Have you ever had that feeling of total and utter impending doom? The kind where you physically feel your heart drop down several inches inside your torso into a pit of pure liquid terror? I’m not talking about the little nervous jumps you get when you drive off and realize you’ve left your coffee on the roof of your car, or when my boss Matt bellows my name from his captain’s chair. I’m talking about those times when cold reality hits you like a compressed strut to the head (this actually happened to me) and you realize you’ve made the fuck-up to defy all fuck-ups and nothing is ever going to be the same again. And it wasn’t accidental. It was a choice you actively made. You probably think you are GM.
The GM back catalog of self inflicted disasters is varied and deep. If you’re teaching a class about wrong-headed business decisions, the General usually has you covered. This time however the story involves the company’s arch-nemesis Ford and how it was completely outfoxed by those plucky underdogs at Chrysler, and by the time Ford realized it, it was too late to do anything about it. Even worse, Ford could have implemented the same idea as Chrysler much earlier, only The Blue Oval bottled it after setting fire to a big pile of dollar bills.
When we talk about car design, as opposed to car designers, we’re not only considering form and style, but packaging, engineering, technology, marketing and all the other internal and external factors that coalesce together to influence a car’s final form. Cars that we consider copper bottomed design classics of the kind that make designer dandies like me shed a single tear of joy usually bring some advance to the market in one of these areas. The pure necessity driven functionality of the original Jeep; the art and hydropneumatic weirdness of the Citroen DS; the no-nonsense engineering of the Beetle (I hate Beetles. Sorry, Torch); the packaging of the 1959 Mini; the futuristic aero of the 1982 Ford Sierra. You get the idea.
Why the Original Taurus is a Design Classic
The 1986 Taurus was so state-of-the-art, it hurt. Flush glazing and door handles. One piece door stampings. Composite headlights that Ford had to lobby the NHTSA to make legal. No grille opening. Front wheel drive. Inside it was all soft touch plastics, modern rounded shapes and integrated elements designed around the new fangled witchcraft of ergonomics. Ford took the boxy, Brougham-y, chrome laden dross its domestic rivals were still peddling and drop kicked the lot into the trash. The Taurus doesn’t quite get the recognition in snooty car design books it deserves because the Sierra came first, but both programs were massive financial rolls of the dice. If either had become showroom poison they probably would have bankrupted the company.
Ford played it safe with the ’92 Taurus, an evolutionary update of the ’86. Now they had converted people, they didn’t want to scare off those hard won customers and lose the number one sales spot. But by the time they began to think about that car’s replacement, the DN101 ’96 Taurus, the market had moved on. The Accord was the now the best selling sedan by over 100,000 units, and a strip down of the ’92 Camry revealed Toyota was spending approximately $1000 more than Ford in the BoM (Bill of Materials). They were going to have to do something extraordinary.
Ford Has Commitment Issues
Apart from the main advanced and production design studios, OEMs often have a skunkworks where the really advanced design research takes place. Geographically and organizationally separate studios, they throw shit at the wall and see what sticks free from corporate interference. The kind of place Torch would work, were he employable anywhere else. [Editor’s Note: Shit, did Adrian just almost fire me? – JT]
Ford was no different. They had Ghia in Turin which often submitted styling ideas for forthcoming models, but they also had the Ford Scientific Laboratories, which in 1981 come up with a fun-to-drive two seater commuter car called the Optim. Ford did nothing with the idea, and in 1983 Honda released the CRX. This wasn’t the result of Honda goons breaking in in the middle of the night and making off with sketches from the drawer marked “top secret.” Car companies often find themselves working on similar ideas because they are all affected by the same things. Ford had bet the farm TWICE on the Sierra and original Taunus, yet when presented with the minivan and Optim, two opportunities to be first to market they choked harder than the Dolphins on a third down.
Chrysler on the other hand, was about to hit its early nineties purple patch. Iacocca had saved the company but was about to collect his gold watch. Knowing he was on his way out designers and engineers were freed from just slapping mock roof hinges on yet another K car variant and able to explore more advanced ideas. Remember in our Porsche 357 article we talked about how studios test ideas on secret concepts? In 1986 Chrysler did exactly that with the Navajo. It never went further than a full size clay but after Chrysler bought Lamborghini it 1987 it was publicly released as the Portofino, and it became the design template for what would be the LH cars.
Packaging is everything in car design. You work out where all the spinny bits and meat sacks are going to go, and then contain it all in the exterior shape. It’s like playing Tetris in 3D where everything has to go somewhere. The Portofino was a four seater super sedan but the passenger compartment was shoved much further forward than normal to make room for the engine ahead of the rear axle.
Don’t Ask the Public
Upon catching sight of the pre-production Dodge Intrepid at the 1992 Detroit show, Ford’s DN101 program managers and engineers suddenly realized they were fucked. Without being bought dinner first. The new for ’93 Intrepid pulled the ’86 Taurus trick of looking like a sports sedan from the planet Zorb. Long, low and with the base of the steeply raked screen pulled forwards to make more room inside it was called ‘cab forward’ and it shocked Ford Executives right down to their MBA branded underpants. Incapable of taking a shit unless they had multiple research reports confirming pants were down and butt was over water, they had been wheeling indeterminate numbers of DN101 theme clays out to show Mr. & Mrs. Nobody of Nowheresville in clinics for their considered design opinion.
Even though the next Taurus was still four years away, Ford had committed so much money (again) to the program there wasn’t anything left over for a new platform. It was going to have to make do with an extensively reheated ’92 Taurus undercarriage. Ford wanted another revolutionary Taurus like the ’86. The trouble was, they didn’t really understand how they had managed it first time around. Or rather, they didn’t want to understand because a lot of the design decisions were influenced by qualitative factors like feeling and emotions, rather than quantitative ones they could measure and put a number to.
No one was more shocked by the LH cars than Ford engineer Dennis Wingfield. He had worked in Ford Scientific Lab on a car named D-FC55, starting back in 1985. Initially just a research project, it eventually expanded to become a brand new world car platform for the US, Europe and Australia. In 1987 it got a program manager and a proper budget and by1989 it was on its way to becoming a real production car.
The thinking was one platform could provide the underpinnings for every sedan Ford sold worldwide – modular in-line engines mounted transversely of four, six, and eight cylinders. FWD and RWD. This was where the bonkers T Drive concept originated. Ultimately the program’s waistband got too expansive for its pants – it ended up too ambitious and bloated and Ford needed the money to pour into CDW27 (Contour/Mystique/Mondeo). But When Wingfield blew up images of the LH on the photocopier to compare dimensions, he realized aside from the fact it used a longitudinal powertrain layout it was essentially the exact same packaging idea as D-FC55. Ford could have had cab forward years before the LH cars.
Ultimately all Ford had to show for D-FC55 after spending millions of dollars were the 1991 Contour and Mystique concepts that bore no relevance to the CDW27 based cars that would appear in 1994. The blobtacular designed by committee ’96 Taurus unsurprisingly met with apathy in the marketplace and only regained its best seller status for a year by being shoveled towards airport rental counters. By 1997 the Camry had usurped it and pissed off into the sunset. The LH cars had saved Chrysler (again) and provided them with the confidence and finances to start getting really crazy later on in the decade. Cab forward was such a good idea Chrysler used it again at a smaller scale for the Cloud cars.
Torch and David had told me if work here for another fifty years I’ll be eligible for the Autopian Staff Shitcan benefit, which will give me a $1000 budget for a company car. Hopefully that will be enough to score me to a minty Dodge Stratus, because design credibility isn’t always found in the pages of the wanky books I buy to look good on my shelf.
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I just realized why the Lamborghini Portofino concept car always sparked an extra little tingle of joy in my ’80s kid/gearhead brain.
The Cannonball Run (’81) was my favorite movie as a kid, and featured Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman winning the titular race in the immortal black Lamborghini Countach by being the first to reach the finish line at…..The Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach.
These cab-forward Chrysler designs looked great. They certainly lured my dad into the Dodge dealer to buy a new Stratus in ’96. Unfortunately it was a gigantic piece of shit. Not that I expect to see many ’90s economy cars hanging around these days, but the cloud cars and especially the Intrepid (everyone I ever knew with one of these had the transmission explode in it before 80k) were nearly extinct around here by the end of the aughts.
Awesome designs. Shit powertrains.
The chrysler way! 😀