Ford is stepping forward into the past. The automaker’s highly acclaimed new Thunderbird roadster will set the stage for a whole series of Ford vehicles which will take their cues from some of the most significant products the company has built over the course of its nearly 100-year history.
“We have a strategy around what we call ‘living legends,’” says the carmaker’s design director, J Mays. This strategy will fall in place, he told TheCarConnection.com “over the next five years.”
Mays has personally found great success in mining the past for great design themes. Before joining Ford, he penned one of the most successful retro products of all times, Volkswagen’s New Beetle. He also played an influential role in the development of the Audi TT, another “heritage” design.
The Thunderbird project actually began before Mays took the design job at Ford, but he has been the project’s champion ever since. During an appearance in Pebble Beach on Friday, Mays showed off a slightly revised version of the hip new two-seater.
The differences from the current production version were subtle but nonetheless distinctive. The most notable move: the T-bird’s hefty grille was recessed about an inch and given a chrome surround. The show car version is an inch lower than the production car, and features bolder wheels, larger chevrons and a Sienna Saddle leather interior borrowed from the Ford 49 concept car.
Look for at least some of these features—particularly the revised grille—to show up on the production Thunderbird over the next several years, Mays hinted. In addition, Ford intends to create other T-bird variants, including a supercharged model. They’ll show up in show car form first, but Ford is clearly looking for ways to tweak the production car to keep it fresh and in demand.
During the media briefing, a number of classic Ford vehicles were rolled onto the green at Pebble Beach. They’ll serve as a strong influence for future products, the company’s design chief emphasized.
“There’s room in our 40-plus car line-up to have cars that are retrospective,” Mays explained. The goal, he added, is not to simply re-do your past products, but to “look back and recreate in a modern idiom.” You do that by “simplifying past designs, and minimizing the number of lines, which modernizes it.”
The 49, which made its debut at the Detroit auto show last January, is an indication of what Mays has in mind. It actually pulled together a variety of different design elements from some of the most popular Ford products of the late 1940s and 1950s.
Meanwhile, Ford’s upscale domestic brand, Lincoln, is developing a similar strategy. In its campaign to create a new definition of “American luxury,” it is taking a look back to products such as the legendary Continental Mark II.
The strategy has polarized the automotive community. Some observers disdain the retro movement and indeed, Mays himself tends to speak of “heritage,” rather than “retro” design. But proponents note that some of the world’s most successful brands, including Mercedes-Benz and BMW, have carefully maintained core styling cues. So a common visual theme can be found linking such products as the early ‘70s BMW, with the redesigned 7-Series 2002, due to debut this coming fall.