The current KA+ is a dispiriting sight for those who appreciated the original’s daring style. Today, we consider lost causes in the form of the 2010 Start concept.
Presenting a plausible and attractive evolution of the Ur-KA silhouette, Start came out of Ford’s Californian design centre, allegedly as a conceptual piece of blue sky thinking. Designed by Jeff Nield under the supervision of Freeman Thomas, Start debuted at the 2010 Beijing motor show, touted as a technology trailblazer for the blue oval.
A delightfully organic, podlike shape, the stylistic homages to the original 1996 KA are abundant, especially in the shaping and treatment of the daylight openings, the soft, rounded forms and curved roofline. The nose treatment differs, being adopted to comply with the necessity for taller bonnet lines and the resultant higher beltline, but it’s all very well handled and added up to a cohesive and attractive whole, which needless to say, had ur-KA written all over it.
Having inexpensively developed the original KA from previous generation Fiesta underpinnings, this option was no longer available to them; the Fiesta by then having grown noticeably in size and sophistication – ergo cost. Expedience won the day, so two years earlier, the second generation model was announced, twinned with the Fiat 500 and built alongside at the former FSO plant in Tychy, Poland.
It’s believed that Ford (to all intents and purposes) bankrolled development of the shared platform, despite coming out of the exercise playing a decidedly second-hand fiddle. TychyKA would prove a pale shadow of the groundbreaking original, offering little to customers over better realised rivals. For the style conscious at least, the massively successful retro Fiat was the only choice at the price.
Of course, if one simply plays along with the official Ford account, it’s comparatively easy to dismiss Start as merely a kite-flying exercise to gauge public opinion on future technologies. This was certainly Ford Design doyen, (and ur-Ka stylist) Chris Svensson’s take on matters in an interview with Formtrends. In it he made much of how non-viable the concept would have been to productionise. But I fear the KA designer protests too much.
Yes it was first shown in 2010, but what isn’t altogether clear is when it was actually designed. Furthermore, while it’s obvious that any production version of the Start concept would have to have been watered down considerably from what we see here, there is very little (C-pillar treatment apart perhaps) which couldn’t feasibly be productionised without losing too much of the concept’s charm.
My suspicion is this was a rejected KA-the-sequel proposal, abandoned perhaps because the design they ended up adopting was more cost effective, despite being uncomfortably shrink-wrapped around a Fiat 500 body architecture and hard points. It’s also worth noting that Start’s soft formed bodystyle would also have been at odds with the Kinetic Design template by then in vogue at Köln-Merkenich.
One could craft a decent argument around the notion that TychyKA illustrated that the market rejected the KA concept. I disagree. What the market saw through was a product that failed to convince the customer. Ur-KA was a flawed car in many ways, but it had an abundance of charm and owners genuinely liked the combination of virtues it offered. TychyKA too had flaws, but little by way of compensatory personality.
It’s equally arguable that Start (as its name would suggest) offered a logical jumping off point to evolve the KA aesthetic. Clearly nobody in the car business can ignore the numbers (they’re too big for that), but building a brand entails a measure of commitment, something in lamentably short supply under Alan Mullay’s ‘lets remortgage the shirt on our backs’ tenure at Dearborn.
By failing to evolve the KA effectively, Ford saved themselves some money but ceded a large swathe of the minicar market to its European and far Eastern rivals. Market share they won’t win back with reheated leftovers. If anything, what we see here is the point in time where Ford really started to disengage with the European market, a process which has since become glaringly apparent.
Start was appropriately named. For while it didn’t signify an ending, it may well have heralded the beginning of one.