Designers Model a New Model T Ford

As summer beckons, college students across the nation are stressing over exams, but we're betting they weren't as worried as students at Detroit's College for Creative Studies (CCS). Juniors majoring in transportation design were charged by Ford Motor Company's executive designer, Peter Horbury, to create their idea of a modern Model T.

That's no short order. Although reviving a legendary vehicle challenges designers to be true to the original's message, the Model T carried many. Seemingly a four-wheeled Swiss army knife to ordinary Americans, the vehicle allowed them to travel, work, and innovate in ways previously unfathomable. Perhaps, then, it's fitting that no two projects fit exactly into the same niche. Students had free reign to encapsulate the T's spirit and update it for the 21st century.

Many designs circled around the concept of modularity, allowing the same basic vehicle to be nearly everything to everyone. Jay Uh's "Future-T" sported a modular roof structure, allowing one vehicle to serve as pickup, SUV, and convertible by adding or removing panels. Zach Whitaker's design called for customers to custom-build their own T directly at the factory, harking back to the industrial innovation associated with the T.

Others focused upon the T's impact on society, perhaps most so by David Owsen. His cube-shaped buggy, designed to take on the worst roads imaginable, hoped to bring mobility and connectivity to consumers in developing nations. Filip Bosvecki's concept brought recreation to the vehicle, including a detachable roof structure that doubled as a tent.

Some dared to explore avenues of the Model T never pursued by Ford - the performance aftermarket. As a child, Jesse Boyer took a ride in an uncle's hot rod T-bucket, and hasn't been the same since.

"I just felt that engine catch, and that cam go `lunka-lunka-lunka.' The whole experience has stayed with me today."

It shows. Boyer's entry, the MOD-T, blends images of tricked-out T-buckets with that of today's techno-laden sports cars. The car's forms are smoother than the original's - and with electric drive, there's none of the sonic delight produced by a Windsor big-block - but with a stripped-down look emphasizing the suspension and large wheels, there's no mistaking it for anything other than a hot rod of the future.

But it was Dong Tran's entry that successfully combined multiple elements of the T's legacy into one design. At first glance a shapely hatchback atop large wheels, Tran's design called for an incredibly versatile seating system, a folding hatch which transformed the car into a pickup truck, and a removable battery pack which could power objects - electronics and tools, for instance - when not in the vehicle.

That combination won the admiration of Ford designers, proclaiming it the best in show. An electric crossover may not seem a likely successor, but as Horbury reminded the audience, "in a way, the Model T was the first CUV."

Horbury believes such a formula would win the approval of the late Henry Ford, but who's saying an efficient, flexible vehicle wouldn't resonate with the American masses today?

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