The Simple Life at Ford
Two cars that are supposed to save Detroit.
Gearbox is way behind! A lot of cars have gone by since the last installment way back ... actually let's not look up that date. Gearbox is about the future, not the past! And there are future vehicles to cover--especially the ones unveiled at the big Detroit auto show, which I didn't attend, and the distinctly lesser Greater L.A. Auto Show, which I did.
Luckily for second-fiddle Angelenos, the two most important American cars unveiled in Detroit were also displayed in Los Angeles. These are the Chrysler 300 and the Ford 500--also known as the Car That's Supposed To Save Chrysler and the Car That's Supposed To Save Ford. Based entirely on the show-floor looks of these first production models, you may want to short DaimlerChrysler.
I still have high hopes for the 300, because it's a powerful new rear-wheel drive car built with Mercedes parts. Maybe it will be great on the road. But, despite an attractively evil basic shape, it looks cheesy just standing there. Chrysler's exterior detail designers seem to specialize in two things: 1) Shiny silver bits that look like plastic fake chrome even if they are real chrome, and 2) taking attractive, classy shapes and cheapening them by adding unnecessary black plastic space fillers, cost-cutting trim bits and the like. The crack Chrysler cheesening team did this to the should-have-been-beautiful Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler 300M. They did it to the Pacifica wagon, and now they've done it to the 300. The 300's gaudy taillights, in particular, are embarrassingly Pachinko-tacky.
Remember, they want $25,000-$35,000 for this car! For the hundred dollars, if that, they save by using cheap black plastic to fill a left-over triangle behind the rear side window, they cut about $10,000 off the visual value of their product. You'd think the Germans from Daimler-Benz would recognize this problem--but Mercedes may be moving in the direction of cheap glitz itself. (Take a look at the four pseudo-elegant stripes on the taillights of the current S-Class. Did they hire a product planner from Bed Bath & Beyond?) I couldn't get inside the 300--it was on a turntable guarded by a spokesbabe--but the interior looked nice enough. And even the Pacifica is expensive-feeling inside. Those designers should get to keep their jobs.
The Ford, in contrast, is a bit characterless, but classy. The roof is a beautiful, smooth Audi-like arc (not an accident, since Ford's celebrity designer J Mays used to work for Audi). The rest of the 500 might as well be one of those brandless Anycars used in insurance ads. Like many Mays-supervised designs (the Ford T-Bird, for one) the 500 is so simple and pure that it threatens to look flat and lifeless, with the side effect that what you see most vividly aren't the shapes but the seams between the shapes, or the trim bits that disturb the shapes. One false detail and these Mays designs are dead--in the T-Bird's case the killer is a junky plastic rear license-plate surround.
Mays' VW New Beetle, in contrast, has no false details and works. But I've noticed--ever since they cleaned up the fender trim on the early '90s Honda Civic and wound up ruining the design--that most of the world's prettiest autos aren't totally stripped down into elemental geometric forms. They have little vestigial creases here and there that help, not because they provide ornament or "branding" but because they convey a message: "Hey, this is a car, not a RISD project. We're not trying so damn hard to make it look clean. We have other priorities."
At least the 500's proportions are graceful and compact--it's a very well-tailored geometric Anycar. And if your car is going to be overdesigned, I suppose it's better Basic than Bangled (that is, better stripped down than festooned with self-conscious affectations). Plus the materials look solid. The 500's worst feature--the blocky front end--seems designed to echo the design of Ford's huge-selling pickup truck. They can always change it later. Meanwhile, even though this is a cheaper product than the 300--starting at $23,000--the interior actually looks more expensive. (An exception: The Ford's rear seat cushion is obviously too short, a trick designers use to give the illusion of legroom.) The 500 they showed is all-wheel drive, not front-drive--though it remains to be seen if enough power is sent to the rear to achieve the sought-after semi-orgasmic lock-in effect. In fact, it remains to be seen if it will be a decent car at all. The unlamented 1970s-era Ford Fairmont was simple and classy-looking too, remember, and Ford has had some quality problems recently (notably on the otherwise-excellent Focus).
Ford's new Cobra, shown at Detroit, has the worst case of Mays Disease yet: It's been reduced to two or three basic geometric shapes, but why? It looks like an angry sewer pipe! Why does the belt-line have to be completely straight? Why can't it rise gently toward the front wheels the way the old Cobra did (the way an actual cobra does!)? Mays doesn't seem to be into voluptuousness, or any kind of biomorphism--and the Cobra has to be the least-sexy 600-hp two-seat roadster ever built. It's desk work. Ford shareholders should demand less Apollo, more Dionysus.
P.P.S.: I was going to include, as a precursor of the Mays school, the Adler motor car designed before WWII by Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. It's certainly Apollonian, and maybe it looked stripped-down, flat, and lifeless at the time. To modern eyes, however, it doesn't. ... The only Web page I've found with good photos of Gropius' car also features a wacky Prius-like econocar by Le Corbusier. It's much more charming than Le Corbusier's buildings. ... They could have passed off the Corbusier design as a new concept at last year's Tokyo show--and maybe they did!
Photographs of: Honda Element from American Honda Motor Co.; Chrysler's 300c concept car © 2003 DaimlerChrysler; 2003 Pontiac Aztek © 2003 General Motor. All rights reserved.