Wednesday 13 December 2017

Many shapes of cars to come but this is by no means the last-chance for the family saloon

Eddie Cunningham talks to one of the world's most respected car designers.

The legendary Mustang
The legendary Mustang
Ford Mondeo

Martin Smith sits in the middle of the mayhem, a small haven of calm. Thousands mill around looking at cars he has played a pivotal role in shaping.

Like the look of your new Ford Focus, B-Max, C-Max, Fiesta? He's the man who moulded them. He's the man responsible for that kinetic look that has identified Ford cars for a decade or so now.

Like the look of the new Mustang, Edge or Ecosport? He and his team were involved there too. His design fingerprint is on them all.

"Ah, the Irish Independent," he smiles extending a gracious hand of welcome. He knows my paper. Now there's a man with real taste. "Oh yes, I know the name."

Words come easily to him. He speaks of the challenges associated with designing global cars, with making sure diffuse tastes are accommodated within concepts that can be adapted locally without losing 'the look'.

"I might be absolutely confident that we have the design right only for marketing to say it is not what the market wants. It is a very laborious process to get these vehicles through all the stages of design and approval."

He sweeps his hand, almost regally, to encompass the array of cars on stands behind us.

But isn't design all inspirational? Isn't there a moment when he looks at, or 'sees' a shape and says 'eureka'.

Nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

It is all about the science of researching what people want and giving it to them. Get it wrong and they go elsewhere. Or, every bit as bad, they don't come to you in the first place.

It is relentless.

"It is all about research. We find people and ask them what they want. It is up to us to give them what they want.

"When you know who you want to sell to you get the input to understand what it would take to get them to buy a Ford."

That's how they decided to produce upmarket Vignale versions -- already in the new Mondeo (not here til late next year). "People were asking for more spec, more luxury, so we gave them the Vignale."

Just in the background, among its more illustrious stablemates, is the new 5dr Ka concept, a car now aimed at young families who need an affordable motor. There are huge markets waiting in the emerging countries. This is a shift from the cute 3dr runaround we know so well.

"Even the affordable Ka has to look good. We don't have a sub-brand such as Dacia or Nissan so we have to have the breadth of models to meet these demands."

People said they wanted a more affordable, roomier small car.

With that research as a major focus, Martin and his team go away and design what they reckon to be the car for that customer. Then they show it to them. "If you 'win the research' you have a huge advantage straightaway over the other brands." By that he means you thoroughly research your market and give it what it is looking for.

"It is all about the customer. I believe great design will sell all around the world."

The Mustang is a US icon. We know that. But for it to sell in Europe account had to be taken of different tastes. So members of Martin's design team were involved in the day-to-day evolution. Bill Ford -- yes the boss man of the blue oval globally -- told me subsequently he felt some of the initial concepts were too 'retro'.

Once a month Martin and other senior people assessed the design progress. The large Edge SUV is another example of a vehicle being designed to take account of European tastes.

Hard to believe when you see these cars in the flesh that they -- the Mondeo Edge, S-Max concept etc -- all share the same platform.

Over the past few years there has been a headlong rush to crossovers. Ford's lineup bears testimony to that.

So does it all spell the end of the saloon?

He has to go now. People from all over the world want to talk to this man who is way over his time limit talking to the Irish Independent.

I gently restrain him. He knows what I'm asking is important.

"Is it the end of the saloon?"

"No, not at all. Despite the popularity of SUVs there are lots of people who want a 'proper saloon car'. Look at all the people who are attracted to the styling of the Focus."

He should know.

His team has done the research. They have to know these things.

There is as much comfort in knowing that as there is in realising we've only just begun to see the shapes they can conjure to meet our ever-increasing demands for smarter looking cars.

THE MAN WITH DESIGNS ON YOUR CAR

Martin is Executive Design Director, Ford of Europe and is responsible for design in Ford Asia Pacific and Africa.

He previously worked for General Motors Europe, and as Vehicle Line Design Director for Adam Opel AG where he was responsible for compact cars.

From 1977-1997, he held various posts in Audi and in 1991 became Audi's chief designer for interiors.

He began his career as designer for Porsche in 1973.

He was born in Sheffield in 1949.

Irish Independent

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