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Ford's Freeman Thomas has a better idea

The design director for the automaker's strategic concepts group in Irvine gets his inspiration from culture, people and human archetypes.

August 29, 2010|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Design director for Ford Motor Co.'s strategic concepts group in Irvine.

Growing up: A Long Beach native, Thomas spent part of his childhood in Norway, Spain and Greece as his father, an air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force, moved from assignment to assignment. Thomas also spent four years in the Air Force and was stationed in England, "which encouraged my fascination with European culture."

Early years: Thomas graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1983 and went to work for Porsche. He joined Volkswagen in 1991 and DaimlerChrysler in 1999 and moved to Ford in 2005. "I made the determination that I wouldn't be anywhere long enough to earn a pension," Thomas said.

Notable cars: Thomas, 52, worked on the concept for the new Beetle. He created the design for the first Audi TT. At DamilerChrysler (now Chrysler Group), Thomas spearheaded the creation of "an aggressive rear-wheel-drive car," the Chrysler 300. "The idea is to create a story … a car that immediately creates metaphors when you look at it, and those metaphors should not be appliance, boring and vanilla," he said. Thomas also did work on the new-generation Explorer unveiled last month.

Polished pebble: The Ford Start concept vehicle is a small, "eco-friendly" car with a 1-liter, turbocharged, three-cylinder engine that puts out 120 horsepower. He said it could get more than 60 miles per gallon, depending on driving conditions. "The basic idea of the car was finding a polished pebble on the sand. You are attracted to that pebble and you want to pick it up and play with it. We want the car to look as if nature had shaped it," Thomas said. Although there are no production plans for the vehicle, he says it is a serious concept that is "buildable." Anything else would be a waste of time and Ford's money, Thomas said. "If we don't combine design and marketing and engineering into the concept cars, it is a fruitless exercise. You have to be able to make the concept cars that work."

Inspiration: Thomas says his sources are abstract and based on culture, people and human archetypes. "I am inspired by the movie industry and character development. The Chrysler 300 has a bit of the gangster attitude. The Audi TT is all pilot and engineer. In the Start concept I looked to people who appreciated nature and the environment and things like a nautilus shell."

Favorite project: The Audi TT because it was essentially his first "win." Thomas said he was able to take the design for the TT and convince the engineering and marketing departments and even the chairman of the company that it would work. "It gave me credibility as a designer," he said. The concept was to give Audi something people would think of when they heard the Audi name. "We were creating a new character, something that created a halo for the company."

Biggest change: The auto industry looks at designers in a different light these days. When Thomas first started, designers were seen as artists rather than creators. Their job was to style a car but do little else. "The designer has graduated from making a car look pretty to being the person who does the vehicle architecture and screenplay," he said. "We have much more credibility. The designer is the compass for the company."

Only the best: If you want to crack into auto design, be ready for a competitive challenge. Thomas said you need a refined artistic and aesthetic sense, and you should take as many art and design classes as you can fit into your schedule, even if you are a high school student and need to enroll in night classes at a community college. "You need to have good judgment. You need to be able to do 1,000 sketches, put them all on the wall and pick out one and say, 'That's it.' It is such a competitive industry. Only the best get into the doors of the automotive industry," he said.

A car fan: Thomas says he is an unrepentant automotive enthusiast who hangs out with other car folk in his free time. He also loves to travel and explore cultures. The Laguna Beach resident likes to spend time with his wife and daughter, a film student at USC.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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