Today we remember Ford’s 1998 roadster concept which championed the freedom of the open road for four, and pay tribute to its designer.
While four-seater convertibles are reasonably common commodities, four-door roadsters, have never quite caught on. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, car designers tend to view received wisdom as something to be challenged.
At the 1998 Chicago Auto Show, when such events took place in the ‘Windy City’, Ford’s US design team, under the leadership of J Mays presented a concept, while not entirely new, had not really been attempted at this scale before.
Built at Ford’s Special Projects centre on a platform (and 1.25 litre 16-valve 4-cylinder Zetec SE engine) shared with the contemporary Fiesta/Ka/Puma, the Libre’s bodywork was a combination of metal and composites. Its major visual novelty was a pair of hidden rear-hinged micro-doors (which eschewed a centre post), also seen in an earlier Mercury concept, and were a development of an original idea employed by Pininfarina for the seminal Lancia Florida II concept of 1957.
A large and hefty looking T-shaped brace behind the front seats provided a quantum of the torsional strength lost with such an arrangement. In production, this system, which was used occasionally on extended cab pickup trucks, was also taken up by Mazda, then a Ford subsidiary, who later productionised a version of this layout for the 2002 RX8 coupé.
Espousing the house New Edge design theme, the Libre was credited to English-born designer, John Hartnell. The clean-limbed, largely unadorned shape appears almost naively undecorated to contemporary eyes, yet maintains a very pleasing visage for that precise reason. Hartnell’s team also managed to mask the car’s lengthened wheelbase well, maintaining strong proportions, subtle contouring and well judged lines.
Simplicity provided the core theme outside and this was followed within the Libre’s cabin. The clean, sparse and slightly retro-nodding arrangement of the simple bi-tone dash, with separate analogue gauges sitting within conjoined tubes in front of the driver. The rounded theme was reflected in the ventilation vents minor switchgear and control pedals.
Hartnell, having graduated from the UK’s prestigious RCA, spent several years at Ford’s Dunton studios in Essex, contributing to production designs such as the RS 200, Mondeo, Fiesta and Puma. During his latter stint in the US, he was appointed design manager at Ford’s Advanced studio, where he was said to have overseen the acclaimed Indigo and Mercury MC4 concepts.
Promoted to Director of Global Colour, Trim and Product Design in 1999, some two years later, following complications relating to a bone marrow transplant this talented designer, described by J Mays as “the quintessential ‘gentle man'”, died aged 55.
While there was no serious intention to put the Libre into production, it allows us today to reflect on an era of design, while a mere twenty years ago, feels increasingly like a high water mark. Certainly for Ford, their design during this period was particularly strong. We seek even a modicum of that design flair in vain now.