Theme : Cute Car Hall of Fame – 1996 Ford Ka

The Ford Ka, 1996 – 2009: one of the better and cuter designs of the last two decades.

A golden wonder from 1996
A golden wonder from 1996

The alternative Ford Ka concept followed the jelly-bean school of design that Ford had been exploring with the Taurus, Mondeo and the Puma. But in the internal design competition Ford Europe went for a radically different surface treatment of the same package and proportions. 

The eventual car, the Ka Mk1, remained strikingly fresh for the entirety of its production run and is decidedly more fresh-of-face than the lardy and over-wrought successor (see also Renault Twingo). Whilst the Ka alienated some at first and appealed only to buyers too old to care what others thought, the Ka soon became a very good successor to the Mini. It was fun, classless and un-gendered.

Unlike some “cute cars” there was nothing about it that challenged the way the driver was seen socially. The Ka’s design direction was later re-named New Edge but was supplanted quickly by Chris Bird’s ‘We Don’t Have A Name For This style’. As such the Ka is an oddity but so then was the short lived design phase that came after. We can only wonder why Ford didn’t like this theme enough to let it run further.

This example was seen in Denmark under a very flattering late spring sunlight. But the car didn’t need nice light or a high-spec to look pleasing which is why you still notice them today and the Mk2 is as conspicuous as the concrete slab under your foot. What is it about the car that works so well? Unusually it is both free of design errors* and what is there is original.

It has clean surfaces and sharp intersections that make up arcs. Such surface management is not easy. The arcs and the window graphics are in harmony. The plastic bumpers make up an important extra element, nodding to the fact that “fenders” were once external addenda. These are post-modern bumpers but do look as if they can take a knock unlike most bumpers with bumperettes applied.

If Ford did one silly thing with this car, apart from discontinuing it, it was to offer the bumpers in body-colour. The fault is easily rectified by getting the grey ones fitted after-market. The Ka was cute like a Manga cartoon is cute not the way Disney’s are cute. We salute you, Ka.

*nearly: there is one but you’d never notice it (despite its prominent location) unless you were told to look for it. An argument can be made that it was an entirely rational compromise.

Author: richard herriott

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

10 thoughts on “Theme : Cute Car Hall of Fame – 1996 Ford Ka”

  1. Richard. I’ll have to raise the same objection as I did to Eoin’s Innocenti. The Ka is surely too damn good to be truly Cute. In a different way you could say the same about the Figaro, but that achieves cuteness through scale (rather than size) by appearing to be an exquisitely shrunk interpretation of something larger. Other cars (say the Fiat Jolly) are cute because there is a contrived wrongness to them – just as a Teddy Bear with a stitched patchwork ear is toe-curlingly cuter than one without.

    It is very, very rare for a mass produced car to provide viewing satisfaction throughout (and beyond) its production run, even rarer for two concurrent models from the same manufacturer, but Ka1 and Focus1 managed this. Compounding the use of body coloured bumpers, SportKa had a clumsy, arc-less panel inset in the bumper for the obligatory ‘diffuser’ and tailpipe and StreetKa was very wrong. Of course the best designs are the ones that are least tolerant of variations.

  2. I wouldn’t reach an age required for obtaining a driving licence until after the turn of the century/millennium, so, you won’t be surprised to hear, I looked at both the Ka and the original Twingo with a particular kind of naive affection…

    My dad took me to the IAA (possibly in ’97, I’m not quite certain), where Ford unveiled one of those limited editions that were very much de rigeur at the time: the Lufthansa Ka! It sported leather seats in genuine Lufthansa grey, complete with yellow piping, almost exactly as one would find them on board a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 – to the young car and aviation enthusiast, that was a match made in heaven, a dream come true…
    Yet imagining myself offering chauffeur services to a young lady employing such a whimsical machine is rather odd. I guess one’s priorities do change rather drastically between the age of 14 and 19.

  3. Naturally in the UK we missed out on the Lufthansa Ka. There is a cuteness to be found in many special editions, as mentioned previously with the 2CV Charleston, but I’ve just looked it up and it is one of the most subtle special editions I have ever seen. Again, maybe it is testament to the design that they couldn’t find a suitable way to defile it with stripes. I’m sure there is a joke about the Ryan Air special edition Ka but, frankly, today I just lack the energy.

    Thinking about seats, my fickle mind has recently started toying with the idea of divesting myself of my S6 Audi Estate and getting a BMW E34 M5 Touring. I’ve been pained on the occasions I have tried to convey my liking of the Audi to Eoin to see the look of bemused pity come over his face. It’s hard to find an M5 in unmolested condition but there was a reasonable example offered in the UK a couple of weeks ago. I procrastinated about going to see it and now it has gone. But the reason I did was the seats which, if not Cute, were Twee, at least in the context of a sporting BMW with a nasty patterned fabric. If it had grey with yellow piping ‘Lufthansa’ seats I might own it by now.

  4. Looking at the alternative proposal for Ka1 that Richard mentions, underlines just how difficult it is to produce a coherent vehicle, and confirms just how good the actual Ka was. It’s not awful, and many of the intentions are there, but with the benefit of hindsight the total result is disappointing.

    What confuses me most about Ka2 is that it shares a platform with the Fiat 500. Fiat produced a reasonably proportioned shape, though I don’t consider its self-consciously retro appearance as attractive as some do, so why does Ka2 look so ungainly? Were Ford the only people who weren’t aware that Ka1 deserved a better looking successor?

  5. As a piece of industrial design, the KA was a masterpiece. As a consumer durable, it was shockingly poor. Ford made so many mistakes with this car, yet had they got it right, they might now be in a similar position to where BMW is with the Mini brand today. The KA should have been brilliant. It almost was. But Ford fluffed it. One of these days I might get around to telling you why…

    1. Always helps if to avoid hitting solid objects in one though……eh Eoin!

  6. Richard, please do share the “error” on the Ka. I nearly crashed last night on the M1 as I was giving one that was sat in the middle lane a look over, trying to spot what looked like an error. I wondered whether it was the shape or size of the fuel flap (?).

    Eoin, please also share why you think Ford “fluffed it” – it sounds very interesting.

    Honestly, this site is occupied by people with a taste for suspense or who are just coy about revealing their talents and insights. We really are interested!

  7. I really would hate to spoil the Ka for you. If you can´t find the error then there really isn´t one. My mind has been permanently damaged from a six year career looking for small deviations from the Platonic ideals possible in surface form. I really would hate to share this. It´s like preaching atheism. Go on, get out and enjoy life! Love the Ka!

  8. Oh, all right then. If I spot it one day, I’ll let you know. Agree with the concensus, though, the Ka was a pleasing piece of design.

  9. In profile there is certainly more than one ‘flaw’; but they are really more compromises dictated by manufacturing considerations. For instance it would look purer without a sill below the door. The only detail that jars to my eyes, though, is the positioning of the lock relative to the handle.

    To pick up on Eoin’s comment, my short custody of a Ka was memorable and enjoyable but nothing takes the edge off a car faster than avoidable flaws that becomes apparent during longer-term ownership, and I assume that is what he’s referring to. My own long term experience of an excellent, but less memorably styled, Mondeo V6 was tainted by the way it departed my custody – in part due to Ford’s penny-pinching.

    And talking of the Blue Oval’s parsimony, why they lumbered it with the outdated Kent based engine is a total mystery.

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