Innovation & Design

Ford Flexes Its Design Muscle


How the ailing auto giant gambled—and turned a risky concept car into a full-fledged model for the showrooms

Concept cars are the rarest of automobiles. These one-of-a-kind models are created to push bold designs, inspire new technologies, and make customers drool. But their innovative technologies and evocative body lines are routinely sacrificed to cost constraints, engineering restrictions, and safety regulations. The most audacious ones almost never become reality.

Here is a case study of an unlikely exception, the 2009 Flex, created by an old-line company facing stark declines in sales, profits, and market share—Ford Motor (F). In the face of such difficulty, most automakers try to reduce their risks, cut costs, and play it safe. But here, Ford bucked the trend and turned a concept car into a vehicle that didn't compromise the original design.

Companies outside of the auto industry in areas such as medicine, consumer electronics, and software increasingly use prototypes to speed up their product development. Yet many fail to translate the lessons they learn in theory into practical products. In this one case, Ford did.

The Flex, which goes on sale next summer, is a symbol of Ford's gambit to change its image from purveyor of gas-burning heavy trucks and SUVs into a maker of efficient, high-quality, stylish vehicles. According to Rich Gresens, the car's chief designer, the project was internally dubbed "the Hamptons," evoking the upscale and urbane sensibility designers wanted for the vehicle, something recent models have lacked.

The design of the Flex—a mashup of a Mini Cooper and Ford's 1940s-era classic "Woody"—makes it a genre buster. It's not quite an SUV, since it is based on a car platform, nor a dowdy minivan. Rather, it is a large, fashionable people-mover—and that could create a new market where Honda Motor (HMC) and Toyota Motor (TM) don't yet dominate.

First shown in 2005 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Flex, then called the Fairlane concept, was unveiled at a time when heavy SUVs were the rage. To the surprise of many, two years later an ailing Ford took the wraps off a faithful production model at the New York Auto Show.

'A LOT OF ROADBLOCKS'

In 2006, Ford lost $12.7 billion. A risky product in an as-yet-undefined market segment was bound to meet resistance, and it did. "Frankly, we ran into a lot of roadblocks," says Gresens. The biggest problem: Ford sales executives were jumpy about a totally new class of vehicle. To calm the sales side, designers Gresens and Peter Horbury, head of North American design, opened up the company's design studio so salespeople could come to see and touch the boxy car. "It sounds cliché, but it really needed time to grow on people," says Gresens.

In the end, the Flex's unconventionality proved its strongest selling point. As Ford suffered through one of its worst years, a theory inside the company began taking hold. New categories of cars that blended traditional types of models could attract fleeing SUV customers. They would offer both car-like fuel efficiency and SUV-like practicality. Quickly, the creators of the Flex stepped forward to argue that their vehicle would fit perfectly at the top of a new pyramid of family cars as the biggest and most visually arresting of crossovers.

When Alan Mulally took over at Ford as CEO, he endorsed this strategy, getting behind the idea of a production model without big design changes. "We're not just putting icing on the cake," Horbury says of designers' newly important role within the company. "We're helping bake the cake." The new Flex, so faithfully rendered, is one of the few Ford models that seem to fit the company's turnaround slogan, "bold moves."

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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