The whole point of concept cars is that they’re cooler than normal cars. That’s why carmakers build them—to hint at future design directions, introduce potential new technologies, inspire, excite, and, yes, usually disappoint you when the production version of the car comes out and it seems so, you know, normal. Once, though, this wasn’t the case. There was one car for whom the concept version was way, way less cool than the production car. That car was the Ford Ka.
Now, it’s likely there are more examples of this, though, off the top of my head, I can’t think of one. Even for cars that I’m fond of, like the original Dodge Neon, the concept version was just so much bolder, daring, and, yes, cooler.
I mean, look at it—it had four sliding doors and a crazy two-stroke engine:
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But Ford’s Ka, their cheap but clever little city car, is different.
The 1994 concept car version of the Ka has the general shape and scale of the production car, but very obviously lacks the charm and bold design language that Ford would call their New Edge design. Here, look at the 1994 Ka Concept:
That looks completely in line with Ford’s soft, very-worn-bar-of-soap design language of the early 1990s, complete with an ovoid fish-mouth grille that looks like it was plucked right off a Mondeo.
Now look at the production Ka:
That’s so much more interesting! Sure, maybe it’s also a bit more polarizing, but there’s some actually interesting and clever design going on here. Ford is really leaning into and embracing the unpainted plastic bumper look, letting the black areas extend out to form the wheel arches, front and rear, which are also far more durable and less susceptible to scratches and minor mishaps, a very valuable quality for a city car.
The lighting is more interesting, too—while I’m normally a big fan of simple, round headlights, the teardrop-ish-shaped units of the production car are much more striking, and the way the inset indicator lamp follows the cutline of the hood/grille area is just perfect.
The rear is the same story. Again, here we have the concept on the left, and the production one on the right:
While that ovoid window has a sort of charm like what we’d eventually see on the 1996 Taurus Wagon, the production Ka once again just nails the look, with the arcs from the rear black fenders becoming the taillight borders and the crisp lines of the hatch—the whole thing, I think, just looks great, one of the real standouts of cheap, city-car design.
So, what happened? Why did the production Ka end up going in such a different and bolder direction than the concept?
The answer is actually because of another concept car: the Ghia Saetta.
The famous design house Ghia had been bought by Ford in 1970 and had been doing a lot of advanced styling work for the bigger company. The 1996 Saetta was a very daring styling exercise, an open-top roadster built on the Fiesta platform.
See if it looks familiar to you:
Yes, the Seatta, a very different category of car than an inexpensive little hatchback, gave a better glimpse into the Ka’s design vocabulary than the original Ka concept.
It was like the first Ka concept’s proportions and scale were kept, while the Ghia-designed New Edge design language, shown here in the Seatta, was applied to it.
While Ford later applied the New Edge look across their lineup, the Ka was the first car available to show it off, and, to me at least, was perhaps the most successful.
The Ka showed that a cheap little city car could be daring and clever, not just a shrunken little penalty box where every line screams that it was built on a budget.
The first-generation Ka is still a fantastic-looking little car, and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be saying this if it ended up looking like that original dorky-looking concept car.
If there’s another case where the concept was much lamer than the production car, let me know in the comments, because I feel like there have to be more. But the Ka situation is still pretty damn striking.