Ford Airstream

By Guy Bird for Interior Motives, Mar 2007

Swimming upstream
Interior Motives - April 2007
Swimming upstream

One of the stars of the Detroit auto show was undoubtedly the Ford Airstream concept. Clearly not a pre-production teaser, Guy Bird spoke to its design team to find out why they made it 

The Airstream is the sort of car that steals shows – and not just automotive ones. Its mixture of space age looks and sheer stand-out style was like nothing else at the 2007 Detroit auto show – and you could imagine its shiny modern silhouette out-pointing anything at the Milan Furniture fair too – its B&B Italia fabric-covered interior alone would beat most product offerings there. Was that part of its point?

The Airstream is the sort of car that steals shows – and not just automotive ones. You could imagine its shiny modern silhouette out-pointing anything at the Milan Furniture fair too 

“Absolutely” says exterior designer Jordan Bennett, “to try and look to somewhere else for this concept. I’m heavily influenced by movies – in particular 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and also the Space Shuttle – that to me is ultimate travel in America. If you take a crossover, a people mover and an icon of American travel, this is what you might come up with.” 

The ‘icon’ Bennett is referring to in this instance, beyond Ford itself, is Airstream – the 75-year old brand synonymous with US road trips and the Recreational Vehicle (RV). But unlike Nissan’s Airstream trailer of 2004, tacked on to the back of its Actic concept, Ford’s 2007 vehicle is a more serious undertaking. It started out as an idea from Bennett, as he explains: “I came up with the concept 15 months ago. I started doing some sketches – we always go through the concept competition – built a small model and J Mays came to the studio and said, ‘Wow this has got to be 2007’. And from then on it just snowballed.”

According to Bennett, Airstream was only approached after the project started. “Apparently there had been a collaboration with Henry Ford and Airstream many years ago, but there was no collaboration at the beginning here. We approached them and showed them what we were doing and kept them updated, but pretty much it was all Ford design. Once they discovered the idea behind the concept they loved it. They’re jumping for joy now, they’re going to be taking this thing – when they can prize it from our hands – to go and do promotional stuff.” 

Promotional possibilities aside, there’s a big market for this kind of crossover and it’s getting bigger. Ford reckons it could equal three million customers per annum by 2010. Airstream is also enthused, and keen to tap into the growing market of grown-up American baby boomers, as Airstream president and CEO Bob Wheeler points out: “In the US, 11,000 people turn 50 every day. These customers are key because they’re squeezing in family vacations or taking trips to celebrate their newly empty nests. We know these consumers are more active and healthier than generations before them have ever been at this life stage – and they’re ready to hit the road. Really, what they seem to want more than anything else are options.”

And surely, few would turn down the option of the Airstream concept on their driveway. While clearly referencing Airstream’s mirror-chrome aircraft-style fuselage, it’s unashamedly modern. Aside from a few token exterior rivets, retro whims are not pandered to. What you do get is the basic compact MPV shape – it shares roughly the same dimensions as a Ford S-Max – reinvented by clever use of unusual window and sunroof graphics superbly accented by fluorescent-orange edging. Rolling into the show’s Cobo arena with its lights turned down, the effect was stunning and otherworldly.

But this effect was not the result of some trailblazing new technology borrowed from NASA. Bennett shatters the illusion: “It’s just paint – it took us forever to mix it to get the right luminescence. We tried lights but they kept phasing out or being inconsistent and never gave that real punch. We even tried using electromagnetic paint. Then we mixed this paint and it works in every single lighting condition – it even works better than back lights.”

The front is Airstream-clean too with a single surface ‘grille’ that looks more like a shiny shield highlighted by a single continuous headlamp ‘outline’. Alongside clever door solutions – a huge gull-wing on the passenger side, an aircraft-inspired slide-and-shut number on the driver’s side and a three-door hatch on the rear, the concept cannot be accused of lacking show car ‘wow’ factor. 

Akin to the more outlandish installations of Verner Panton in the late 60s, the interior is as striking as the exterior. Bathed in warm coloured ambient lighting and white ceiling accents, it features white rounded bucket front seats atop a red floor that swoops up into a womb-like rear seating lounge area. Interior designer Matt Edwards explains, “think of it as a big piece of furniture – which is really where I drew a lot of inspiration – from modern clean furniture design. The ball chair by Eero Aarnio was a big influence but I wanted to put my spin on it. I tried not to make it overtly like anything else.”

The front seats do swivel – the driver’s by 90 degrees, the passenger’s by 180 degrees – to interact with the rear and feature four-point harnesses that could possibly feature as Ford’s next generation safety belts. A dual-view screen by Sharp – where the driver can see rear-view camera images on the same screen as the front passenger surfing the net or watching movies – due to the angle of view – is the stand-out feature of a simple iPod white IP. In the back, side-on seats all have belt restraints and air curtains between them too (as well as curtain airbags from the roof liner) to show how a currently unusual seating arrangement might pass future crash safety laws in a way an old VW Camper van never could. Tough milled Corian strips in the floor (a material more associated with counter tops) help protect the polyester blend B&B Italia fabric surrounding it.

Edwards believes the concept’s interior is just as important as a non-moving space for friends and family to gather too – and the seating arrangement could certainly accommodate more than the five belted passenger spaces, when static. To give the rear a focal point for such occasions, a mysterious vertical cylinder sprouts from the floor. Made by a company called DynaScan more associated with bigger ad space applications, it’s the first time the 360-degree LED screen tech has been applied to a vehicle. On the show stand it displayed images from the webcam outside but could just as easily show movie clips.

Other well resolved touches include cubbyholes under the rear seats for first aid, webcam, toolkit and some storage, plus a future trend – also seen on the Volvo XC60 at the same show – slots in chairs. These aid ventilation as well as looking graphically pleasing, “functional form”, as Edwards puts it.

Trouble is, the Ford Airstream Concept is no easy ‘make’. Incredibly tricky and expensive doors, legislatively problematic seating, not to mention no room for a suitcase

Although a fairly involved build – undertaken by Metalcrafters – Edwards says the project was done quickly in about six months due to an entirely digital interior sketch “meaning that rather than going through the traditional clay process, we were just exchanging mathematical data with the builder and they then milled out a full scale foam mock-up of the interior”. The exterior came from a clay model though. 

Trouble is, as alluded to at the start of this story, the Ford Airstream Concept is no easy ‘make’. Incredibly tricky and expensive doors, legislatively problematic seating, not to mention no room for a suitcase let alone the obligatory set of golf clubs in the tiny storage areas, things would have to change drastically to make any production sense. The cool colour window graphics and shapes could make it and theoretically the asymmetric door layout (after all if commercial vans can manage it why can’t cars?) but the official reason for the car is not to showcase near-production styling cues but Ford’s new plug-in hydrogen hybrid fuel cell – called HySeries Drive. The idea is that the fuel cell’s sole function is to recharge the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery pack working as a portable generator rather than an engine – like in previous Ford fuel cell vehicles. Working under electric power at all times it delivers a claimed 41mpg equivalent and is already being tested in a running Ford Edge prototype – and could be in production cars in three or more years’ time.

So why distract from all that technology with a currently unfeasible ‘out there’ shell? Ford made much less of this concept’s technology than GM’s rival plug-in Volt concept for instance. Bennett tries to explain: “It’s not just a matter of having a future technology, we’re saying ‘hey here’s a future vehicle that it could go into as well.” For Edwards it’s more a way of testing perceptions both inside and outside the company: “A lot of it, is to help motivate change – to show that people do want these sort of things, so what we can do to convince engineering to say ‘let’s figure out how to do this’? If the dream is there, you can do anything.”

I for one want to live that dream, but suspect I could be an ‘empty nester’ myself before something as superb as the Airstream concept can make production outside my house. Here’s to 2023 then.

 


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