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May 14, 2009

News & Features

Coming to life: How one concept car was born and what it may be when it grows up

Associated Press

Lincoln C

The Lincoln C concept is introduced at the Detroit auto show in January. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES -- The paint on the wheels wasn't dark enough. The seat upholstery needed more embellishment. The instrument panel cried out for one last tweak.

For months, Ford designers scrutinized the creation of their latest baby, the Lincoln C concept car of the future unveiled in January at the Detroit auto show. Though the design was "locked" last spring, they found improvements they could make as the one-of-a-kind show car was built.

The result was revealed to reporters and photographers from around the world, while designers and engineers from other automakers scrutinized the car to try to discern its secrets. Then, for almost two weeks, the public got a look.

"There's nothing that gives you more elation than seeing the reaction on people's faces once it rolls out," says J Mays, Ford's design chief, in talking about the C.

Other small-car concepts
  • Audi A1 project quattro: This premium sub-compact hybrid, designed to battle the Mini Cooper, should be ready for Europe by 2010.
  • Mercedes-Benz BlueZero: Three power options -- battery, hydrogen fuel cell or hybrid -- make this compact concept different.
  • Scion iQ: Under consideration for the U.S. market, this concept is based on the popular Toyota iQ, already for sale in Japan and Europe.
  • Volkswagen BlueSport: This compact roadster can hit 140 mph and get 42 miles per gallon with a Clean Diesel engine.

The Lincoln C is an attempt to show how a small car can be a luxury showpiece. It's about the size of a Ford Focus but sports a glass roof, center-opening doors and a powertrain capable of more than 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

There's no indication that the C -- a test-bed for ideas -- will ever go into production. But it's in keeping with Ford's belief of late in a profitable future for premium small cars.

The C started life on paper and a computer screen. Then it became a full-size clay model. When the design passed muster, Ford turned over the making of the actual concept car to contract builder Aria Group in Irvine, Calif.

Aria re-created the outside by making a mold of the clay model; the interior was designed digitally. The trick was to get the two to mesh. Each concept car has its own "little quirks," says Pete Gallagher, Aria's chief project manager. In this case, it was trying to get the interior components to fit with the outside shell.

Ford designers also made changes during the construction process. At one point, they decided the car would look better with darker paint in the crevices of the wheels, says Freeman Thomas, director of Ford's Strategic Concepts Group.

As interior design chief Gary Braddock watched the crafting, he saw a way to add a flourish to the instrument panel. The C had flowers and foliage etched into the seat upholstery after designers feared it looked too plain. Mays says the latest car designs are "so clean and modern, we've gotten sterile."

The designers and builders alike were pleased with the finished car. "It came out beautiful," Gallagher says.

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