Not Robert Cumberford

viacelli design Logo

A failed car designer tries to make sense of a flat design world.

How Ford’s getting it right with the Fiesta launch.

Ok, I’ve been critical in this blog and on Twitter for a while now about what I perceive as Ford’s missed opportunity with the Fiesta Movement. I’ve said that they dragged their feet too long with the US-spec car and lost their momentum. I’ve said they put too much chrome on the US-spec car (I stand behind that), and I’ve said that what seemed like a brilliant and bold new-media marketing campaign might wither and die before the car had a chance to make it to market. A few things that have happened this week are starting to change my mind.

The first thing, and possibly most exciting, is that I received a call from the agency running Ford’s Fiesta Movement Part Deux telling me that my wife and I are in the running for it. I had breathlessly submitted an application about a month ago and promptly forgotten about it as everyone said that Ford was looking for younger “Agents”, so two thirty-something professionals who are about to have a baby wouldn’t really have a chance. I disagreed, and apparently so did the folks running the show, who think it could be cool. I hope so. I can only tell them that it would be an incredible opportunity to show the world that a tiny (by American standards) hatchback can make a great urban family car. I’ve been yelling it from the rooftops for years, so this would be my chance to walk the walk. The fact that both my wife and I are in design and marketing and that’s the crux of this “Movement” just adds to the excitement. Philly’s ad campaign for the Fiesta, designed by me for those people I think would love the car? Yes sir, that would be sweeter than pie.

The second thing is much less personally relevant, but something that I consider quite interesting. Amateur rally driver and DC shoes co-founder Ken “don’t call me Corky” Block and his flat-billed Monster Energy hat will be the first American ever to drive in the World Rally Championship next year, in, you guessed it, a Ford. Although he won’t won’t be driving a Fiesta in WRC (the Euro-spec Focus fills that role), he will be driving one in the X-games and, one can assume, in his next mega-viral, super-linktastic gymkhana video on YouTube (if you haven’t seen the first one, stop here, go to this link, and enjoy). Even though this development is a small one in the scheme of launching a new car, it shows me that someone at Ford might just “get” the position of the Fiesta after all. A cool hatchback that’s fun to drive and appeals to a niche segment of young urban drivers.

These two pieces of news give me hope for Ford’s small car. It might not be doomed by its own marketing, as has happened so many times before with small American cars (in a wonderfully self-fulfilling way for the manufacturers). If I get my hands on one for the next stage in the Fiesta Movement, well, I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure people know and understand, why I want this car so much and what I’ve been clamoring about for so long.

All I need now is that call back telling me we’re in. Don’t let me down Ford. I’ve been yelling for years about how the US needs good, fun, hatchbacks, please give me the forum and the megaphone to speak to a larger audience.

Is Ford about to drop the ball on Fiesta Movement?

I’ve been following Ford’s Fiesta Movement from the beginning. In fact, not only did I consider putting my name in the hat to participate, I was already directly or indirectly following several of the final 100 chosen via blogs or Twitter. For me, Fiesta Movement was not about raising awareness of the car, but rather a test of whether a fun-to-drive European hatchback could really become cool in the US — something automakers have been telling us for years was impossible and that a vocal minority have been saying was not only possible, but already a reality.

I have been at the front of that vocal minority for years. Upon returning home to the US after years lived in Europe in the ’90s, I couldn’t believe that the US car market had such a horrible void at its bottom end. The small, cheap and clever cars that Europe adores were simply missing over here, and the argument seemed to be that automakers couldn’t make enough profit from them and that, quite frankly, nobody wanted them anyway. I did, and still do, and I know others do too. I’ve walked the walk too, owning both a VW Golf and a MINI Cooper in the past decade. And now I’m looking to buy a new car.

The Fiesta instantly jumped to the top of my list based on the positive reviews that it’s received in Europe and in recent tests on US websites. I want a 5-door hatch that is small, fun to drive, and, yes, looks cool (I’m still a designer, you know). And I’m looking to spend around $15K on it. And here is where Ford’s problems start. They have been very vague about everything to do with the US Fiesta. When will it arrive? How much will it cost? Will they put some horrible higher-powered but inefficient and unfun engine in it or maintain the Euro spec? Will they tweak the styling for “American taste” (meaning, the complete lack of taste, if the current Focus is any indicator). We just don’t know. And there is real-world competition for it, on the ground, in the US, right now.

The Honda Fit has been a huge success since it arrived a few years ago if my neighborhood in Philadelphia is any indication. It’s small, clever and a pretty decent drive. It’s almost the exact same size as the Fiesta but vastly more useful. Its got those flippy seats and a flappy-paddle gearbox and the new model even looks pretty good. A Euro-spec Fiesta bests it in driving pleasure, I hear. The Fiesta also looks better — if they keep it the way it is. And maybe it will be cheaper? Yeah, we don’t know that either. Ford’s been extremely tight-lipped on the subject. Which leads me to one conclusion: it doesn’t matter how much goodwill and interest has been generated by Fiesta Movement if buyers can’t put numbers and dates and specs on their shopping list.

I probably won’t be buying one. In a buyer’s market, a new Honda Fit, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube or even a VW Rabbit or Mazda 3 is potentially competitive. In the current used market, the sky’s the limit. If the Fiesta’s arrival is imminent, I might wait, but a recent Ford press release says “More than nine months before the 2011 Ford Fiesta goes on sale in North America”. Nine months? How will they keep up the excitement for that long? Who’s going to wait nine months in the small-car space for a mysterious car that you can’t compare, spec or price? I won’t, and I blame Ford. Hopefully this won’t doom the Fiesta upon its arrival, but with Mazda readying the 2 and Fiat importing the 500, I think Ford is wasting its opportunity to get on buyers’ shopping lists.

But if you want to do a second round of Fiesta Movement, give me a call. If the car’s as good as you say it is, having it sit in my driveway next to a Fit should be the perfect way to show off everything that’s good about it.

SketchBook Pro goes mobile

I’ve been playing with it for months on my iPhone, but now it’s gone public – Autodesk’s Sketchbook Mobile is coming to the app store. A fantastic addition to the digital designer’s workflow, this is the drawing app you’ve been waiting for if you’re a professional designer or digital artist.

Check out Carl Alviani’s article about it on Core77, and I’ll be putting up my impressions soon.

I’m not bitter. Really.

Just jealous.

One of my former classmates at Art Center, Karim Habib, just jumped ship from BMW to Mercedes to “oversee” their Advanced Studio in Stuttgart. Karim’s a great guy (or was anyway, might be a d-bag after years with Chris Bangle), but it hurts me every time I see someone I was in class with (and better than?) have such success in the car design world. I screwed up bigga time and this punctuates it.

Link to the story on Autoblog

Oh well.

Karim Habib is headed to Mercedes

The democratization of car buying?

I’ve always said that you can tell a lot about a person by the car they drive. Whether you like it or not, even the blandest car makes a statement about who you are and how you live. Very rarely would you be surprised by a slick salesman in a Honda Civic or a hippy in a BMW M3. But these days, gas prices seem to have changed that, forcing rednecks into Geo Metros and Soccer Moms out of their SUV high-horses and into more practical station wagons (gasp!) and reasonable sedans. But is this a permanent change, or a temporary reaction?

I’m not sure, but it occurred to me this morning that Europe has always been a more democratic car buying environment. Small streets, a near total lack of parking, insane taxes on vehicles, lack of credit, and, of course, high fuel prices have meant that for decades Europeans drove what as practical above what was cool. Only showoffs drove BMWs and SUVs. Only rich people drove Porsches. Everybody else, well, they drove what was cheap and local. The French have been buying Peugeot and Renault hatches, the Germans their Golfs and Opels, and the Italians their crappier than thou FIATs for generations. I’ve seen businessmen in Pandas and well-to-do families piling out of a Renault Scenic and never batted an eye. In the US, it’s so rare, that pulling up to a family picnic can be a nerve-racking experience if you feel like you’re “under-driving” (what will Aunt Jane think of me driving an old Saab? Will Uncle Mark think I’ve lost my job when he see the ’99 Passat wagon?).

But now it’s all changed. I think that these gas prices are likely to stay over $4/gallon, so SUVs will slowly go away in favor of smaller cars permanently. The credit crunch will likely pass though, so as upmarket fuel-efficient cars start filtering in to our protectionist little country (I’m looking at you BMW, where’s my efficient dynamics, huh?), will the level playing field tilt again to towards the wealthy? Will my neighbors put away the Civics in favor of Explorers? Is this just another malaise era that creates a generation of little fuel-efficient cars only to be completely forgotten when things get better again?

One way or another, it’s going to be interesting. I can’t instantly judge people by the car they drive anymore. That’s no fun, but probably not a bad thing. I’ll be keeping an eye out though. Will the market change to fit the cars, or will the cars change to fit the market? Only the automakers can decide that.

Re-inventón coachbuilding?

At first glance it looks like a Murcielago that’s been made-up by NBC to be KITT on the new Knight Rider series (they’re really doing that). But it’s not. So maybe some tacky one-off designed for the Sultan of Brunei? Close. It’s the Reventón, Lamborghini’s newest trick to separate attention seeking rich men from their cash – and lots of it.

Lamborghini Reventón

To be built in only 20 examples (unless, of course, they get greedy), this car is essentially a $1.5 million dollar answer to the question nobody was asking – “What would happen if Lamborghini built a special edition Murcielago based on the design of a 1970s stealth fighter plane?” That answer has been decisive to say the least.

Read the rest of this entry »

I want my Ghia Focus.

Ok, I know, I should get over it. It’s been almost 15 years since Ford showed the Ghia Focus concept car at the Turin auto show and stunned the auto design world (at least us students). The question is, for all of its kudos and popularity, why did we never see its design style translate into a production car?

I’ve heard cost as a reason, and I’m sure in 1992 that was a good one, especially at Ford, but I know that in the years that I was studying auto design (mid-nineties), the “bio” style that the Focus encapsulated was, at best, discouraged. I never got it, and still don’t. Look back at the photo below and tell me that this car isn’t still terrifically modern today. The Taurus was a half-assed attempt to apply Taru Lahti’s stunning shapes onto a production vehicle. But the Taurus was soft and mushy looking where the Focus was taut and solid. And the details, oh those details, have just never been seen since, despite huge advances in lighting and trim technology since 1992.

Ghia Focus

Ghia Focus

1996 Ford Taurus
In a world of rip-off retro (Ford with its T-bird and GT being the ironic worst offenders of this, despite Chrysler trying hard to compete for the “Lack of Imagination” prize), the Ghia Focus represents what could have been the future direction at Ford, or anywhere for that matter. Unfortunately, because soft shapes and organic style was considered “old-fashioned”, New Edge and “Flame-surfacing” (which evidently doesn’t have anything to do with Chris Bangle’s sexuality) took flight, giving us the groundbreaking…um…Ka and 7 series?. Yeah, ok, well, that’s all I could think of, and that’s the point.

Imagine if Ford had used the design language from the Ghia Focus on a production sportscar though. The world would have been awed, and buyers would’ve lined up. Imagine if Chris Bangle had embraced the simple sharp-edged lines and sensual surfaces of the Focus over the busy, overwrought, criss-crossing lines and forms he chose to reshape our beloved Bimmers? He’d be loved by one and all, and he could spout his peculiar form of artistic wisdom all day long without anyone telling him to shut his gob.

Sort of like I do.

So I’m still waiting. Anybody up for the challenge? Any designers brave enough to do something organic in todays slab-sided retro industry?

I sure hope so. I still want one.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Why Cadillac just doesn’t get it.

Ok, so it’s more marketing than design, but I think someone needs to put it out there – the reason GM is hemoraging money is that they simply don’t understand the market, and in my mind, it all starts with Cadillac.

In the past few years Cadillac has been on a push to compete with European and Japanese luxury car makers such as BMW and Lexus by putting out cars that are big, blocky, heavy and unsophisticated. I know, I know, they’re only unsophisticated in relation to those cars, being relatively modern and technological machines in their own right. But starting with the names – BTS, CTS, VTX, VHS, whatever they are, they’re trying to be something they’re not. What Cadillac really needs is a return to some old-style names, in the style of DeVille, Seville, Fleetwood, Eldorado (and maybe a few new ones to update the whole deal). People around the world have a soft spot for these names, especially a name like Eldorado, and the car that was associated with it – big, beautiful and brash. But not “don’t mess with Texas” brashness, more like “Marilyn Monroe”. In your face, definitely, but so over-the-top stunning that you can’t resist it, even against your better judgement, which, let’s face it, is the only way a BMW owner is going to buy a Caddy.

I heard that they were going to stop using Led Zepplin in their commercials. Well, that’s a start. If you think a Lexus driver is going to jump ship because your luxury car is more “Rock & Roll”, you seriously don’t understand why someone buys a Lexus – performance, quality and understated luxury. That person is not going to go out and buy a car that’s twice the size of their Lexus, looks like a tank that just drove through a chrome gate and has the interior quality of a Police cruiser.

Cadillac, get with the program. We all loved you as the eccentric, over-the-top Hollywood star of luxury carmakers, but you’re just embarassing yourself right now.