How many of us sketched cars in the margins of our grade school notebooks? For a small minority, that’s the beginning of their life’s work. Those with the gift go on to enroll in design colleges to pursue a career in Transportation Design. Once there, the budding designers’ personal expressions are run through the meat grinder of de-constructive criticism. While the process is daunting, it is nothing compared to the “real world” of car design.
It doesn’t take a Human Resources Manager to recognize the automotive design studio’s crushing stoicism. Those with strong managerial allegiances get the credit they deserve. Others find their artistic expressions on the losing end of the cult of personality. In other words, being a good car designer doesn’t automatically make you a successful car designer. In the cloistered, hyper-competitive world of the automotive studio, networking, company politics and shameless self-promotion trump creativity.
So it’s much like your job, except worse. Imagine those no-nothing know-it-alls, pushy self-promoters and cronies clawing for recognition from the chief megalomaniac. Now imagine that your work, erupting from the very core of your soul, must be defended and nurtured in this environment. A cakewalk it ain’t.
Somehow, into this climate a car is born. To get the job done, the designer may create after the well-paid, well-dressed negative energy checks out for the night. Fraternizing with the clay modelers also helps: down to earth folks who translate a studio junkie’s 2-D rendering into a universally recognizable, high impact masterpiece.
Jeff Sanders lived this life. He was a master of Automotive Americana; someone who invented new forms without resorting to retro styling or cliché proportioning. He designed the custom trimmings on the first-gen Harley Davidson F150, a set of chrome wheels and a few gorgeous interior bits for the 2007 Lincoln Navigator. (Upcoming Ford products may flaunt the Sanders’ design language.)
The native Texan was a soft spoken, sensitive soul who somehow kept his head above the toxic soup filling Ford’s design studios. He kept the faith for two main reasons: his love of design and the dream of working for Ford, his favorite car company. His ‘67 Mustang project car provides ample proof of the artist’s emotional connection with The Blue Oval’s past, present and future.
Jeff weathered the design studio for five years in hopes of reaping the fruits of employment in a leaner, meaner FoMoCo. But things went sour after a particularly demeaning reassignment: his talent and creativity were neglected and ostracized for the last time. After turning down Ford’s white collar buyout plan, Jeff Sanders quit his “dream job” with his “dream company.”
Everyone thought Jeff’s analytical skills, gearhead personality and artistic talent made him a no-brainer for management-level success. But a phone call from the Michigan State Patrol shattered those beliefs. On March 8, Jeff Sanders drove his Ford truck to a secluded country road and committed suicide. None of his friends saw it coming, though we all wish we had.
Jeff and I were design students back in 1998. Aside from the Texas connection, his affectation for American Iron, effortless technique and acute BS detector made him my go-to guy. Jeff brought clarity to my muddy renderings and tightened up my sophomoric designs. I remember the good times; jumping in his truck in search of something, anything to take our minds off of next week’s verbal bloodbath.
I moved to greener pastures. Jeff joined Ford. He told me that somewhere between “Quality is Job 1” and “Bold Moves,” FoMoCo’s corporate design department had turned “teamwork” into a dirty word. I learned the personal struggles and political consequences of design rework. As Jeff put it:
“You want to know why cars look like shit? The designers are usually the last to touch the product.”
Jeff’s visits back to The Lone Star State were filled with laments about the cutthroat, ass-kissing environment and inflated rock-star personalities inside Ford’s design studios. I admired him for never playing that game, letting his brilliance shine on vellum instead.
Unlike most of our friends, I know why Jeff began his downward spiral: Ford’s design studio destroyed his soul. He lost the one thing that sustained him, that gave him a reason to live: his art.
Anyone in the car business knows that passionate designers suffer in the soul-crushing environment of the automotive design studio. While this website mercilessly punishes Detroit for not putting the product first, we got it wrong. People come first. No exceptions, ever.
People are the fertile soil that provides a bountiful harvest of products, innovations and profits. Losing a soaring spirit—especially one who single-handedly designed cars that might have restored Detroit’s fortunes– is a tragedy for all car enthusiasts. When a company stifles personal creativity, one way or another, something important is lost. Forever.