A while ago, I had the genuine pleasure of interviewing one of the best-known and accomplished modern automotive designers , J Mays. Mays is known for, among many other things, designing the New Beetle, Audi TT, and defining Ford’s current design language. He also once told me not to try and modernize the Model T. I’m afraid I didn’t listen.
Actually, if we’re being specific, he didn’t come out and say it quite like that. He acknowledged the temptation to do so, since it’s such an iconic piece of Ford and motoring history, but he made it clear that the carriage-inspired design was just too far removed from modern automotive design language to be able to be realized well.
When I pressed him on this (at about 6:45 in the interview), asking him where you would start with such a challenge, he told me
“You can’t. Just because you think you can doesn’t mean you should.”
... which is really pretty sound advice. I’m not sure why I didn’t follow it.
Maybe it’s my perverse fascination with failure. Maybe I have a problem with authority. Maybe it’s got something to do with that prescription paint my doctor prescribed me to huff. Maybe I’m just an idiot.
There may not be a good reason, but I’ve been drawn to at least taking some kind of half-serious crack at seeing what a modern car designed to evoke the Ford Model T could look like. So, this week, while everyone is out at Pebble and I’ve been swamped making things work with something close to the usual smoothness, I took a few moments to do some quick, absurd drawings of what my idea of a modernized Model T would be.
I don’t totally hate it, ridiculous as it it is, which means I better start explaining myself. Okay. First, I gave it an appropriately absurd name that I can almost hear the marketing bullshit behind, murmured on the wind: the Mode T.
Here’s what I wanted the Mode T to be: an everyperson’s car, just like the original Model T. Not a boutique lifestyle car, like what the New Beetle became, but an unashamedly entry-level, highly practical car that evokes the original Model T’s look and charm.
Now, the Model T was designed in an era when cars were still essentially carriages with the horsemeat replaced with parts made of carmeat; cars were accumulations of bits and pieces, and the idea of designing a cohesive whole was still decades away. So, for this modern take, I’m grabbing a few very key elements: the large, independent round headlamps; the square grille and sort-of-house-shape of the hood; the tall, narrow proportions; and a slightly-arcing roofline taken from one of the sedan bodies (from 1919 or so).
I decided to extrude the round headlights into a cylindrical form that extends to the rear of the car and forms the taillights — I thought this might be a way to allude to the separate-pod nature of the original lights while still integtrating them into the form of the car in a novel way. I’m surrounding the lights with an amber bezel that contains LEDs for the indicators and DRLs.
I thought incorporating the ornate ‘Ford’ script into the bodywork over the grille would be a nice update to the separate badges that many Model Ts had. The hood is stubby and retains its 3-sided shape, but less pronounced than on the original car. The original Model T’s side vents are moved to the upper side panels of the hood.
You may notice that in basic proportions and form the Mode T seems to be a two-box design evocative of cars like the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, or Scion xB, and there’s a reason for that. I used the Scion xB (first generation only, thanks) as my template for what a cheap, flexible, useful modern car should be.
My wife’s car is an xB, and every time I drive that thing I’m struck by how easy, useful, flexible, and just pleasant that damn thing is to drive and use. Ours is a manual, so while it’s by no means fast, it has a peppy, willing charm, and feels light and nimble. The interior is airy and open, and can be downright cavernous when need be — I’ve hauled a full-sized washing machine in the thing. As far as cheap, general-purpose car designs go, it’s hard to beat.
And that’s what a modern Model T should be — cheap, useful, flexible, fun. Plus, the boxy sedan body already is close to the tall cube-like shape of cars like the xB, so why fight it? The trend in greenhouses has been to go lower and wider for years, but screw that, this car is different. The Mode T can have a tall, glassy greenhouse that will let you wear your tallest-horned viking helmet and let you haul the bulkiest boxes and chairs and sculptures and mopeds and whatever.
J Mays said he only spent about “15 minutes” considering the idea, and while I spent more time than that, it wasn’t much more, which is why my sketches for the front and rear design are still pretty rough:
Still, even with my cartoonish drawings, somewhat cloying, Mitsuoka-like retroism, and odd proportions, I can’t help but feel like there is a place for a car like this. It would have to be cheap, and unashamed about its inherent silliness. It could fill the sort of role that the PT Cruiser filled for many — a car many of us we no fans of, but it sure as hell kept selling. There’s a market there, and I think the Mode T could fill it.
Plus, if it was priced cheap enough (think $15K or less) and had the same practical value as something like a 1st-gen xB, it would have a niche even without the novel styling. I’m thinking this would be a great place for Ford’s 1L Ecoboost three-cylinder, and could possibly be built on the Fiesta platform. It could exist alongside the Fiesta the way the Beetle exists alongside the Golf for VW — basically the same car under the skin, but clothed in a radically different way to appeal to very different markets.
The same old people who bought PT Cruisers may like the Mode T. Young people looking for something cheap and yet not soul-crushingly boring would like it. Small businesses needing an eye-catching and very usable delivery vehicle would like it. A panel van version could exist, or even — and this is a big hope — a little kooky pick-up.
So, sure, J Mays probably thinks I’m an idiot. But I suspect there may not have been a way to avoid that since he, you know, spoke with me. And maybe most of you will agree with him.
But maybe, just maybe, some of you will think this is not the worst idea ever?
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