Boys of Summer

The turn of the century saw the Blue Oval vainly attempting to revisit its late ’50s heyday. But the past steadfastly remains a foreign country.

Ford Thunderbird. Image credit: (c) youtube

The 1984 Grammy-winning Don Henley single, Boys of Summer is a meditation on reminiscence and regret. It plays on the slick US West Coast values of the author’s Eagles heyday, subverting its MOR sheen to underline the more mature themes of ageing and loss.

Looking back to the past can be instructive, indeed for some of us, it’s a virtual necessity. However, true folly lies in attempts to recreate it.

By the tail-end of the ’90s, the retro fashion in vehicle styling, which could be said to have originated in Japan, had made it across the Pacific. In many ways however, retro had been as much a home-grown US phenomenon, given that throughout the previous decade the music and fashions of the past had been ruthlessly mined for entertainment and revenue generating purposes, so for it to morph into product design wasn’t all that much of a leap.

The Blue Oval’s retro beginnings could perhaps be traced to the 1998 Jaguar X200 S-Type, a car design which under pressure from senior Ford executives, not to mention the Ford’s styling Vice President, Jack Telnack, suggested a Dearborn Glass House vision of Olde Albion. As cover versions of much-loved standards go, it was neither Whitley, nor Michigan’s finest hour.

1998 Jaguar S-Type. Image credit: Autoevolution

Furthermore, it also heralded a rather muted critical reception to the first of Ford’s state of the art luxury car platforms. In conjunction with their UK trophy wife, Ford developed a rear-drive platform for their D/E segment, dubbed DEW98. Designed to underpin both S-Type and the following year’s Lincoln LS, both cars shared floorpans, suspensions and basic engine designs, although the Ford V6 and Whitley-designed V8 engines fitted to the Lincoln are believed to have differed notably in detail.

1999 Lincoln LS. Image credit: (c) motortrend

The Lincoln LS was pitched as a ‘sports saloon’ aimed at German import rivals, but positioned as a slightly cheaper offering to the Castle Bromwich nostalgia-fest. But Ford are believed to have had further plans for DEW98, intending it to form the basis for a whole slew of cars.

In 1999, Jac Nasser assumed the top job at Dearborn. The Australian had ambitious and transformative plans to make the Blue Oval a luxury car powerhouse and the appointment of former BMW R&D chief, Wolfgang Reizle to lead the Premier Automotive Division illustrated how much business Nasser meant.

1999 also saw the departure of Jack Telnack, who in the run-up to his retirement is believed to have overseen the creation of a retro-styled Ford Thunderbird concept, heavily based on the 1957 classic, which was previewed in concept form in 2000.

Sanctioned for production, it employed a modified version of the DEW98 platform, Lincoln LS chassis and powertrain – even the dashboard was the same. Launched the following year with expectations as high as its ambitious sticker price, after a strong first year with over 30,000 sold, sales slumped dramatically before being axed in 2005 with around 68,000 made in total.

Retrospectively of course, it’s possible to see the T-Bird as a bit of a novelty, one which would by consequence only enjoy the briefest of moment in the sun. We’re all geniuses in hindsight of course, but given the moves afoot at Wolfgang Reizle’s PAG headquarters in London and at Gerry McGovern’s Lincoln studio in California, was Ford perhaps a little too hasty?

Following his 1999 appointment, McGovern oversaw a series of Lincoln concepts which prefigured what would ultimately prove to be an impossible future. Making its show debut in 2004, but likely to have been created some time before, the MK X concept was an elegant two-seater grand turismo convertible in the classic idiom.

Incorporating styling themes from previous McGovern helmed designs, Marek Reichman’s glamourous lines, fine detailing and upmarket positioning retrospectively suggests a more lucrative use of the DEW98 platform than the flash in the pan T-Bird. One with arguably greater potential longevity and relevance in the market as well.

But equally, it’s possible to look at Reichman and Mc Govern’s proposals as simply another form of revisionism, if better executed and more elegantly realised.

The DEW98 platform was deemed unfit for purpose by Wolfgang Reizle, who had it expensively updated for 2002. According to chronicler, Hilton Holloway, Reitze had, prior to his departure, insisted upon development of a totally new bespoke platform for the PAG group, something Ford beancounters baulked at. Holloway even went as far as to suggest this informed the German’s decision to walk away.

However, given that DEW98 could be both stretched and shortened, it’s difficult to understand why it would not have sufficed, especially following its extensive revamp. Furthermore, it would surely have been more expedient from a tooling amortisation perspective to have continued using it for Lincoln’s offerings, rather than gifting it entirely to Coventry.

In the eponymous song, Henley encounters a new Cadillac Seville emblazoned with the ‘Dead Head’ emblem of legendary rock band, Grateful Dead,  a metaphor for how the survivors of the ’60s counterculture grew up, sold out and got rich. Dreams get betrayed he seems to be saying, and whether one views Ford’s PAG dream in that manner, or that it was simply hostage to the myriad of crises that saw Jac Nasser ousted in 2001, it all ended in failure and regret.

2004 Lincoln MK X concept. Image credit: bestcarmag

But as Mr. Henley points out, you can never look back, and certainly Messrs, Mc Govern, Reichman and Reitze have left this period well behind them. After all, history is littered with the corpses of the politically naïve, the foolish or the downright unlucky. We may never quite know the machinations that took place within the Ford Motor Company during the immediate post-millennial period, but what we can say with some certainty is that we’ve seen the last of the boys of summer.

©Eóin Doyle. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

12 thoughts on “Boys of Summer”

  1. It is not a coincidence that J Mays was head of design at FoMoCo and he oversaw the Concept 1. He was into retrofuturism – the Thunderbird is of a piece with that. In my view the S-Type drew more from plain nostalgia styling, inspires not so much by any high concept but more Rover’s apparent success with chrome and more chrome. Jaguar had been ploughing the “ye olde” furrow for a long time before the S-Type. Fashion caught up with Jaguar much as from time to time tweed gets back in vogue.

  2. The S Class looked wrong from day one. The hideous interior was even worse than the outside.

    The Thunderbird, on the other hand, looked good at the time, but has dated badly. Mind you, the New Beetle concept was also favourably received… customers and observers liked the references to fondly remembered cars of yesteryear, even if the appeal wore off.

    But Ford’s retro obsession also led – eventually – to the Mustang and GT40 remakes, both of which were much more successful.

    As for the DEW98 platform, it also saw service under the Jaguar XF, which righted most of the wrongs of the S class. This was a credible and reasonably successful product.

    Again, Ford got there eventually. Perhaps if their management had the conviction to see a long term plan through, Ford would be in a much healthier position today?

  3. Indeed the Thunderbird has dated badly, and it’s no surprise for me. The overly soft shapes were en vogue throughout the nineties, heralded (among others) by the 1991 Mazda 626. But people got tired of these eventually, and coming with such a design around 2000 was simply a decade too late. Cars needed some edge (again) at this time.

    1. The New Beetle on the other hand wasn’t such an amorphous blob, but had clearly defined edges and surfaces, probably it lasted longer because of that. The totally absurd proportions were there from the beginning, anyway.

  4. When many people actually saw the retro T-Bird, all they said was, eww. What a downer. The thing never looked right from the start, what with that down sloping to the rear end and too high front headlights. The ’55, ’58 and ’62 T-Birds weren’t burdened with such awful design – that was newly invented by the geniuses you mention. It was mainly really old people in places like Florida, California and Arizona who bought the Retro-Bird, sunny and no place to go. The extra weight of the underfloor bracing because all were convertibles added some 180 kg as well. The car just did not look happy in its skin.

    As a kid newly arrived in North America in 1959, the then current T-Bird took my breath away, the ’62 looked not bad but huge. The 2002 version missed the point entirely. It was a sales dud from the start. 30,000 isn’t much in a 15 million market.

    The New Beetle looked like a Beetle, not an “artiste’s” rendering. Enough said about that ungainly T-Bird revival fiasco. Nobody yearned after it around here, but the weather might be to blame. The Lincoln LS looked just fine. A fair few old money folks round here bought them, a decent car that didn’t advertise wealth. The Jag S-Type just looked weird but fooled the nouveaus for a while.
    Unfortunately, they were all pretty much duds mechanically.

    It must be a coincidence but TTAC also has an article on DEW98 cars today. Amazing.

    1. Bill: if some people didn’t like the drooping tail and some found the opera windows chintzy and others condidered it all too heavy then that’s too many reasons to reject a car.
      Does anyone else wonder how many shared-platform cars are total flops because of the compromises needed?

  5. Don’t forget the shared-platform Thema, Alfa 164, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000. Did quite well, and kept Lancia in the public eye.

    1. Vic: agreed regarding the T4 cars. I would go further and say it did more than keep Lancia in the public eye. It gave them a very strong-selling car.

      Counter examples: the last generation Astra and Zafira shared a platform. The Astra became too heavy.
      The first Mondeo and Contour shared a whole body and the Contour was too small for America.
      The last Opel Insignia and last Saab 9-5 shared a platform and the Saab was too big.
      The new-generation Saab 900 and Opel Vectra shared a platform and the Saab wasn´t Saaby enough.
      The Jaguar X-type and synchronous Ford Mondeo shared a platform and the Jaguar became “much-loved”.
      The Ford Ka Mk2 and the Fiat 500 shared a platform and the Ka Mk2 has no discernable personality at all.

      I see GM and Ford feature heavily in this list. Toyota seems to get away with this.

    2. Agree on some of that, but I have an irrational tendency to like all Saabs I ever see.

      The Thema is still a better-handling car than any later Lancia — just don’t get the 8.32: when it goes wrong you’ll be stuck for engine parts. Lovely direct steering. Even the auto’s tolerable.

      Exactly why Ford killed its distinctive little Ka I don’t understand.

      Fiat 500 now below £8k in UK: but are they making profits on them? That was a problem for the original 500 (hence the 600?), but in part that was a political project. The Communists emerged from the war very popular: could their supporters be bought off? Yes, to an extent capitalism could be shown to come up with the goods.

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