Cars That Make You Go 'Ooh!'

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Pop Quiz: when you buy Car and Driver or Automobile magazine, do you take it home? Or leave it on the plane? When you read the Automobiles section in the newspaper, do you look around first to make sure your spouse — and I mean your wife OR your husband — isn't looking? Of course not. You're there for the pictures, not the articles. And if you really care about cars enough to read all that blather about gear ratios and bhp, you probably shouldn't be reading this column.

However: there are an awful lot of us who simply lust after curvaceous rolling stock, and for so many Camry-dominated years, the only place we've been able to find it is in magazines — or on Rodeo Drive.

Now there's change afoot, and that was signaled this week by no less than the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which presented its annual Excellence in Design award to J Mays, the 48 year old (CHK) Oklahoman who has been in charge of car design at Ford since 1997. This is mainly a school of architecture, and they've been trying to get away from the stodgy Harvard image for years (previous award winners include product wiz Phillipe Starck and conceptual artist and theatre designer extraordinaire Robert Wilson). Mays is a guy whose world is actively about more than cars. Call him the auto industry equivalent of a cross-dresser, because he's a serious advocate of good fashion, product design and architecture, and doesn't mind dissing his own industry's shortcomings. The approach has begun to draw a following that, likewise, extends beyond the auto industry into the design world generally. The Harvard award effectively validates that.

Mays made a name for himself as the guy behind the cuddly Volkswagen New Beetle, which is both mod and familiar (the Old Beetle); the Ford Thunderbird, which is...also mod and familiar (the '56 T-Bird). He takes his cue from the notion that you can't move forward without looking over your shoulder, and his popular designs in recent years have ignited a chorus of "Retro!" Which he argues misses the point. It's not just backward, it's about forward.

He's right. It's more complicated than Retro. It's really about emotion, and getting us to say Wow! or Gee! or more when we see a car. Among the six cars on display at the Design School is one even more inspiring, edgier, riskier, than the T-bird — the Ford '49. It's a dramatic black coupe with a glass roof that is supposed to hark back to the car Henry Ford introduced in 1949 that actually saved the company from post-war extinction.

But maybe Mays' real coup is the GT 40, a redesigned (mod!) version of the Ford Le Mans race car that won big in the late '60s. Ford introduced this new GT40 as a concept car at the Detroit auto show in January and it drew rave reviews and a cascade of calls and emails from interested buyers, including the gang of small businessmen from the east coast who flew their jet out for a private viewing.

This week, Ford announced it would produce the sexy beast, for anyone with a spare $100K or more in their just-gotta-have-it fund.

Context: Ford is in desperate financial straits, and even if they had introduced a real blockbuster car in the last couple of years, it would have rolled over in the face of the Firestone onslaught. They needed a button-presser, and the GT40 is a limited production car with a price tag high enough that huge profit margins are guaranteed. Limited ownership. Limited liability.

The GT40 is on display in Cambridge, Mass. as we speak, right there in the lobby of the Harvard Design School, the first car that's ever been there as a work of art. But it's also worth thinking about the other vehicle that the curators, Joe MacDonald and Kim Shkapich, asked Ford to display. This is the O21C, a vision of lime green and white that looks like it could be either Judy Jetson's shopmobile or a great little around-town-vehicle for New York, or London, or Tokyo. The O21C was designed, under Mays' supervision, by product designer Marc Newson. It is small, simple and elegant. And it will never be produced.

Here's the point: J Mays and his associates at Volkswagen/Audi and lately at Ford have started a movement among designers to stop listening to focus groups and start thinking about how their creations connect with real people. There are a few more inspiring cars out there these days and you know which they are — the PT Cruiser, the Audi TT, and now maybe the Nissan Altima. But there's a problem. The really emotive mobiles — the '49, the GT40, the new Cadillacs — are priced beyond our reach. Toyota is trying. But with all the production technology out there, can't anyone start making a people's car — a real "Volkswagen" — that doesn't make us commoners have to get our thrills from looking at the pictures?