by a trusted contractor, with whom the project lead design engineer works very closely.
"We not only give the builder, the actual model to work off of -- a physical model -- but we give them very precise digital data… We've engineered and designed the vehicle in-house for every minute detail: seat frames, everything."
Woodhouse added, "As you can imagine that kind of work is very detailed because it has every working part, every material… so there is a lot in getting those together".
END PART ONE. PART TWO TO FOLLOW NEXT WEEK
This is only a brief synopsis of the 20-minute long conversation with Freeman Thomas and David Woodhouse. We encourage you to listen to our dialogue using the MP3 Player below the photograph in the right-hand column. You may also download it to your computer hard drive for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. A copy of this program also will be available on Apple's iTunes pod cast service.