J Mays

Design Friday. J. Mays.

I have always been fascinated with automotive design. The automobile is such a pervasive part of American culture, and your automobile is an object that you are in daily contact with. The design of this one object has such a direct impact on your daily life, and yet it is for so many something that very little thought is given to on a daily basis. I mean seriously, when was the last time you were sitting in your car and you thought “Wow look at the detail that went into the design of the top of the dash. Look at how the top of the console sweeps into the dash line in a perfect parabolic arc.” Yes I know there are some people out there that are this obsessive but most aren’t. One designer that has revolutionized the field of Automotive Design, is J. Mays. What Mays has done for the auto industry, and especially Ford has been pure design genius.

As vice-president of design for the Ford Motor Company, J. MAYS is one of the world’s most influential automotive designers. Before joining Ford in 1997, the US-born Mays worked for Audi, BMW and developed the Volkswagen Concept One, which became the new VW Beetle.

Mays studied automotive design at Art Center in Pasadena, California in the latter half of the 1970’s.A period that for the most part can be thought of as the dark ages of American Automotive design. MAys graduated in 1980, and started his career with Audi, making a name for himself in the automotive design community with his successful redesign of the Audi 80. After just three years with Audi Mays moved to BMW where he worked on designs for the legendary BMW 5 and 8 series. Yet after just one year at BMW he returned to Audi in 1984 to work on the Audi 100, Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Polo and the Audi AVUS concept car.

The Audi Avus Quattro

Q. Early in your career you left the US to work in Europe, how did this influence your development as an automotive designer?

A. Greatly. In Germany, I learned how to construct an automobile: versus how to style one.

In 1989 Mays returned to the United States as the Chief Designer of Volkswagen’s design studio in Simi Valley, California where he developed Volkswagen “Concept One”, which proved so popular as a concept car at international auto shows, and with Sr. Volkswagen staff that it was later developed into the New Beetle. Mays design of the Concept One was a breath-taking leap forward in automotive design. It showed that a concept car can be more that an exercise in visual styling, that the design can lead and find its way into production vehicles. Today, the New Beetle remains one of Volkswagen’s most popular cars world-wide. It’s iconic look and design styling helping to separate it from a sea of ordinary cars.

The Concept One, which became the New Beetle. I love the glass roof.

Q. Which of the cars you developed as a designer, rather than as a design director, are you most proud of? And why?

A. As a designer, I am most proud of my work on the Audi AVUS concept and the Volkswagen Beetle Concept One – probably because they resonated so greatly with so many people.

In 1997 Mays joined Ford Motor Company taking the position of Vice-President of Design. As the head of design at Ford, Mays was responsible for the design direction of the company’s marquee brands: Aston Martin, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercury and Volvo. (Ford no longer owns Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, or Aston Martin). Mays influence over these marquee brands during the late 1990’s and early 200’s can be seen on almost every vehicle they produced. Jaguar’s looks were updated, and the fit and finish on these cars were greatly improved. Volvo moved from being known as a rolling box, to a sexier more sophisticated look with smooth contours while remaining true to Volvo’s original design heritage.

Q. Can you describe your contribution to the development of a particular Ford concept car or production model as an illustration?

A. Let’s take the Ford Mondeo, which is sold in Europe. My role was to lay the foundation for the design of the entire Ford brand, not just to help style a nameplate. Once I established that foundation – or established that DNA – in this case for the Blue Oval in Europe, my job became making sure that it really translated to the Mondeo itself.

Since joining Ford in 1997, he has overseen the development of the new Ford Thunderbird and Ford Explorer, as well as such concept cars as the Jaguar F-Type and Volvo Safety Car. Mays also broke with industry tradition by commissioning a designer with no previous automotive experience – Marc Newson – to create a concept car, the Ford 021C.

Marc Newson designed 021c concept

Q. Which of the Ford projects you have been involved in so far are you most excited by? And which future projects excite you most?

A. The Thunderbird and StreetKa both have been exciting products. As for a great one further out on the horizon.….let’s just say there’s a Baby Aston Martin on the way that will turn more than a few heads.

One of J. Mays chief criticisms of his fellow automotive designers is that they design to impress their peers rather than the public. In his role as vice-president of design at the Ford Motor Company, Mays is trying to change that by encouraging his global design team network to absorb and express the same influences as designers in other areas: from furniture and fashion to architecture.

The Super Chief concept's cabin

Q. You have often been quoted as saying that automotive designers have designed to impress other automotive designers for far too long, why? Is this situation changing? And, if so, why?

A. Designers aren’t easily able to think as customers. And, because they tend to socialise together, dress the same way and have the same black furniture in their living rooms, they tend to have a very isolated – and inaccurate – view of the world. That’s slowly changing, at least at Ford. Because as we start to separate and amplify our brands, it’s becoming clear that each of the brands is a sub-set of the customers themselves. Ultimately, it’s our job to design for those customers, and part of that is better understanding them.

The Ford Airstream Hybrid

The Ford Super Chief Concept

The instrument cluster for the Bronco concept

A personal favorite. The redesigned Ford GT.

The Ford Start

Ford Start's interior design


Design Friday, A Look Back to the Future From 1999

Newson's 1999 concept car for Ford. The 021C

For design Friday, I wanted to take a step back. Ten years to be exact, and look at Marc Newson’s design for the Ford C21 concept car. Earlier this week my friend and fellow designer Jeff Chenault, sent me a link about this car, and I have to say I had totally forgotten about it. But in today’s climate, the automobile would probably have some success for Ford.

Back in 1999, then ford’s head of design, J.Mays decided to get a designer from outside of Ford to work on a concept car. His choice was Marc Newson who had been designing furniture and products but never worked on automotive design before.

Here is a little background on how the C21 came to be born. Ford’s Global Design and Chief Creative Officer, J. Mays, decided to hire a designer from outside the automotive field in order to break free from conventional automotive design thinking. His choice was Marc Newson, an emerging prolific industrial designer who had worked in aircraft design, product design, furniture design, jewelry, and clothing. J. Mays brief was simple. I want you to create a simple and affordable urban vehicle, which would be eco-friendly.

Newson got to work, creating a vehicle that appears both modern and retro in styling. The cabin has an open feel with its vertical slim pillars and large surrounding glass. The floor is completely flat that gently curves to meet the  vertical surfaces. Newson worked with Italian furniture manufacturer B+B Italia to produce the seats.  The entire dash panel can be moved vertically (along with the steering wheel) to adjust for different drivers. The interior is finished in a combination of orange PMS 021C, Newson’s favorite color, silver and white. Every element, from the specially woven carpet to the analogue instruments made by the Ikepod Watch Company, were designed by Newson.

The car featured unique thinking for the automotive world. The doors open out from opposing hinges, (suicide doors) for easy entrance and egress. The front seats swivel to help with entering and exiting the vehicle. The trunk opens like a dresser drawer pulling out from under the lid. Once again designed to create easier access to interior spaces.

The carbon fiber exterior features simple shapes and clean lines with no superflous decoration at all. The door handles are simple aluminum buttons surrounded by a translucent plastic ring which is illuminated when the remote central locking is activated.

The car is like a glasshouse, open light and airy with thin pillars flowing  around the clam-shell door frames to ensure the widest possible apertures. The front and rear views of the Ford 021C are dominated by single light lenses and a wrap around bumper.

Designed to specifically appeal to a consumer base of 21 and younger drivers, the car played to the fact that these consumers are highly brand literate, extremely technologically aware, and want quality products which express their individuality.

“The Ford 021C is an honest, simple, engaging car, and these are values which resonate with this important group of emerging automotive consumers,” said Ford’s Vice-President of Design, J Mays.

Mays went on to say, “The project has helped change the way Ford designs new vehicles. As car designers we tend to approach everything from an automotive perspective. The Ford 021C treats the car as a cultural icon. We have created a distinct point of view with this car and if you don’t get it, don’t worry – you’re probably not meant to.”

This kind of thinking was a radical departure for an industry that while shaping many aspects of the design world, has since the 1970’s produced more and more product that is for lack of a better word generic. All you have to do is look at the majority of cars on the road today. Many are slight variations of a competitors product, with conservative styling choices. The design philosophy behind the 021C set a foundation for new generation of Ford vehicles and was designed to appeal to a new generation of consumers in the 21st century.

“Ask children to draw a car and they’ll draw something like this, so in many ways the 021C is a familiar and comfortable object,” Newson said. “But it doesn’t use many typical automotive design cues, and while it does incorporate some interesting technology, it’s not technology used simply for the sake of it.”

Design Friday, well sort of…


The new convertible, longing to be driven.

I’d like to dedicate this post to my friend Kanon Cozad, who is by far the most obsessed automobile enthusiast I know. Kanon’s recent trip to Germany to pick up his new BMW M3 was cut short, before he could truly experience the car on the autobahn. So Kanon this post is for you.

In an article that was written for the Financial Times a couple of months back, a financial writer, in the course of bashing the government bailout of American automotive manufacturers, called out automotive advertising for its unrealistic image of the modern driving experience. The author decried the romantic vision of automobiles. The image of wind in the hair, open road… The kind of vision that was made popular at the height of the American auto industry peak at the end of the late 60’s.

He then described the reality of most  journeys in your car as “mandatory floggings rather than Kerouac-style Odysseys,” consisting of “commutes, school runs and business trips.”

In some ways it’s hard not to agree with him that cars, while better designed and engineered than they ever have been, are often pressed into utilitarian duty. I’ve seen a Lamborghini Murciélago (basically a racing car in street clothes) sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store. And ask yourself how many Land Rovers do you ever see roving off-road? It’s true enough that more than a few commercials for cars look like outtakes from The Fast and the Furious, with cars going at light speed through city streets miraculously free of traffic, or blasting through hair pin turns with the grace of a cheetah on the prowl. All of them baring the fine print statement, “Professional Driver, Closed Course”. But with that said, it’s not quite as grim as this article would lead you to believe.

Very few of people ever get to drive cars at much more than fifty percent of their potential, unless take your car to a racetrack for a track day (which a considerable number of car enthusiasts actually do, and with good reason). Now, if you have a car that handles well and are willing to look for the closest challenging back roads, your car that mostly serves as your personal shuttle service can become a nimble-footed runner again.

Finding those roads may be easy. If you are like me, you live in a place like the central Midwest where curvy back roads follow the contours of the landscape, hugging the outline of a river or other natural occurrence. On the other hand, if you live in grid-intensive place like Florida it might be tougher to do.

But real fun on the open road is not a completely unattainable dream. I know first hand that there’s still sport driving available on public roads. How do I know? Because I have been the proud owner of a Mini Cooper S for almost 6 years, and with the recent purchase of a Cooper S convertible, I can say that this is on of the most enjoyable cars I’ve owned since I bought an MGB in the early eighties, and with the help of a gear head friend in Lawrence built it to run. Both Cooper S’, the Supercharged and now the Turbo are fast, with tight suspension for amazingly flat cornering, this English retro revival courtesy of BMW has me thinking about the classic years of sports cars, when all you had to do was drive to a race track, tape the headlights, put a number on your doors, and make a play for the winners cup.

That those dreams can be revived by a modern car with ABS, airbags, computers, sensors, air conditioning, Etc., may be in part due to the fact that the MINI itself revives a legendary car from decades past. The original MINI was designed in the mid-fifties by Sir Alec Issigonis, a Greek whose family had English citizenship. The MINI, Like the VW Beetle, and the Fiat Cinquecento, the MINI was a gasoline-stingy answer to the post war shortages in the 50’s in Europe. With its front-wheel drive and four-corner wheel placement, the original MINI feels almost weirdly roomy considering it’s minuscule size.  The new MINI that BMW has revived, is almost two feet longer than the original, and it is a design that does exactly what “retro” should do: It improves on the past while still evoking it. In other words, the MINI is at once modern, and in mood nostalgic.

Despite the tendency of the fashion industry’s ability to be successful by recycling styles every 20 years or so with slight changes, retro  can be tricky for car makers. On the list of successes, besides the MINI, there is the new Fiat Cinquecento, Ford’s Mustang “Bullit” model (styled after the Mustang Steve McQueen drove in the legendary movie with the same name), and, the new Dodge Challenger which, truly grabs the original vibe of that car. Companies like Jaguar had a good run with its reissued version of its famous E Type, and the XK series, but Indian company Tata motors that bought Jaguar from Ford early this year, is going with the decidedly not-retro variation, playing to an olde more established consumer. I’m still not sure  about the new Chevy Camaro I have yet to  drive one yet, and the chopped roof kind of bugs me . Frankly I am a bit surprised that Chevrolet has never tried to recall to one of the most popular collector cars GM produced in its long history, the mid- to late fifties Chevy Bel Air. A pure classic with its  two-tone paint and fins, designed by the legendary Harley Earl and his magical team. This would surely have been as welcome as the Thunderbird was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s from Ford.

Though successful in terms of sales, a retro car that was designed by J Mays and Freeman Thomas illustrates what problems can occur when looking forward and back at the same time. The car that brought J Mays initial fame, and eventually landed him the top design position at Ford, was the Volkswagen New Beetle. It’s been a huge success for VW, and when first sighted back in 1998 the car was hard not to like. I test drove one of the first of these new beetles to arrive in Kansas City, and if I’d walked down the street with naked and carrying sacks of money I couldn’t have attracted more  attention. The car, was essentially a VW Golf with a different body, but the stand out shape was its arched roof. The new Beetle was reminiscent of the Art Deco-influenced pre-and-post-war Volkswagens, but unlike the Beetle of old this was a modern front engine car, and within the first year of introduction VW had a performance Turbo Beetle.

Then there are the faux retro cars, whose designs  evoke the past without referring to, or being based directly on an actual motor vehicle from the past. The most popular of these is the Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, which was designed by Bryan Nesbitt. The PT recalls, a line of Plymouth trucks from the thirties. The styling is meant to make us think about burly men in fedoras smoking cigars and looking like gangsters. The PT  has sold surprisingly well since its introduction in 2000, proving that funky design doesn’t turn everyone off. One particularly egregious version even re-introduced a woody like version with wood grained vinyl siding. We now know, however, the PT, like was  not able to save Chrysler and a stake from Fiat will hopefully to do that.

The point to all of this is that, while the author of the financial time article was partially correct, there are still a number of affordable, well styled cars out there that provide a fun driving experience, provided that the driver is willing to seek it out. I am the former owner of New Beetle and a number of classic cars in the past. I am drawn to the fun design stylings of the new MINI, and  the modern driving experience that comes with 21st century engineering. Like many smaller sport coupes today, The MINI is so well thought out. It falls in the same class as the Volvo C30, VW’s GTI, Subaru’s WRX and so many others. I really hope that this signals a new age of automobiles driven forward by the merging of solid industrial design, engineering, and more over the fun of driving. Yes Driving your car should be fun. The overall experience should fill you with a complete sense of satisfaction. Satisfaction that comes not only from the act, but from the design of the vehicle you are sitting in.