Lifestyle

Ford, Funkmaster Flex Co-Pimp a Ride


The automaker, looking to cash in further on the rich customizing market, worked with hip hop's car-crazed star to craft a specialty Explorer

It seems incongruous, but the bright red color of Ford’s (F) Funkmaster Flex Special Edition Expedition showcased at this week’s New York International Auto Show is called Colorado Red. Why not Funk Red? Colorado Red sounds like it was inspired by John Denver, not one of hip-hop's leading icons.

Let’s just say Flex didn’t get everything he wanted on the new sport-utility vehicle, like a custom color, but it’s plenty "fly" nonetheless.

The Flex Expedition is an edition of the short-wheelbase Expedition Limited and differs only cosmetically from that model. The SUV carries a 300-horsepower, 5.4-liter, iron-block, 24-valve, V-8 engine; a six-speed automatic transmission; and the choice of rear- or all-wheel drive. Outside, the two-tone (black and red) SUV includes a body kit, special badges, and 20-inch wheels. The interior gets red contrast stitching, red trim for the center console, shifter, and doors, plus Funkmaster logos on the headrests.

$30 Billion Business

Information on pricing and the number of Flex editions Ford will crank out next year won’t be released until later in 2007. But it will probably be at least 2,000. That may sound like a trivial number, but it’s not. Tricking out cars, trucks, and SUVs with the likes of body kits, engine boosters, custom colors, and wheels has become a $30 billion a year business, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. Ford not only wants to get a bigger slice of that cake, but the automaker figures the association with "Flex" can’t hurt it on the cool meter.

Funkmaster, recognized as the most influential radio DJ in the hip-hop world, says the bright color, which he plucked from Ford’s existing color catalog, is influenced by what he saw on his concert tour last year. "Really bright colors on hoodies [hooded sweatshirts] are in, and I thought this red would really connect," said Flex (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/06, "How to Fix Ford").

The DJ has also become influential in the automotive street scene, with a show on Spike TV, Ride with Funkmaster Flex. His other shows, All Muscle with Funkmaster Flex and Funkmaster Flex's Car Wars, are on ESPN. Flex also founded Team Baurtwell, a custom car club, and puts on an annual touring car show, the Funkmaster Flex Celebrity Car Show Tour, which features the cars of celebrities.

An Ongoing Relationship

Ford has done some public relations events with Flex; this Expedition kicks off what will be an ongoing relationship with the well-known car customizer. Ford previously tried to hook up with rapper Sean Combs, first with Lincoln and then Range Rover, on special edition vehicles. But the two sides couldn’t agree on control over vehicles or money (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/25/07, "The Record Year Ford Hopes to Shake Off").

Flex says he got about 10 of the 20 features he wanted, but he isn’t at all unhappy. He says he is interested in a long-term, give-and-take relationship with Ford. "A lot of these deals, the company just wants your name, but I really worked on this myself," he says. He already has plans to customize a limited edition Ford Mustang next year. And when Ford releases its crossover SUV, to be called Flex, in 2008, the Funkmaster says he has been assured he’ll have a crack at tricking out that vehicle as well. Its tentative name will be Flex2.

That deal for a limited edition Flex will indirectly bring about a collaboration between the hip-hop artist and designer Ralph Lauren. It was Lauren, says Ford Chairman Bill Ford, who first inspired Ford to design the "Flex," as an homage to the old, classic, "Woody" Ford wagons of the 1950s.

Kiley is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau.

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