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Ford concept cars developed in Irvine

August 5, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
When we hear about the recovery efforts of the American auto industry, many people assume it's all happening in Detroit. But Southern California is playing a key role, too.Off the I-5 in Irvine, inside a nondescript square building, sits Ford's Advanced Design Studio. It's located here for a good reason.

"It's one of the places to take the temperature of the world," said Ford design director Freeman Thomas. "Because this is where all of the trends, or most of the trends, really start to happen."

Designers are hard at work on the next generation of Ford vehicles, like the Lincoln concept simply called the "C" for now.

In a future that will demand more efficient cars, Ford says America is ready for a smaller Lincoln -- if it's done the right way.

"Integrating the idea of premium into a small car, and with Lincoln we think there is an amazing opportunity to reinvent a small car," said Thomas.

Most industry watchers agree that of the Detroit auto companies, Ford is best positioned for a rapid recovery. In a way, they're perceived the way some of the Japanese companies are

"The reason why Toyota and Honda have such good sales is because, you know, people trust them," said reporter Kathy Jackson from Automotive News. "Their dealers love them, they say they're working well with them, and I think Ford is well along that path."

From the time the designer draws the first sketch, to when the car reaches the actual showroom, is a minimum of about three years. The challenge for Ford - and other car makers - is figuring out what consumers are going to want to buy at least three years in the future.

These designers have to be more than just artists. They have to take into account lots of forecasting.

"Of what people are going to be driving, what they want, what the environment is going to look like, what the social structure's going to be like," said Mark Takahashi from Edmunds.com. "So in that sense, they are more futurists than designers."

We may or may not see a version of the small Lincoln on the road in the coming years. But no matter what Ford comes up with for the future, a big part of that future is going to be taking shape right in our own backyard.