After “New Edge” came what exactly? And when? And why
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 From this narrative we see Chris Bird’s vehicles quickly superseded and Martin Smith claiming the title as the driving force behind Ford of Europe’s current look, helped by former Opel designer, Stefan Lamm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.