The designer puts emotion into a car. He puts life into it… It’s that magic, [it’s] that spark that makes people say, “I’ve got to have that.”
Over the weekend, I was browsing Netflix when I noticed A Faster Horse - a documentary about the 50th Anniversary Ford Mustang and the legacy of its half-century existence. I wouldn’t say that I’m a "car guy”; perhaps “car appreciator” is a better characterization. It seemed like an interesting subject, though, so I checked it out.
A few minutes into the film, I heard too great of a design discussion to not write about it. I found the car's design process could be classified by five stages:
- The soul of the original car and its team,
- The sketches that kick off each Mustang design,
- The sculptures of clay that help determine aesthetic direction,
- The screens of the computers used to create CAD models, and
- The streets on which the cars are tested and ultimately delivered.
Like many 21st century documentaries, the film starts towards the end of the story. We see current Ford employees in meetings discussing daily issues that have arrived in the face of a crunched deadline. To really understand the design of the car, however, you need to appreciate its start.
Grill of the Ford Mustang as was originally branded the Ford Cougar
In the early 1960's, Ford hired 7 agencies to come up with various designs for a sporty, two-door automobile. Originally named "The Cougar", several different style directions emerged. Amongst the designer pool from these different agencies was Gale Halderman. Affectionately (one supposes) named “Farm Boy”, Gale initially didn't think he fit in too well with the other designers. Many of them were “fancy”, being “from New York and California” and all. Halderman, by contrast, was a humble man from Ohio. His design ended up being chosen from all submissions and the marketing team later changed the name to “Mustang”.
Isometric view of Gale Halderman's original Mustang design
“Designing a good looking car is absolutely easy as pie," Gale states in an opening shot. "Designing a car that the company can afford, the manufacturing guys can assemble, the engineers can engineer, that’s damn difficult.”
The man who started it all
Before the cars are sketched, the team finds images that represent the character of the car. For the 2015 Mustang re-design, the team decided that the Joe Louis fist statue in downtown Detroit would define the car's tone.
Boxing legend Joe Louis (second from the left) in front of the statue that inspired 50th Anniversary Mustang design
“We wanted that very-strong look. Not only conveying power but also that salt-of-the-earth look. Not trying to be something that it’s not. That was the image we wanted for the Mustang.” - Jack Telnack, Former Ford VP of Design
If you’re not frustrated with the design community, you probably have a boring design.
Even today, with handheld computers and instant global communication, car designs begin on paper.
“We still start with initial sketches that the designers do. I don’t think that process has changed much since day one in cars," states Telnack.
In 50 years, the Mustang has only been had 6 different design versions. In the past decade, many of these design cues are heavily derivative of the original model.
The 6 Eras of Mustangs
As with paper, clay models hold much of the same importance today as they once did. It's one thing to look at a sketch; it's an entirely different experience to be able to walk around and feel the shape of what the car could become.
These models are created and released to engineers who carefully contour every angle of the car to get things just right.
“I think a sculpture adds a lot of ideas that you don’t do with a computer," proclaims Telnack.
Adhesive tape used to check contour lines
Clay shavings being blown away from sculpture
Perhaps the most surprising part of the film for me was the computer design stage or lack thereof. There wasn't much mention of CAD in general and I believe this was because:
- shots of screens are not all that enticing, especially when you have a factory full of parts that are more visually-appealing,
- the artistic direction of the film honored the heritage of the car and computers are a relatively new addition to the Mustang and other automaking processes.
Either way, I've included a few shots of interactions with screen design for those interested.
Ultimately, all of these stages are of no use if the car can't conquer the roads. As many would expect, the attention to detail when making a modern car is heightened. Shots of employees checking door clearance and squeakiness of every little part demonstrate just how badly they want this car to be great.
Sound design stage checks exhaust notes in a sound-treated space
Even after ensuring that they've secured the look and feel of the car, thousands of miles of endurance testing over all varieties of terrain test the vehicle's build.
Wind tunnel testing the 2015 Ford Mustang 5.0L V8
Delivering the car to a test track
I really enjoyed the documentary and would recommend it to anyone who loves Mustangs and/or the design process of cars. Check it out on Netflix (or iTunes/Amazon/etc.) and let me know if you find any design elements I might have missed.