The 1999 Ford 021C Concept: Born Too Soon?
Maybe this sort of fun urban runabout could make the emerging EV era more palatable.
Do you remember the Ford 021C concept? It debuted at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, the work of an industrial designer better known for fancy furniture who was selected for the task by Ford's retro-obsessed lead designer, J Mays. The result is what you're seeing here, both a product of its SUV-obsessed time and something, perhaps, that would have been better saved for our present.
That industrial designer is Australian-born, London-based Marc Newson, the man behind (among other things) the design of the Apple Watch. He's not a car designer, but definitely is a car guy. He's dabbled in auto accessory design, bringing smoothed-edge shapes to Ferrari luggage sets, for example, and races some of his vintage sports cars. Nor are his tastes in auto design a mystery. He told MotorTrend International Bureau Chief Angus MacKenzie a few years back that the original BMW Z4 roadster, the work of Chris Bangle's design department, "looked like it had been styled with a machete"—and considering Newson's affinity for harmonious, rounded shapes the deliberately provocative Z4's outrageous creases would seem jarring. (Bangle dismissed criticism like this as reactionary, from those averse to change—also unsurprising.) He was also, for a time, pegged as a possible influence for a theoretical (and probably mythical, except as a collection of technologies) Apple Car.
The 021C is not provocative. It's as friendly as a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe—a common criticism of the 021C's design is "toylike." The only challenge it provides to the onlooker is whether to smile faintly, or move on to the next subject. Only a Grinch would be offended by the 021C—to others, it elicits endearment or merely indifference. Hopefully for younger buyers, Ford hoped, the 021C would create an emotional connection.
That's what the "21" in the name is for. This was partly an attempt by Ford to play with designs that would appeal to buyers 21 and younger in the 21st Century. Newson called the design "retro-futurism"—a future designed by those in the past. Its auto show reveal had Newson making The Jetsons allusions—strategically maybe not a wise move, and one that fed its critics, but the "gee whiz" factor is undeniable. If you told someone these were a concept for the original Disneyland Autopia ride, would they be surprised?
That all describes what it's like, or what it's not, but what is the 021C in reality? A very small coupe—0.74-inch smaller than the minuscule Euro-market Ford Ka. Its overhangs are remarkably abbreviated, the greenhouse's pillars are razor-thin, the body a lightweight carbon fiber. The front and rear are characterized by the monolithic single lenses spanning the front and rear fascias. Inside, the chunky, simple, solid-looking fittings pair candy-colored elements with glassy white and neutral elements—the original iMac, which debuted a year earlier, used the same sort of striking, pop-culture-influenced design elements.
While it was very much a product of its time, the 021C might arguably have been ahead of its time, too. Consider the Fiat 500 that debuted nearly a decade later, and especially the 500e version. After all, the 500's replacement, not for American consumption, debuted exclusively as an EV. The critically acclaimed Honda E—one of the most desirable Hondas in recent memory—has shown that there's room for some non-aggressive design freedom, the liberty to be cute rather than aggressive, in the EV space. So has Volkswagen's ID EVs, especially the ID Buggy and Buzz. Others are exploring similar concepts; Remember the unfortunately-named eBussy? The concept is cute as a button, but we award its name exactly one yike.
Instead of a pure design exercise, had Newson penned the Ford 021C today, maybe it could have been recast as a small production EV for Europe. It'd take some sleight of hand to neutralize the toylike qualities of the 021C while preserving its friendly charm, but that's all in a day's work for a talented designer.