When we think of the American auto industry and all the troubles it’s had in recent years, it’s often referred to collectively as “Detroit,” the home of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The die for the future (and survival) of the auto industry as we know it is being cast in Detroit for the most part.
But the industry reaches far and wide, and there are people contributing to the products we’ll be driving in the coming years in many places, including Irvine in Orange County. In an unmarked building adjacent to the Santa Ana Freeway, designers are hard at work coming up with the Ford Motor Company products of the future.
Just about every manufacturer has a design facility in Southern California. General Motors operates their own advanced studio right in North Hollywood, in a former commercial bakery building just off Cahuenga Boulevard. The influence of the West Coast lifestyle is an important factor in car design, as trends tend to start or gain momentum here.
For Ford, the studio in Irvine is positioned perfectly to let their designers soak in the culture that makes our region an enviable place to work and play. One recent project they did for fun was to customize some Ford Escape Hybrids for use by the Los Angeles County Lifeguard crew. You can see the bright yellow SUVs patrolling our beaches, as can visitors from around the world.
There’s also serious business taking place at the large square building just north of the Irvine Spectrum. Places like this are normally off-limits to anyone outside of design staff and senior managers, but every once in a while a media tour is arranged to give a little hint of what goes on day in and day out.
So after current projects were hidden away, some journalists were recently let in for a tour of the place to see how things tick. We were presented with the various stages of design for the Lincoln C Concept, which was unveiled on the auto show circuit earlier this year. The C Concept is a preview of what Ford may be selling to a country increasingly accepting of the smaller size cars that Europeans have embraced for dec-ades.
The main design area is made of up large desks with powerful McIntosh computers, where physical sketches are electronically routed onto hard drives, right as the designer is drawing them. The stylist can then makes changes via the computer as design elements are approved or deemed in need of an update. Sometimes, several different variations on a theme can be presented without having to make a new drawing by hand.
Once a design is approved, more high-tech equipment comes into play. In the past, designers would shape a clay model completely by hand, which took hours upon hours. At the Ford studio, a computer-driven milling machine with a robotic arm can make its way around a rough shape of clay, perfectly carving every dimension while designers look on or work on other projects.
The clay model will sit in a showroom adjacent to where the designers work, lit by natural light from huge windows that make up the opposite side of the room. Always aware that spy photographers would love to get an image of a design in progress, there is a courtyard right outside the showroom, protected by a high wall that keeps prying eyes from looking in. Concept cars can also be rolled out into the courtyard to see their shapes in pure daylight.
As for the Lincoln C Concept, it’s quite striking, but is obviously not what a production car would look like. Instead, its intent is to show what could be possible in a small car wearing a Lincoln nameplate. Ford’s design chief Freeman Thomas said that the idea behind the C Concept is to show that a car the size of a VW Golf or Ford Focus can also be a luxury car, if done the right way.
There are lots of changes taking place in the auto industry right now, as Ford and other companies have to win back the trust of the American consumer, and show that they’re working on the issues that our transportation system will face in the coming years and decades. While executives like Thomas have to be tight-lipped about specifics, they seem genuinely excited about the future.
And that future is taking shape, literally, right down the freeway from us.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net