Is There Still A Place For The Simple Car?

Henry Ford made his name and his fortune by designing and selling simple cars. More than 100 years ago his first mass-produced car was the Model T; you look under the hood and see just five main wires and a few less important ones.

Inside the cabin there are three pedals, but they don’t do what we expect pedals to do these days. Push any of them and the car slows down or stops, so if you had never driven before you were unlikely to get into trouble. Push in the left pedal and you get low gear, release the pedal and you get high gear. Push the middle pedal and you get reverse and that certainly stops the car. Push the right pedal and that works the brakes – easy!

It was the same with the body design; various combinations of body panels would make it a sedan or roadster, a pickup or a van, with many more possibilities. It was the Model T that carried tens of thousands of American families westwards to seek a new life during the hard depression years.

Designers have occasionally looked at how a modern Model T might look but to me these are no more than styling exercises that miss the fundamental simplicity of the original. However, a few years ago the College of Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit ran a student project looking at the Model T and some interesting work came out of the exercise.

Peugeot Peugette by Pininfarina (1976)

In collaboration with Pininfarina, Peugeot presented a very simple little roadster using the floor pan of the Peugeot 104. The car was called the Peugette and was based around the idea of using common panels front and rear. Even the doors and side sills were non-handed (they were identical on the left and the right). This discipline gave the car a unique style that even after almost 40 years still looks fresh. I remember really liking the car when I first saw it at the Turin auto show.

Rather similar in some respects was the 1999 Ford 021C concept designed by Australian industrial designer Marc Newson under the guidance of Ford VP of Design J Mays.

I have always felt that Mays — a rational designer rather than a stylist — wanted to find a way of returning to the simplicity of the Ford Model T and A; his Model ‘U’ of 2003 still looks modern today but sadly was never more than a concept. As ever sales and marketing influences — that are always focused on ‘features’ and ‘content’ rather than originality — still influence company decisions!

And yet Ford sold more than 15 million examples of the supremely simple Model T. Henry Ford simply understood what his customers wanted.


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