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Concept Car of the Week: Ford 021C (1999)

Fri, 12 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0700

As Australian-born designer Marc Newson this week joined Apple, we can only wish that he brings with him the same smart-yet-playful approach as he did with his radical Ford 021C concept.

Presented at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, the project began when Marc Newson was commissioned by Ford global design director, J Mays, to create an innovative interior. Their mutual passion for design and their enthusiasm led to a much larger project and Newson eventually delivered a complete working prototype.

Far removed from traditional car design stereotypes, he came up with the simplest of forms yet one that remained incredibly bold and memorable. It is almost a caricature of car, a twenty-first century Trabant – "Ask children to draw a car and they'll probably draw something like this," said Newson.

The car consists of an extruded rectangle, with identical silver bumpers at each end, and a bulbous cabin placed on top. The extrusion is not as simple as it first appears – it has a slight wedge and the cabin is shifted rearwards, giving the car a sense of direction.

The headlights features an innovative combination of LED and fiber optic display, which is programmable via a ROM chip. The rear uses conventional LEDs, while the trunk opens as a pull-out drawer. Despite its three-box silhouette, the 021C is actually the same size as a Ford Ka.

Opening the suicide doors revealed a timeless yet retro interior with seats reminiscent of classic designs by Charles Eames or Arne Jacobsen, but closest to Newson's own Nimrod chair from 1997. The steering wheel was inspired by his Alessi coat hook, and the dials to his Ikepod watch. The car was first painted orange – the Pantone color chart number lent the car its name – and was later repainted and the interior retrimmed in acid green.

Apart from the powertrain, suspension and electric ancillaries, Newson designed every element of the 021C. "It's easily the most comprehensive design job I've ever done", he said. "It was like designing 500 products at once."

After its unveiling, the car received a bashing from the public who were simply not ready for such non-automotive design. "The Ford 021C treats the car as a cultural icon," said Mays. "We have created a distinct point of view with this car and if you don't get it, don't worry, you're probably not meant to."

The honesty of the design and the purity of the execution have meant that, fifteen years since its unveiling, it hasn't aged a bit; if anything it has become even more relevant.

Designer Mark Newson
First seen 1999 Tokyo Motor Show
Length 3,601mm
Width 1,648mm
Height 1,430mm
Wheelbase 2,485mm
Engine 1.6-liter, four-cylinder Zetec, 100bhp

What else happened in 1999?
Star Wars: Episode I arrived in movie theaters, although sci-fi fans could ease their disappointment by going to watch The Matrix instead. Family Guy made its small-screen debut, Britney's Baby One More Time topped the charts and, true to form, Microsoft launched Windows 98. The SR-71 Blackbird made its final flight in active service, and the Checker cab took its last fare in NYC. To close out the year, Prince performed 1999 at a special gig, a song he first released in 1982, while the news was full of predictions of planes falling out of the sky as they were struck by the millennium bug.

By Flavien Dachet