Don’t meet your heroes, they say. They only disappoint. In something of a reverse case, I met an anti-hero in a car park of an Essex airport and was not disappointed at all.
The car in question – shown here in one photo because it isn’t worth any more than one – is the famous Ford 500 or Five-Hundred. It had a mayfly existence if you pardon the pun. Ford revealed it in 2004 at the Detroit Auto Show and they sold it from 2005-2007. Thereafter they renamed and restyled it.
I notice that if you read up on the design attribution a certain George Bucher is credited (as Ford N. America design chief) alongside J Mays (as Design Vice President). It’s not really, really easy to find out much about Mr Bucher – this car may have torpedoed his reputation. In a way this seems a tad unfair as J Mays had been in office a good six years when the Ford 500 was signed off. He must have seen this car before they committed it to production.
What were they thinking of? In 2000, this car existed (below), the one to which the Ford 500 owes the major parts of its design. This is the year 2000 version of the Passat. The B5 version appeared a good five or six years before George Bucher and J Mays agreed to push the Ford 500 into production, for no documented reason:
I also think this car was on the mood board when the 500 gestated:
Notice the way the A6 and Five-Hundred side-glass finishes at a small radius. The Passat’s is truncated. The wheel arches of the 500 are also more A6 than Passat B5.
We may never know the real story behind this. Messrs Mays and Bucher are not in a position to say if senior management pushed the 500 on them. Neither the truth nor lies would be credible from them.
Painfully, this came out in 2003:
Is this not J Mays’ response to the 500 that was perhaps forced on him? Yet all it did was make the 500 look worse when it appeared. Either way it made no sense to show it in 2003.
What else could Ford have made?
A concept from from 2002? But there was nothing.
Or this concept from 2001? Too retro.
Or this design from 2000: … nothing.
Or this gem from 1999? Too high-brow.
All of which is an interesting finding: in the critical five years before the 500 crawled through the design process like a monster in the ventilation ducts, Ford’s cupboard was bare. The 427 appeared too late (and too early) and the 021C, excellent as it is, is not what one could base an American car on.
There are excuses and there are reasons for errors. The front-drive 500 supposedly owed something to the Volvo S80 chassis. That’s an excuse and a poor one. The S80 is a handsome car. The reasons might be that a few extra ambitions piled onto the bandwagon: a taller H-point and a massive 600 litres boot plus the need to carry things longer than 3 metres all upgoofed the proportions.
George Bucher explained: ” … it was a challenge to sculpt a Ford-styled body around a Volvo chassis, and added that designers used what he calls plainer surfaces with taut lines to give the car a modern look without losing its passenger-car proportions.” Indeed, yet one has to point out it wasn’t really a Ford-styled body but something of a … homage to the VW Passat and Audi A6. J Mays tried to say boring was okay: “By the way, I don’t think it’s going to hurt sales. They’re the most conservative buyers there are.”
Something else was going on, namely that the designers intended the 500 to offer what SUV buyers wanted which is mostly to do with the ride height. That explains the tall roof and perhaps the decision to give the car an arced roofline. A decade and a bit later, Ford’s out of the saloon car business pretty much (BMW, Audi and Mercedes aren’t).
There are signs someone tried to make the faux-A6 design work. I have seen a concept sketch of the 500 and what that car shows is length and width but not height. The lamps look way better. Alas, I can’t reproduce it here but click this and scroll down a bit.
What I can do is quote the NY Times on the 500: ” A car whose lack of charisma is so dense no light can escape its surface, the Montego is the Mercury Division’s upscale twin to the Ford Five Hundred sedan, though the Montego’s version of upscale is of the Korean off-shore casino variety. The faux wood-grain interior trim looks like it came off a prison lunch tray. I’ve felt better leather upholstery on footballs. But this is not a case of a car nibbled to death by details. Overall, the car has a profoundly geriatric feeling about it, like it was built with a swollen prostate. To drive this car is to feel the icy hand of death upon you, or at least the icy hand of Hertz, because it simply screams rental.”
My own impression of the car in the carpark was the astonishment of realising it was as mediocre as legend described it. I met an anti-hero and found them as bad as promised. The tell-tale detail was the two-piece brightwork on the window frame, with a seam put where it was most noticeable and assembled with less precision than any such joint I have ever seen. Paint flaked from the bonnet (aluminium, I think). The headlamp covers were going nicotine yellow. The rub-strips on the doors were making the beginnings of a getaway.
I really thought detail design this bad had been exiled a decade before 2004. So, in terms of design and execution, the 500 lives down to my expectations which is something of an achievement.
The interior looked like this:
And let’s not forget the 1997 Audi A6 interior looked like this:
It’s close enough to be troubling. The example at the Essex airport naturally didn’t look to be that well-kept which is not the car’s fault. I can only comment that the interior design is nothing less than a wholesale re-interpretation of generic VAG.
I will decline to blame the designers themselves. I think these people want to do original work. The brief is not theirs – that is the result of management and marketing working together to identify the problem and, here, getting it wrong.
A combination of factors got the 500 into the showrooms: Ford had not even been working on saloon cars so they had no research to draw on; management offered the wrong brief; the VP Design had not the persuasive power to alter the decisions of the senior board and production engineers cut quality out of the picture.