A Photo Study For Sunday: 1998 Ford Focus 3-door

Good fortune placed a three-door 1998 Ford Focus (Series 1) on my street so we could conclude our Blue Oval-themed week on a high note.

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Before I started the analysis I knew the Focus to be a really strong design. After all, it still looks thrilling 21 years later. Visual richness, hello. I didn’t know the underlying structures were so complex. Almost nothing quite lines up: the scaffolding off of which the graphics hang is itself seemingly in motion or is composed of shifting progressions. I have not even considered the front and rear views. Did Ford’s designers do this intuitively? Or was it considered?

1998 Ford Focus three-door

There is that angular bonnet to wing line which artfully conceals the roundness of the car’s profile. The three-sided lamps cut a bit into the flange off the wing, a quite shallow pressing. The grille is modest, composed of a truncated oval. The graphics of the bumper are not so tidy and were revised for the Series 2 car without harming the main theme at all.

The high rear lamps are a master-stroke: functional and distinctive. It’s a pity the accountants or engineers could see their way to avoiding the little cheater panel at the end of the side-glass.

This the bonnet feature, not a power-bulge but crests over the front wheels. I think it’s a more complex surface than it looks at first glance.

There came no copy-cats or directly Focus-influenced cars despite the earthquakes the shape set off. Instead designers around Europe saw what could be done and tried their own revolutions.

I am big on classifications. What should this be called? It’s a high-concept design; it’s not functionalism, it’s modern though and Modernist. If it’s expressive the challenge might be to say what of. I can’t see any obvious use of semantic references beyond the obvious car-related signifiers. By this I mean the shape is not dependent on other forms for its meaning.

It isn’t aggressive; it’s not gendered (or is it?). It is certainly not Ford or Opel’s default “modern vernacular”. This could take some time to sort out. That complexity is also what makes it interesting in the way the preceding Escort was so obviously not.

(Note: I consider the 1998 Focus a “graphics car” and have not considered the surfacing very much at all. The current Focus is, in contrast, a master-class in surfacing which is a factor not so apparent in the photos you may see. The examples I have spotted suggest an unusual richness of surface.

And the paints are emphasising the opulence too. I am prepared to concede the gross form of the current Focus is difficult to characterise. In the metal it compensates and projects the impression of an expensive car in the way few actually expensive cars are managing.)

Author: richard herriott

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

22 thoughts on “A Photo Study For Sunday: 1998 Ford Focus 3-door”

  1. Morning Richard
    Does this support the argument that the best looking cars are the earliest post launch? After that, the manufacturer tinkers with the design, which generally messes it up? Focus Mk2 not as good as Focus Mk 1?

    1. You won´t hear me kicking the Mk 2 Focus. It´s first rate. If there is a tendency in design evolution it´s that the facelift is seldom as good as the launch design. Over long runs, the chances of a good or bad version are 50/50. If we look at the last 20 years the story is more mixed.

  2. Good morning, Richard. The Mk1 Focus really is a fascinating car, and an extraordinary design from a manufacturer more usually associated with ruthless commercialism and conservatism. It looks like a freehand design sketch that made it all the way through to production without interference from the customer clinics or cost accountants.

    It’s a challenging design that is difficult to read and took some getting used to. I remember my first reaction was bemusement and, even today, I’m still not wholly comfortable with it. I still wonder if it sold so strongly because of or despite its appearance? (It’s dynamic and practical qualities were universally praised by reviewers, even Those Who expressed reservations about its appearance.)

    Of course, like other seminal designs, it proved impossible to follow, at least directly. The Focus Mk2 is a fine design in its own right. However, while it retained the silhouette of the Mk1, it is shorn of all the quirkiness that made the original so distinctive:

    The progression from Mk1 to Mk2 is perfectly encapsulated in the Focus badging. The Mk1 used an unique, informal lower-case style, whereas the Mk2 used a much more typically “corporate” font:

    I’m struck by your positive closing comments about the new Focus. At first, I had dismissed the latest Fiesta as a “same again” effort but, having seen a number in the metal, it’s actually much richer design with very pleasing subtle curvatures in its surfaces. Perhaps Ford is onto something here? I look forward to seeing the new Kuga in the metal to see if this richness of surfacing is sustained.

    1. Seeing the Focus as ‘ a freehand design sketch that made it all the way through to production without interference from the customer clinics or cost accountants’ is fascinating contrast to its precedessor which was clinicked to death and accordingly bland and had to be facelifted after less than two years.

  3. I remember when the Mk 1 Focus was officially revealed at whatever motor show it was, it was surrounded by a moat so you couldn’t see the interior!

    I’d be fascinated to know if the story that the Mk 2 was actually an alternative design for the Mk 1 is true.

    I’m trying to think of other cars that were as big a leap ahead of their predecessor as the Escort to Focus transition. In many ways the Cortina to Sierra leap was bigger, but the engines were inherited. The original Focus had a much more sophisticated rear suspension set up than the Escort.

    1. Sierra to Mondeo? Ford Europe’s first attempt at a FWD C/D-segment car was brilliantly executed and easily leapfrogged the inert Opel Vectra to take class honours ahead of the Peugeot 405. It was conservatively styled after the radical Sierra, the design of which dissembled a mildly updated Cortina mechanical package.

    2. John: I am very confident that that story is not true. Ford was on a different groove when the Mk1 gestated. A proposal like the Mk2 would not have made sense in the mid 90s.

    3. I don’t know why exactly, but I don’t see the Sierra to Mondeo in the same quantum leap terms as Escort to Focus.

      Maybe 104 to 205 in terms of Peugeots?

    4. SV: Would it be the very conservative styling that made the Mk1 Mondeo seem such a small step? By the time the Mondeo went front-drive the shift from rear- to front drive came to be seen not as progressive but banal. I think they´d have been way better off keeping the Mondeo as a rear-wheel drive car, giving it a USP in a crowded market. The RWD hammer has since been used to beat middle-market cars, leaving us in a situation where the “prestige” BMW 3-series outsells all the rest of them (or nearly). Yes, they might have saved some euros on each model but they lost a whole market sector, virtually. There were other factors though none seem to me to be as important as that segregation of cars into premium and non-premium, signalled in part by which set of wheels were driven.

    5. Being FWD doesn’t prevent Audi from being perceived as ‘premium’ and being FWD didn’t prevent the Alfa 156 from initially selling like hot cakes.
      The Mondeo Mk1 suffered from looking unbearably bland and initially had severe NVH problems and the Mk2 at least looked the part but was shoddily built – all things that don’t help when you want to sell in the upper end of the market.

    6. Dave: I agree the Mk1 was bland and it was so probably because of a worry about the technical change. Audi command the respect they do because they have perceived quality nailed, compensating for the “problem” of the wrong wheels being driven. My point is that over the long haul, that Ford and Opel paid a big price for giving up RWD. I think it would have given them an edge over the others and helped them compete better against BMW and Mercedes.

    7. I doubt that for the buying public it matters much which pair of wheels is driven. Ninety-nine percent of drivers rarely use more than ten percent of the dynamic abilities of their car and barely recognise any wheels are driven at all (on a trip to the Austrian Alps this winter I saw a BMW Seven with mandatory show chains fitted to its front wheels).
      The problem is that beginning in the mid to late Eighties with cars like W201, E30 and 80 B3 the German Three increasingly raised the bar for the whole package of ownership around a car and Ford and Opel (and Peugeot and Fiat and many others…) didn’t follow.
      Just look inside an Audi 80 B3 and a Vectra Mk1 which were the last of these car that were roughly comparable (the Vectra Mk1 was – for a short time at least – the last competitive Opel) and you see how far Audi had progressed in terms of quality.
      And that’s before you take into account the lack lustre dealer service on Opel’s side and increasingly ‘customer experience’ oriented dealers on the other. Opel and Ford lost the corporate lease contract sector to VW for commercial vehicles and completely missed the boat for the user chooser segment.

    8. It´s correct there were other factors and the more of them there are, the worse it gets for Ford and Opel. Still, RWDinesss was an easy one to nail and they didn´t. Accountants don´t know how to make money, just retain it. Sometimes saving money is disastrous.

  4. I think the 2002 European 3dr Honda Civic was a bit of a precursor to the Focus 1 design. Maybe it’s the wedgy side profile or the similar front ends ?
    Otherwise, maybe it’s understandable that the mark II was a lot more conservative since in that iteration it became a global car and had to appeal to the masses rather than just Europeans.

    1. The BMW 3-series is a European car that sells around the world. I don´t see why the Focus had to be conservative to sell globally. There are other reason the Mk2 Focus was much more reserved. It´s still a brilliant peice of work though.

    2. Ok but the 3 series was always a somewhat conservative car whereas the Focus 1 was quite original and ‘disturbing’, hence, perhaps, the need to tone it down for the rest of the world with the Mark II ?

    3. Ford described it that way at the time:

      “It’s one thing to talk about a product being global but quite another to actually build something that way. Just ask the thousands of people involved in putting together the 2012 Focus, which Ford plans to manufacture in North America, Europe and Asia.

      This pioneering vehicle is truly global—from the design to the manufacturing, all the way to its border-busting appeal. “We evaluated customer needs from around the globe, took the best expectations from all regions and combined them into one vehicle,” says Jim Hughes, North America Focus chief engineer. “For instance, driving dynamics is a critical element for Europeans, and we’re going to leverage that into the global Focus.”

  5. Maybe the “conservatism” of the 3 is doing battle with its European-ness. Also, you can´t do a Mk2 of a Focus Mk1. There were two paths: another imaginative and radical shape or something cautious. Ford decided to follow the VW path, I suppose.

    1. Personnally I dont see Ford automatically as a maker of conservative cars like I would Subaru or Toyota until recently: every once in a while they seem to shake up the category, in design terms at least. Ford Sierra, Focus 1, perhaps the new Kuga can be classified that way since its proportions are a bit different compared to what is being done with the current crop of CUVs/SUVs.

      I wonder if this ‘quirky to conservative’ approach isn’t more widespread: when a design is successful, carmakers often keep more or less the original theme for the replacement but often manage to anonymise it in the process.

    2. There’s this interesting bit that could explain Ford’s thinking, especially paragraph 4, on Ford’s website concerning the Focus 2:

      “As the first in a wave of truly global vehicles to come out of the brand-defining One Ford philosophy of Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally, the next-generation Focus contains universal characteristics – from the curve of the roof down to the tension in the accelerator – known as the Ford Global DNA. This is a car designed to appeal to drivers on all continents.

      “An iPod is an iPod whether it’s in Europe or the U.S.,” says KC Dallia, Focus North America consumer marketing manager. “The new Focus will be instantly recognizable to everyone around the globe.”

      Digital-Mock-up Digital Mock-Up: While sketching and sculpting of the surface was happening, a digital mock-up was created through computer-aided design (CAD) data, and it provided a visual representation of where the engine would be mounted and how much headroom there would be.

      Rather than having teams in North America, Europe and Asia develop continent-specific designs as in the past, three years ago Ford congregated all its Focus designers at the vehicle center in Merkenich, Germany. Their task was to create a modern-looking, technology-packed vehicle that is comfortable to sit in, convenient and, naturally, fun to drive. The 2012 Focus is all that and more.

      Its striking body represents “kinetic design,” which captures the look of energy in motion. “The proportions of this car really make it stand out,” says Stefan Lamm, director, Exterior Design, Ford of Europe, who headed the body design team. “It’s quite low without sacrificing the passenger compartment, and that reinforces the fun-to-drive aspect.”

      The stakes for this project were considerable: The 2012 Focus will account for approximately 2 million vehicles in the next two years. “We expect this to be the biggest-selling nameplate in the world,” says Martin Smith, executive design director, Ford of Europe. “There was no pressure, of course,” he adds with a smile.

      The car sprang to life nearly three years ago, when designers began making sketches on paper. The sketches were pinned up on the wall, and the design team identified the positive aspects of each one. It was an exercise to create the right proportions for the vehicle.

      “We wanted it to be lower, leaner, wider, meaner,” says Smith.

      The two-dimensional drawings were refined in Photoshop and then translated into a 3-D rendering to give designers a look at all angles. Lamm’s team then defined the kinetic design elements, such as bold wheel lips, strong shoulders and dynamic side creases”

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