Largely unnecessary, possibly retrograde; the Focus got the Kinetic treatment in 2007.
Claude Lobo returned full-time to Köln-Merkenich in 1997 to head Ford’s European design team, following a three-year stint as head of Ford’s advanced studio in Dearborn. By then, the blue oval’s European satellite seemed at something of a creative crossroads. Throughout the decade, Merkenich’s design quality had become decidedly uneven and in terms of direction, its previous stylistic assurance seemed lost.
Under Lobo’s direction, two highly significant Ford designs were enacted, the original 1996 Ka and the 1998 Ford Focus, both spearheading a newfound confidence in form, graphics and style. Two years later, the Parisian retired, his replacement hailing from Ingolstadt. Chris Bird was part of the design team at Audi since 1985, contributing to the original A8 model, becoming Ingolstadt’s studio head under Peter Schreyer in 1995.
Bird therefore arrived in 1999 with notable design credentials, and is widely regarded as being the leading light behind the shift from the expressiveness of Lobo’s so-called ‘New Edge’ design theme to a calmer, less dramatic appearance. However, the timelines do not necessarily support this contention.
Given that the second-generation Mondeo arrived a year after Bird’s arrival, it is highly unlikely he was instrumental in anything but detail appearance. The fifth-generation Fiesta, which arrived a mere two year’s later, would also have been in progress, although Bird would have had some ability to influence its appearance. These cars however were almost certainly signed off under the late Mr. Lobo, suggesting that this more restrained theme most likely predated Chris Bird’s arrival.
In 2004, the second-generation Focus was revealed, its appearance previewed to some extent the previous year by the advent of the first-generation C-Max model. While the Focus was clearly styled in keeping with this new calmer aesthetic, its appearance can also be read as something of a reaction to the outgoing car. While successful, the first-generation Focus did not unsettle the Golf from its pre-eminent position amid the C-segment, and given the accolades lavished upon the fourth generation model from Wolfsburg, it was inevitable that Ford would follow its lead.
Opinion was sharply divided upon the visual merits of the newer car, which is credited to Ford’s Murat Gueler. The Turkish car designer began his career at VW in 1996 and following a short stint at Sindelfingen, arrived at Merkenich the same year as his design overseer. The design process for Focus 2 is said to have begun in 2000, eight proposals being whittled down before Gueler’s proposal received the go-ahead.
The Focus 2’s exterior design was in many respects (and especially in silhouette) an evolution of the earlier car, but characterised by a sense of visual rectitude. While it may have lacked the outgoing car’s playful expressiveness, Gueler’s design not only reflected Ford’s latest design philosophy, as seen with the earlier Mondeo and Fiesta models, but also a newfound maturity. Ford wanted customers to take this one seriously.
Coupled to this sense of visual heft was a more rigid bodyshell, mated to a new C1 platform, to be shared with Mazda and Volvo. Technical hardware would be carried over, for the most part; the emphasis being on refinement, both in road behaviour (which was excellent) and within the more opulent looking (and feeling) cabin.
While some viewed this new more mature style positively, others, notably Car Magazine’s Gavin Green, decried what he described as Ford’s retrenchment from radicalism. But Ford was not in the business of gratifying auto-journalists, they had market share to defend. The Focus 2’s mission was to shift the model’s proposition upwards in sales and reputation, so as to if not overtake, at least give the all-conquering Golf a decent nip at its heels.
Hence, observers were surprised that in 2007, rather than the expected perfunctory midlife update, the Focus was in receipt of a significant makeover, tantamount to a reskin.
By then Ford’s Merkenich studios had been subject to reorganisation; now headed by Martin Smith, who working alongside Stephan Lamm and the incumbent, if seemingly sidelined Chris Bird, enacted a new aesthetic, energy in motion. Later dubbed Kinetic Design, the theme made its production car debut with the S-Max multispace, introduced in 2006, and the Mondeo 3, first revealed the same year.
A return to a more expressive form, and a reactive shift some suggest from the more ascetic appearance of the immediate post-millennium cars, it was deemed necessary for the facelifted Focus, which had not shifted the European market sales dial in the hoped for direction to receive an infusion of kineticism.
The revised Focus was good in parts, and in parts only. While on one hand the flanks were cleaner (shorn of side-rubbing strips), the waistline body crease was thicker, more pronounced, which caught the light more, but lent the car a heavier appearance. The nose gained more expression, which really amounted to nothing more than noise, similarly the rear. In short, what you gained on the swings, you lost again on the roundabouts.
By contrast to its immediate predecessor, which had steadily maintained the earlier car’s sales position, the facelifted Focus did shift the sales dial in Europe. However, even allowing for the fact that the 2008 financial crash adversely affected car sales worldwide, the sales curve dipped purposefully downwards, a trajectory which has continued largely unabated since.
Whatever rationale sat behind the sudden shift in aesthetics in Ford’s Cologne studios (and internal politics cannot be ruled out), what Ford’s management appeared to have ignored was that the buying public don’t always react well to sudden change. It appears that the majority were largely content with the car as was, and that the abrupt shift in surface treatment, while still evidently the same car, was not all that well received.
This is not necessarily the fault of the design team – or indeed its leadership. Neither Ford’s European fortunes, nor its senior management had been an assured presence for some time and what this period (in purely design terms) reflects is a chaotic and troubled environment.
The Focus’ European sales peak occurred twenty years ago, when slightly over half a million were delivered. Its new normal is now less than half that number – markedly less last year – for obvious reasons. Ford’s current leadership have tacitly suggested that the Focus could be next for the chop, one of their number informing journalists recently that the kuga now represents their core European offering.
In 2010, at the launch of the third-generation model, Chris Bird defended Kinetic Design, saying it provided a point of difference to VW’s then more disciplined offerings. But what it really illustrated was Ford’s schizophrenic approach. Swinging from expressiveness to asceticism, then back again was hardly a recipe for establishing a cohesive and durable styling offer. Consistency sells.
 The timelines on both cars suggest that they may have been designed while Lobo was still based in the US.
 Claude Lobo passed away in 2011.
Murat Gueler went on to lead the design process for the first generation Ford Kuga. As of 2020 he headed Ford’s Merkenich styling studio.