Karen on Cars: Cortina’s & Cocoons.

Tom Karen:

When I worked in Ford’s design studio in the fifties the newly promoted CEO, Sir Patrick Hennessy was putting in place a hugely talented management team – the result was that Ford went from 14 percent of the UK market to cornering one third – all in the wink of an eye.  And to this day Ford cars are still the top sellers.

One of the reasons for this success was that Sir P cared passionately about design and had a good nose for it.  When early proposals for the 100 E range were presented to him he rejected them because he had a hunch that there was room for something more advanced.  The designers had to get their heads down and the outcome was the Anglia and Prefect, designs that broke away from the rounded shapes current at the time – a trend that other makers had to follow.

I was there when the 105E was being hatched, the car with the reverse slope rear window, a feature Sir P had spotted in Turin. He wanted as part of the design at any cost – how many bosses would have stuck their neck out this much? What few people may know is that early prototypes had a rather upright front end that produced unacceptable drag triggering a panic redesign of the whole nose area of the car.

The Mark 1 Ford Cortina - The first of five generations of model that stayed in the top selling list for all of its 20 years!
The Mark 1 Ford Cortina – The first of five generations of Ford Cortina that stayed in the top selling list for all of its 20 years from 1962 to 1982.

The Cortina was of course, and deservedly so, the great coup for Ford. Their engineers taken a BMC Mini apart to the last nut and bolt, found it to be over engineered and according to Henry’s bean counters – considerably under priced. The clever Product Planning people argued that making a big car doesn’t cost that much more than a little one – making a big wheel rather than a small one requires the same number of operations. The extra material content doesn’t have a significant effect on cost and so the Cortina was born, reaching a very wide market and being very profitable very quickly.

Since those days, the motoring world has become a lot more competitive with plenty of very respectable designs on the market – also some evidence that some makers are trying a bit too hard to be original and in danger of resorting to gimmickry .

So… what can designers do to find a new trend?  A clue probably has to do with the way proposed new models are reviewed by management.  It was usual to put a full size ‘see through’ model on a turntable to assess the design. Unless things have changed since my days in the industry, the driver was rarely included in the package.

This probably explains why some drivers have their heads barely above the glass line while others are partially hidden behind the B post. This isn’t very comfortable or flattering as drivers like to see and quite often, like to be seen.  My guess is that part of the popularity of big MPV cars is that their waist line is near elbow level and the driver assumes a commanding position. Though sometimes a low slung position can actually be quite satisfying – to look down at the road close to you. Great not only just for parking but also to get a pleasing sensation of speed right in the seat of your pants!

There is of course a school of thought in favour of high waistlines, cocooning the driver safely in the vehicle. My feeling is that a rewarding route would be to see the driver as the ‘focal centre’ of a vehicle, it’s life and soul to frame him or her in a flattering way.  A lot can be done to achieve this and I truly believe and predict that who ever handles this well will have a lot of success.


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