Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dream Car One: the Ford Airstream.

If I had one automotive wish, I’d beg for a car so futuristic that I’d never look to the past again.

Every generation of enthusiasts has a heyday to look back to. Fifties kids had brightwork: chrome tailfins framed the Push-o-Matic hopes of a spacebound generation. Sixties kids knew muscle; hands were burned on towering carburetors and elaborate valve covers in this era of engine-over-all. The ‘70s drained gas pumps and horsepower figures, leaving the then-grown children with stale memories of a better time in cars.

I began my work in automotive journalism at the age of four. My first issue of Motor Trend arrived in late 1989, and thus began my research in the field. I grew up in an era when Detroit still held a majority of market share against perceivable reason. Burgeoning Japanese companies were producing similarly innocent two-door subcompacts. I was a proponent of the fun-sized imports, and at an early age solidified a rhetoric shared with most enthusiasts my age: “American cars cannot compete. The Japanese have won.” As the attitude gained momentum, my family’s driveways filled with evidence: I was the driving force behind six import purchases by 2000.

I watched Toyota showrooms shift. In 1994, Toyota produced six sport coupes. Three were intimate two-seaters. Two were turbocharged. All were painted in polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it hues. Only the world-class high-tech Supra was priced over $25,000.

Today, Toyota produces only one two-door coupe: the Camry-based Solara, which is about as exciting to drive as its four available shades of grey paint would suggest.

My generation’s heyday ended at the turn of the century. Enthusiasts never suspected that the once-humble purveyors of two-seat sports cars would grow to become monoliths – and abandon their endearing qualities altogether. I grew cynical in tandem.

Bitter words heralding the past and berating the state of the industry filled my columns, but brought only momentary solace. My view of the market was so wistful that I couldn’t see beyond the status quo.

The Ford Airstream changed my outlook forever.

the preludes

From the late 1980s until the mid 2000s, most mainstream domestic vehicles lacked the attention to design and engineering necessary to compete with globally-built competitors. In the mid-1990s, Ford’s Taurus lost its vaunted status as America’s best-selling car, ceding the title to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The telling slip was indicative of changing market trends – but it wasn’t enough to stifle Ford’s creativity.

In 1995, Ford introduced the GT90 concept car. The mid-mounted V12 engine used unprecedented quad-turbocharger technology to boost output to 720 horsepower. However, the GT90’s advanced power train was overshadowed by exterior design that abandoned curvy bodywork in favor of structured polygonal panels. This “New Edge” design philosophy allowed exterior elements such as headlamps, taillamps, and air intakes to stand autonomously – to stake out their own space, rather than flow cohesively into the body. New Edge’s departure from design norms gave enthusiasts a glimpse into the future.

One year later, the Indigo concept punctuated Ford’s passion for design-focused supercars – even if they existed only in dream realms. The topless two-seater showcased technologies that would reach mainstream series production more than a decade later, such as LED headlamp assemblies, composite body panel construction, and simplified controls that encouraged drivers to stay focused . Mass-producing the Indigo was never feasible, but the car’s purpose transcended feasibility: it was a test bed for design ideas that would serve the company through tumultuous times to come.

By 1999, nearly every lightweight Japanese sports car had left American shores – the Mazda MX3 and RX7; the Toyota Supra, MR2 and Paseo; the Honda CRX and delSol. Ironically, Ford chose the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show to debut the diminutive 021C concept. As its name suggested, the 021C was created to appeal to people from the ages of 0 to 21. Famed industrial designer Marc Newsom channeled children’s simplistic view of the automobile when penning the car. “In many ways, the 021C is a familiar and comfortable object,” Newsom said.

At the turn of the century, forward-looking companies realized that consumers raised in the Information Age would demand a host of data-centric technologies in a variety of devices. Ford’s trio of 24.7 concept cars presented the automobile as a media hub – a gathering space where friends and family could surf the Internet or share photos. The technology was sometimes ungainly – a flat-panel television added bulk to the cargo bay and forced viewers to stand outside the rear of the vehicle – but the mere inclusion of “social technologies” in a concept car was thoroughly unprecedented.

By 2000, New Edge’s jarring intersecting lines had been largely displaced by more straightforward cues, but Ford’s emerging next-generation design ethic was similar to its preludes: its simplicity inspired a sense of future.

the hero-car

Japanese firms found tremendous success in supplying vehicles that served transportation needs without stirring drivers’ souls. As niche vehicles made way for mass-market commodity cars, mid-2000s concepts from all comers became grounded in realism. Even General Motors, which historically dazzled the world with its visions of tomorrow, had not produced an unabashedly impossible concept car since the late 1990s.

The 2007 Ford Airstream concept is a lighthearted laugh at logic – and a reason for car enthusiasts to maintain faith in the future.

Wally Byam designed the first Airstream travel-trailer in 1936. Aluminum shortages subsided by the end of World War II, and the national climate of conservation at all costs gave way to a rekindled interest in exploration and travel. In the 1950s, Byam rallied Airstream owners to form the Wally Byam Caravan Club, dedicated to help satiate their collective wanderlust. The Airstreamers’ movement paralleled frontier pioneers’ craving for discovery.

It was only natural for Ford to forge a partnership with Airstream. The collaboration leveraged Ford’s futuristic outlook against Airstream’s iconic design and interior packaging to create a vehicle for tomorrow’s wayfarers.

The way forward begins with a look back to New Edge roots. Though the Ford Airstream’s silhouette nearly matches that of an Airstream trailer, automotive elements such as daylight openings and exterior lighting were Ford’s work. Driver’s-side windows outlined in daylight fluorescent orange aircraft paint are of an interlocking parallelogram shape with defined, beveled edges that directly descend from New Edge ethic.

LED headlamp clusters, once previewed by the Indigo, are framed by a backlit matte polycarbonate tube reminiscent of the 021C’s singular headlamp. Ford’s Director of Advanced Engineering Design, Freeman Thomas, explained the history at work in a December 2006 interview.

“The 021C was the first use of a digital box on wheels; it was probably too extreme for some people in its simplicity,” Thomas said. “The Airstream is really five steps beyond, because the outside of the vehicle has a humanity about it.”

Special emphasis is placed on the importance of adventurers’ togetherness. Two front passengers sit on swiveling chairs that can be turned toward backseat passengers. Up to five rear occupants are seated laterally, facing each other. Standing midship is a cylindrical DynaScan LED screen that provides passengers with a 360-degree view of interactive entertainment. Classic video games, including Pong, are pre-loaded into the display. The Ford Airstream’s rearview cameras are detachable, and can wirelessly stream video feeds to the display. It’s an elegant evolution of the 24.7’s approach to in-car entertainment.

Airstreamers of yore traditionally placed essentials at the rear of the trailer. The Ford Airstream pays homage to that tradition by employing an efficient essentials management system at the rear of the vehicle. Digital video production equipment and Firewire connectivity ports are installed next to first aid and roadside emergency kits.

An integrated rechargeable flashlight hints at the sense of exploration Airstreamers crave – and the machine’s ability to provide safety in an unknown situation. Indeed, the brazen bare aluminum exterior finish could be a beacon in itself – a bright icon of safety for uneasy retreating wanderers. Subtly opulent B&B Italia interior upholstery adds to the comfort of this “home away from home” – and increases the ability of the Ford Airstream to refresh those exhausted by their travels.

In triumph, the Ford Airstream becomes complete through the most honest of means: its powertrain. Arguably the most futuristic element of the vehicle, the zero-emission hydrogen propulsion system is also the most feasible for production. Ford’s Hy-Series Drive system uses a hydrogen fuel cell to power an electric generator which then recharges a battery pack that drives the wheels. The generator is optimized to operate at peak efficiency, maximizing the amount of power that is derived from the hydrogen fuel cell. Drops of pure water flow from the three triangular tailpipes – and comprise the Ford Airstream’s only emissions.

Hy-Series drive has already been installed in a prototype vehicle, and may see series production. Unfortunately, other aspects preclude the possibility of mass production. That is the genius of the Ford Airstream: it is an unapologetic thrust forth into the future that inspires enthusiasts to question what is possible.

I am but one person inspired by the Ford Airstream’s innocence. Several quiet moments after sitting in the driver’s seat, I arrived at a realization that I have come to live by.

Living in optimism of what the future might bring is intensely more satisfying than reminiscing about the past.

No comments: