“It may take India 10-15 years to appreciate auto design"

Cultural and political influences shape the design of a car, says J Mays, Ford Motor’s group vice-president and chief creative officer

Vishal Koul

In his 32 years as an automotive designer, spanning companies like BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, J Mays has been involved with several iconic cars, including the new Volkswagen Beetle and the Audi TT. In the past 14 years as Ford Motor’s group vice-president and chief creative officer, Mays’ design imprint is visible on models like the Mustang, Interceptor, Focus, Fiesta and Taurus. On his first visit to India during the Auto Expo in January, Mays spoke with Sudipto Dey on how cultural and political factors influence automobile design. Automakers, he says, now treat design as a clutter-breaker in a competitive market place.

What is more challenging to design — a  classic like the Beetle or an entry-level car? 

Honestly, it is not hard to design a new Beetle or an Audi TT. They are fun to do and easy. What is difficult is to start with a fresh sheet of white paper and try to answer a problem no one even recognised existed — creating a new vehicle that fulfils a need in the market place is surely more challenging.  

How would you define your design philosophy?

It is a mixture of what I learnt over the years and Ford’s design philosophy.  I spent 14 years at Audi and helped design two generations of cars. Audi has an elite clientele that can spend on almost anything they want, while Ford is a populist brand. We serve a wide range of customers, from the top end where customers buy expensive SUVs, right down to the entry level for those who have just entered the market. Brands like EcoSport, Figo and Fiesta are targeted at first-time owners. I find a lot of appeal in designing a car for someone who is just entering the market.

Designing sports or luxury cars used to thrill me, but the satisfaction in looking at a customer who has just been handed the keys of their first car is immense. In a way, you are giving them freedom of mobility and helping improve their quality of life. When we design a car we start with the buyer and finish with him or her. Depending on the customer I am designing for, I find out as much as possible about him or her. I am hungry to know more about what is happening in those markets, culturally. I ascertain what their life-style is, what they use their vehicles for, what their aspirations are, are they married or single, do they have families... All these questions go into the type of vehicle we design. So there is little bit of anthropology involved. The more you know, the better you design.  

Could you take us through evolution of automobile design over the years?

The automobile industry itself is a little over 100 years old and automotive design is still a ‘young’ industry at about 80 years. Just like women identify themselves with their shoes and handbags, people identify themselves with the cars they drive. My thinking is, if you see someone in their car, that’s who they want to be, and when you see someone in their home, that’s who they actually are. They are two different worlds. 

J Mays, VolkswagenDesign of an automobile or any furniture or even a house is a result of the culture it was designed in. Auto design became more mass-based in the 1950s, largely due to the efforts of General Motors and Ford. In the ’50s, due to the sense of optimism in American culture, we had cars with silly looking fins and a lot of chrome, perhaps because everyone, in the back of their mind, wanted to go the moon. As silly as it may sound now, that was a reflection of the optimism of those times.

In the ’60s, American cars became rebellious with a lot of muscle power. Those were the times when presidents were killed; there was war, riots, drugs, and that created a counter-culture in which the designers worked. So the cars became much more aggressive. In the ’80s, it was a lot about status, and that’s when luxury brands like Mercedes, BMW, and even Japanese brand like Lexus, came into prominence. The ’90s were more about lifestyle and that’s when sports utility vehicles and off-roaders became popular. So cultural influences have had a deep impact on car design.  

But in today’s clutter of new launches — especially in emerging markets like India — is design getting due importance?

Without criticising any auto manufacturer, some of the products on display at the Auto Expo were just commodities — just a means of transport — and as exciting as a washing machine. If you are to pull the heartstrings of customers, you have to create something that does more than just move you from one place to another. 

At Ford we take pride in designing cars that make the customer proud. Every car should be fun to drive. Ford Figo, for instance, has done well in India as it offers great value. Features like cruise control makes the customer think, ‘Hey, I have something that’s more than what I asked for’. When we were designing EcoSport (to be launched in India in end-2012), we kept in mind that urban Indian roads are crowded, there could be patches of rough roads, or you may need to drive through water or people may need to move not only their families, but also materials, in their cars. So we gave the car a high ground clearance, large wheels and tyres, a command position for the driver to see the road, and brought in design cues from SUVs as they are premium and aspirational. The idea is that the entry-level customer gets more from his car than he has bargained for. 

However, India as a market is still in its infancy when it comes to appreciation of design. That will change as the market matures, just as people’s lifestyles evolve along with their clothes and homes.      

You have 11 design studios globally, including studios in China and Brazil, but none in India. Why?

What we need in India now is a listening post to help us know the customer better, and not a design centre. Frankly, design trends are not being set in India. Europe is the market where the best design-related work is happening and that’s why I have based myself out of London. 

India will gradually migrate to the state where it starts to appreciates auto design but that may take 10-15 years. We will design eight new models by the middle of this decade. What I am keen to do is to send many of our designers to India when they test the cars with customers. The feedback we get would greatly help us tune them to Indian conditions.


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