Drawing the future

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Replacing two iconic designs

Replacing any iconic vehicle is never an easy prospect for any designer. Whether it’s an exotic rare car or a much loved volume produced model makes little difference. Imagine being tasked with replacing the VW Golf, sold all over the world, the Land Rover Defender, or Toyota Landcruiser – similar models with a worldwide audience and a loyal following.

So spare a thought for Jordan Bennett, design manager for the Ford Transit. Ford’s panel van was already sold in over 70 countries before the arrival of the latest ‘2-tonne’ model, replacing the heavier Transit range earlier this year.

For the new model, Ford pushed sales into countries where the van had not been sold before. Not just any countries, but the United States and Canada, replacing the long-running Ford Econoline.

So Bennett not only had to satisfy fleets in Europe, where the Transit name has been on a panel van for almost 50 years, but he also had to come up with a design for customers who had just lost one long running model line. Given the difference between European and North American vehicle design, the task was not getting easier. 

Where do you start?

Ford acknowledged the magnitude of the task by appointing separate design teams to handle the interior and exterior. So just where do you start, when faced with such a big design task?

‘You set yourself a set of foundation blocks,’ says Jordan, ‘In this case, it was Ford DNA, with Transit DNA. When I say DNA, I’m talking about the traits and features that you’d associate with a design philosophy. At the time it was Ford’s ‘Kinetic design’, although we don’t use the word any more.

‘There are certain design features that we also had to integrate for Ford DNA and Transit DNA. Again the traits for Transit DNA are obviously, ‘Fit for purpose’ and the fact that it had to look like it could do the job and that it could do the job reliably and dependably and obviously to the best of its ability in the market place.’

Standout features ‘We always need a philosophy, a statement of rules that we’ve designed and created for ourselves to give them a family identity. In this case it was the trapezoidal grille. You’ll see it on all the Ford products, in various different guises, in different proportions and this is obviously the biggest. Even in North America, with the exception of the F150s because they are kind of vertical either side for the grille, you’ll have this trapezoidal grille. Even now with the next generation of Fords, they will have the trapezoidal grille. It will be slimmer for cars and a bit more substantial for commercial vehicles.

‘It’s every sort of aspect that you can go through on this van that you wouldn’t have gone through in previous Transits.

For those it would have been a matter of designing an exterior and just adhere to the engineering and feasibility, package and engineering constraints.

‘With this one, you have to make it a global Ford identified product. So you could cover the badge and tell where it actually came from.’

So did Ford do that with customers in design clinics? ‘We did and a lot of people guessed what it was. We tried one clinic with one that had a front end that was similar to the Transit Custom and it didn’t do so well, because it was too streamlined for the load capacity. It’s carried off on the Transit Custom because above the windscreen it’s at that level all the way across, the proportions are really well balanced. When you come to doing something that’s got two different roof heights and three different lengths, then it’s a different ball game. It looked like the front had been attached to a box, so it didn’t work. So we had to then re-think what we were doing. Again, we had to come up with an idea that was for the bigger CVs. It’s one look for the heritage of Ford. 

Getting it right

‘When we took it to clinics again in Europe and North America, we got a different reaction – ‘OK, this is it, we like this, this one looks like it fits the van and the purpose, the strength, dependability and reliability.’ It just became a bun fight, so to speak, about the height of this bullnosed section (the grille) and it was only 30mm difference. We had two models and it really does look different.

‘In the end, we went for the lower one.’ So was there a clear split between Europe and North America in choosing the higher or lower design? ‘It was just certain factions on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s a lot of people who think that because it was going to America, that’s where Ford’s headquarters are and no one else had any influence, but that’s not the case. We took it to clinics extensively in Europe and the UK and yes, it’s different, it’s strong, it’s a proper face for Ford.’

Jordan then walked me round the van. ‘We’ve incorporated a lot of features and again, you’ll see these on the cars and other commercial vehicles. There’s a strong pronunciation of the wheel arch.

The customers and potential customers in the clinics could see it and that it gives it a good start and you want a good visual start. We took some models to clinics with more tumblehome (more taper into the body sides as they reach the roof) and it didn’t look like it could carry anything.

It didn’t look very stable, so we then had to tune it to a fine point where it met the package requirements, but didn’t look too top heavy, it was a fine line.

‘Then we had to do it again for the lowroof version in America. It was quite a task to get that. Getting back to the pronounced wheel arch trait, when we’re designing a

van, we’ve got the responsibility for the Asurface.

Then there’s ‘real estate’ on the inside between the interior and everybody is jostling for that space, so we in exterior design want a pronounced wheel arch. It’s

a trade off and we’re always going backwards and forwards. It could have been a lot flatter and had just one crown in it, but it would have been featureless.’ 

Family features

Jordan then pointed out a small feature at the back of the side panel, just above the waistline, where the pressing line does not run horizontally all the way to the back of the vehicle, but rises diagonally at the end, ‘This feature here, you’ll see on every Ford product,’ he says. ‘We call it the undercut. It creates a shadow, creates a dynamic feeling that the vehicle is moving even when it isn’t and the customer sees it too.

‘The customer is not just about, ‘Yes it’s going to get good gas mileage, you’re going to get lots of stuff in it.’ They want to be seen in the market place to be efficient, switched on. There’s a lot of owner drivers as well as fleets, but even the fleets want to be seen as saying we’ve got the latest model and it shows how successful our business is.

‘You would never think about that in previous Transits. It’s like a philosophy for the cars and when you see it you think that’s synonymous with Ford design.

They’ve actually intelligently thought about what they are doing and put a bit of sculpture on a van. Nobody ever thought about putting sculpture into vans because it’s a box that you carry stuff with and it’s got to be economical and efficient, but it doesn’t have to look like anything. But nowadays, it does. It’s a big player in the perception of success and being intelligent in what you’re doing.’

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