Stephen Bayley discusses the news that Ford is to abandon normal cars in the USA in favour of the trucks and SUVs.
Ford Stops Making Cars’ was not precisely the headline on the April press release, but damn near. The descendants of Henry Ford, who saw personal mobility as an inalienable right, no longer saw the point of making cars. The last US Ford Focus is about to be built and Fiesta production ends in a year. The Crown Vic creaked into the sunset six years ago. Next? Coca-Cola stops making carbonated obesity products? Uncertain times indeed.
The following anecdote demonstrates the frustrations of an advisor to the auto industry. Raymond Loewy was the glamorous huckster-genius who established the first independent design consultancy in New York in 1927. Post-war, he found himself doing work for the British car industry. In his portfolio was the ’53 Hillman Californian, a pillarless, two-tone hardtop of raffish charm based on the feeble Minx. Impressed, BMC hired Loewy to work his glittery magic. In 1955, a man-with-a-tan in a white suit, with a devilish ’tache and cravat, must have been quite a sight down Longbridge way. However, after a few years Loewy became curious that a Morris Malibu, a Riley Redondo Beach or a Wolseley Wyoming had not astonished at Earl’s Court, so he called the Chairman. ‘Dear God, Mr Loewy! We didn’t want to implement your proposals! We just wanted to see what you were thinking!’
That happened to me with Ford. They ignored me. I was a consultant 20 years ago, offering what insights I could to Dearborn’s most astute minds: stop faffing around with sedans nobody wants. At this point, the Mondeo was a good product, but you had to be certifiable to prefer one to a proper German (or even Japanese) car. The middle-market was disappearing. Ford as premium? It was never going to happen.
So concentrate on what you are good at: the F-150 truck and the Transit van. These vehicles are perfect of their type. No-one does them better. Everybody admires them. They are exactly what they seem to be: the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well. Most sensibly, they speak of Ford’s essential values: the blue oval is blue-collar. An asset to be exploited.
Because Ford’s essential proposition was mobilising the masses, a certain proletarian grandeur attaches to trucks and vans. But proletarian grandeur is not what you want to present at the country club. Two decades later, Ford has caught-up with reality.
The lesson here is about product semantics, although I didn’t dare use those words in Michigan. To be effective, semantics have to be founded in confident promises, shared trust and authentic associations. The novelist Walter Kirn has spoken about how thrilling it is to enjoy real American products in real American environments. Smokers, they say, find a Marlboro never tastes so good as when puffed in Death Valley in the company of a grizzled cowboy in leather chaps. Similarly, swooping into Nordstrom in Detroit’s Sterling Heights Mall in an F-150 is to engage with relevance and truth, whereas taking a Mondeo to the Goodwood Members’ Meeting would give you near-terminal Impostor Syndrome.
In this way, Ford’s decision to elevate its trucks and abandon its sedans is a rare engagement with rationality in an industry struggling to make sense of itself. But I am wondering now if this doctrine of product semantics is only a dull hangover from an innocent age… because no-one respects the rules any more. Perhaps in response to a fickle Chinese market that has no conception of Western historic traditions, every manufacturer still capable of organising a new product launch is launching new products that ignore the principles that made them great in the first place.
Take the new Rolls-Royce SUV. When I write my book Gasoline Buggie: The Final Apocalyptic Years, this arresting example of money’s ugly victory over taste will be the first case study. To Rolls’ established values of formal dignity, severe elegance and fine proportions it adds only social absurdity, conceptual laziness, spiritual decadence and cack-handed proportions. But as the great US journalist HL Mencken reputedly observed: ‘No-one ever went bust under-estimating the public’s taste.’ Soon I am expecting Rolls-Royce to follow Ford’s contrarian example and issue a press release that says: ‘Rolls-Royce starts making trucks.’
Which product is the least fake, an honest Ford F-150 or a ludicrous Rolls-Royce SUV? It makes you wonder which Donald Trump would choose.
Stephen Bayley – Author, critic, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator, Stephen co-created the Boilerhouse Project at London’s V&A, was chief executive of The Design Museum, and fell out with Peter Mandelson when he told him the Millennium Dome ‘could turn out to be crap’.