Industrial Design Archaeology: New Edge to Kinetic Design

After “New Edge” came what exactly? And when? And why

2007 Ford Mondeo. Image:

For some considerable time I have been wondering about the legacy of Ford Europe’s design director, Chris Bird. What did he achieve and where is he now? First a short review of the received wisdom. Prior to taking up his position at Ford in 1999, Bird was at Audi (where he did the first A8) then renowned for its ice-cool design approach.

At the same time, Ford was enjoying considerable critical and commercial success with the design and engineering of its New Edge cars, the Focus and Ka*. The simple story is that Ford wanted to challenge VW’s supremacy in the seriousness of its design, to signal through severely rational forms its commitment to quality. In stepped Chris Bird from Volkswagen Audi Group to provide the design lead and before you know it, Ford had changed direction from rather shocking but much appreciated products such as the Focus and Ka to the sobriety of the Mk 2 Mondeo (often likened to a Passat at its launch) and the deadly professional severity of the Focus Mk 2 (phase 1).

The story also goes on that Ford were unhappy with the results of the Bird era (with its un-named design style) and hired Bird’s erstwhile colleague at Audi, Martin Smith, to rev things up another gear with the vaunted Kinetic Design which is, at present, best expressed in the Mondeo Mk 3, Focus Mk 3 and Ford Kuga. From this narrative we see Chris Bird’s vehicles quickly superseded and Martin Smith claiming the title as the driving force behind Ford of Europe’s current look, helped by former Opel designer, Stefan Lamm.

2003 Chris Bird with CMax
Chris Bird with the C-Max

However, this simple story of Kinetic Design superseding a short-lived phase that followed New Edge is not quite the whole truth. If we take a close look at the timeline shown in the diagram below, and we bear in mind that a car’s design is usually at least 24 months ahead of launch (often longer) we see that quite a lot of Chris Bird’s legacy is actually still in production and that Martin Smith is not so much the author of Ford’s current range but the author of some hasty facelifts, the Fiesta and Kuga but mostly the buzz-phrase Kinetic Design that is attached to the Galaxy, S-Max and Mondeo which are still very much in production and very much Chris Bird cars.

2003 Ford C-Max
2003 Ford C-Max

The timeline shows that the Bird era was still underway when the Mondeo Mk 3, Galaxy Mk 2 and S-Max were signed off. Martin Smith’s appointment was announced in February of 2004 and he took up his position in August 2004, more or less as these cars were probably being fine-tuned for production and beyond altering. Smith’s achievement was to find a phrase for the forms Bird and his colleagues had developed.

Ford design history

This was in reaction to the criticism from some quarters that the Fiesta, C-Max and Focus were a bit too cold and severe. This blurring is also to some extent similar to way the previous Mondeo was itself designed so as to echo the reserved character of VW’s 1995 Passat (B5); the 2000 Mondeo was signed off under Claude Lobo but launched under Chris Bird; when he arrived Ford had already decided to move away from the controversial novelty of New Edge. It seems many design directors must spend a lot of their tenure selling the work of the last guy.

2002 Ford Fiesta
2002 Ford Fiesta, first of Chris Bird’s vehicles

From this viewpoint we see two things. One is that for some six to eight years after Martin Smith became the chief spokesman for Ford’s European operation, he was attaching the Kinetic Design tag to cars not designed with that concept directly in mind. And second is that what we think of as the short reign of Chris Bird (the Focus Mk2, Fusion, Fiesta and C-Max) has extended from 2002 with the launch of the Fiesta Mk 5 all the way to the present day: the Mondeo Mk3, Galaxy and S-Max are substantially his cars.

2003 Ford Visos
2003 Ford Visos: nobody really liked it

So what, may we wonder, was Chris Bird’s crime? I suspect that it was not what Bird did but what he was thought to be planning that might have led Ford’s HR people to parachute Martin Smith in to take over. What had Bird in mind that led to this change in leadership? The Visos concept car. This was presented at Geneva in 2003 as a modern-day Capri. It was explained in the press that this was the future of Ford’s design direction: a very paired-down and austerely surfaced car with what amounted to a grille that was either classically simple or a default-letter box slot.

Simply put, the Visos had very little by way of any real or novel identifiable character. There was, at least in the photos, nothing there to build on. Around about the same time the C-Max was launched; it was a rather spare design which seems to have been the jumping-off point for the Visos. So there was rather too much in the Visos that was familiar as most of it drew on the themes of the C-Max.

Perhaps Ford felt that this was not the way to go and called in Martin Smith who was attempting to revitalise Opel’s styling so as to chart a more distinctive path (oddly none of Smith’s Opels are all that exciting, just very competent). To challenge this analysis is the timeline again: the next car designed after the Visos debacle was the Mondeo Mk3 with its lively sculpting, assertive stance, and pronounced wheel arches: an extrovert autobahn destroyer as outgoing as the C-Max and Visos were withdrawn and aloof.

We will probably never know the real truth since such matters are cloaked in confidentiality agreements, internal politics and intrigue. All we have are the timelines and some assumptions about industry lead-times and sign-offs. As it stands, it seems Martin Smith has been the front-man for work substantially directed by his former boss. And as of 2012, Chris Bird is “design director, Ford of Europe, with responsibility for colour, material and vehicle personalisation”.

2004 Ford Focus blue

What is perplexing about this history is that the kernel of the cars that were intended to challenge VW’s design seriousness, the 2003 C-Max and 2004 Focus, are in many ways far more diligently, carefully and pain-stakingly refined in their execution than the VW products they aspired to trump.

In particular it has been my feeling that the 2004 Focus is in fact so austere in its forms as to make the corresponding Golf (’97 to ’04) look almost jokey and casual. The same is true the next Golf too. What the Focus Mk 2 displays is an uncanny judgement of radii and surface curvature. If the intention was to make something look as if it was milled from a piece of solid metal the car succeeded.

There is no flab and no waste and yet the design is not sterile: very subtle acceleration is present on all the main curves and surfaces: those lines are going somewhere. And though it seems to follow a formula we could call contemporary classicism (which is a kind of ideal, objectively correct form language) it manages to look entirely unlike anything else. This seriousness was not what Ford’s customers expected or understood though. The car was quickly facelifted with almost every panel changed. The replacement, the Mk 3, perhaps because of its rather excessive slashes and creases, somehow looks generic and careless.

So, to conclude, we must review the received wisdom of the PR machine. Kinetic Design seems to have been a term retrospectively fitted to Ford’s range and perhaps only now, as it goes off the boil, does Ford’s range truly begin to reflect whatever it is that Kinetic Design is supposed to be. The other, perhaps less important point, is that it was New Edge that was the short-lived phase, embodied by just two cars after which Ford did not decide to try anything so overtly expressive or unconventional again.

*The Puma was not an New Edge car but a transition from the Telnack aero-era: round forms with hard graphics superimposed.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “Industrial Design Archaeology: New Edge to Kinetic Design”

  1. I liked Ford’s New Edge. It suited a large manufacturer of affordable cars, since it was thought out, but didn’t take itself too seriously. As usual, though, I was out of step, and punters wanted grown up, so in came Chris Bird with his talk of Focus 1’s crude detailing. Back then it reminded me of those people I met at parties in my youth who’d tell me how bad Punk was, because of the bad musicianship. To run with that analogy, Focus 2 was “Eric Clapton plays The Ramones’ Songbook”. But time (and Focus 3) has made me appreciate Focus 2. Limping to a conclusion with my musical analogy, what is Focus 3? “Cliff Richard sings Lady Gaga”?

  2. If you take a good look at a Focus Mk1 there are a few odd corners (just one or two) which might have been more carefully resolved. The saloon was evidently not given much maturation time in in the studio. But overall it was and still is a fresh piece of sculpture. The Focus 2 is expertly finished and, yes, more mature. In its own terms it works and was markedly different from its peers without being wilfully odd. This is quite some achievement. How do we describe Mk3? I´d call it very ordinary indeed. It´s as dull a design as the last Escort which is no mean feat given the extravagant claims made for its goals. I find these cars almost invisible whereas the Astra has a futuristic character which is all its own. I´m looking forward to seeing what happens to the Focus next though in the light of the One Ford strategy I doubt it will be so very interesting. The next Mondeo isn´t. It would appear Mazda´s 3 is the class leader in lots of ways, though to be consistent, I must re-iterate my admiration for the Astra which strikes a good balance in what´s a very competitive and unforgiving market.

  3. Traditionally Opel/Vauxhall always had better stylists than Ford, even though what was under the skin might have disappointed. It seems that is the case again. I agree about Astra and, although I’m not a great fan of Insignia’s creases and detailing, it is coherent and looks the right size. The new Mondeo looks big and sprawling. It is a noisy design, but the noise heralds nothing of interest.

    Even more disappointing than Focus, is what has happened to Ka. Ford have seen fit to give a very premature scoop of Ka 3, a design of no apparent merit. I can only assume that their reason for being so precipitous is to make people buy Ka 2 when they realise that its successor will be even more disappointing.

  4. It’s a pity Chris Bird didn’t stay at Audi. Maybe we wouldn’t have had to endure the witless Sielaff/Egger years if he’d been promoted a senior position in the wake of de’ Silva’s enthronement as VAG styling overlord. His involvement in the original A8 at least suggests he “got” the Audi spirit, unlike de’ Silva and especially Egger.

    Richard’s mentioning the Visos has been eye-opening. I had pretty much forgotten about that particular concept, just as I’d dismissed it when it was first unveiled – this kind of streamlined “homage” had become rather predictable and superfluous by then. Scrapping it was certainly a wise idea. But even if the Visos’ template had been abandoned, it would nonetheless have been Bird who was in charge of the Mondeo 3 and the S-Max/Galaxy, as pointed out by Bert, er, Richard. Had he been forced to abandon his super clean ways? Or had he been forced to try and jump onto the retro bandwagon?

    The Chris Bird Mystery continues…

  5. What I was suggesting was that Chris Bird was alert to the cool reception of the Focus 2 and C-Max and had added some more visual interest to the next set of products. It seems to me that Bird was hired from Audi so as to bring the seriousness of Audi´s approach to Ford, the thinking being that customers for VW would be more willing to buy Fords if Fords looked as “serious” as Golfs and Passats. Bird delivered that seriousness in the form of the Focus 2 which is, to my eyes, a far better bit of ultra-cool rationalism than either of the two Golfs on sale in the period 2000-2010 but the customers didn´t go for it. I presume management and sales told the same story and as a result Ford design moved away from ultra cool to something more relaxed in the form of the Mondeo 3. At the same time Martin Smith was hired and how to read this is ambiguous. Was he originally intended to help Bird? Or did he take over? Or was there some managerial dispute which has resulted in Bird being moved sideways to his current position as boss of colour and materials? But he didn’t leave Ford. Perhaps a nice salary and a pleasant job looking into Martindale values for Fiesta seat trims was more alluring than a new job in another city. Cologne is a very nice place to live.

  6. I believe I understood your theory, which I mostly agree with. What I fail to grasp in its entirety is the Visos’ role in this drama – it is obviously not a stylistic precursor to the first “kinetic” cars, yet it was presented at a point in time when their design must have already been on the desks of Ford of Europe’s studio. Presenting a concept car representing a form language that’s very much in contrast with the product you’re working on is, at the very least odd. And even if the Mondeo’s/S-Max’s styling was only really taken on in earnest right after the Visos’ unveiling, it must have been one hell of an abrupt change in direction. Was the concept’s reception really this volatile back in 2003? Was it so bad that FoE’s top brass felt forced to get rid of Bird as quickly as they possibly could?

    Regarding Martin “Stripey Shirt” Smith, I remember reading an interview in which he explained that he was about to get sidelined at GM (he was offered some minor post in Detroit, if memory serves me correct) when he received a phone call from J Mays, his old Audi mucker, who offered him the top job at FoE. That, at the very least, suggests he was actively pursued, rather than offering his services in the aftermath of his stewardship of Opel’s minor renaissance. Ford obviously didn’t believe in Bird’s abilities anymore.

  7. You raise a good question. The literature (an interview in Car) showed that the Visos was presented as the future direction of Ford. As far as I can recall, the Mondeo and its sisters the Galaxy and S-Max came later. The timeline shows a sufficient gap between the Visos´unveiling and the other three cars for there to have been a lurch to more expressive forms. In all likelihood the sidelining of Mr Bird was probably a matter of personality as much as design. It could be nothing more sinister than a simple matter of bad chemistry among the top brass.

  8. To me it looks like someone else had the naff idea of bringing back the Capri. Me, I have no affection towards the Capri, a cynical and cheesy bit of marketing in the first place. Bringing back the Capri is the same as bringing back Rising Damp or some other dire 70s sitcom. The Capri belongs firmly in the Seventies and should rot there. Am I tasteless to call it the Jimmy Saville of sporting vehicles? I don’t care – it was shite. Had someone asked me to create a “Capri for the Noughties”, I’d like to pretend I’d punch them, quite hard. Unfortunately, just like Mr Bird, I’d probably end up drawing something as mismatched as the Viseos, trying to keep a foot in both camps and failing miserably. But if Mr Bird was punished for this, it’s hardly fair.

  9. I did not expect to find a You Tube clip of Chris Bird explaining the design approach for the Ford Mondeo Vignale. You can view it here:
    And Ford´s corporate website has this: “Great design can turn an object that you need to have, into an object you love,” said Chris Bird, design director, Ford of Europe, who is responsible for colour, material and vehicle personalisation. “That is why we put so much thought and feeling into cars like Kuga, making them appealing and relevant no matter where our customers are.”
    The bit that catches my eye is the mismatch between the title of design director and the job description. Usually this kind of job is not given the title of director. The politics of Ford is on show here. I feel a talented designer has been locked in a cupboard. I do wonder what the next Bird Ford´s would have been like. The Focus showed a lot of promise.

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