By on December 8, 2016

Car Not A Costume, Ford/Land Rover

True story: Many, many years ago I briefly dated a young woman who, at the age of 16, was the subject of a custody battle between her hard-luck mother and her suburban aunt. You’d expect this to go the way of the aunt, and you’d be right. But what you would not expect is that the aunt was married to a fellow who, some 15 years earlier, had been L. Ron Hubbard’s personal bodyguard. He was deeply involved in the “Sea Org” and a bunch of other Scientology-related stuff. He also claimed to have been a Green Beret and a decorated Vietnam veteran. (More information on the dude here, if you’re interested.)

Scientology in general, and my girlfriend’s foster dad in particular, was notorious for “fair-gaming” its lapsed members and anybody else who gets in the way of the organization. “Fair Game” is an L. Ron Hubbard phrase that means, basically, no action that can be taken by church members against the person in question is off-limits. It’s okay to attack them, kidnap them, have their home “SWATted”, destroy their careers or their credit rating. Being “fair gamed” by the Church of Scientology is very far from a picnic. The Church now disavows “fair gaming”. (More info here.)

The Ford Motor Company, on the other hand, doesn’t seem too reluctant to “fair game” a few of its lapsed members, as you’ll see.

Spen King’s 1970 Range Rover was that rarest of things — a truly original automobile. And although “0.1 percent” of the time was spent on the styling, it was a fortunate fraction because from the very start it was the look of the Range Rover that captivated buyers, not its admittedly prodigious capabilities. The Range Rover is one of those vehicles that everyone recognizes, even though it was utterly absent from the United States for the first-third of its lifetime.

The pathetic necrophilia that infects the hind brains of nearly every modern automotive stylist and absolutely every single automotive marketing department in the Western world has led to a situation in which the golden seam of that original Range Rover design language has been strip-mined more or less to exhaustion. The shape of the bonnet, the “floating roof,” the slab-sided doors, the relatively forthright and unfussy nose treatment, the tucked-under rear fenders — it’s been applied over and over to every product in the current Land Rover family with roughly the same subtlety shown by Oldsmobile in its mid-Eighties distribution of “Cutlass” badging.

One particular strand of that DNA has seen wider use than any of the others: a folded bonnet (hood, if you like) edge that runs parallel and close to a wide grill flanked by headlight housings that are level with the grille on top, with the model designation in block letters across the leading edge of the bonnet. The idea itself was very far from original; you only need to look at a late-Sixties Ford truck to see some of the inspiration. Yet the execution was brilliant in its modern simplicity. In an era where chrome trim and elaborate lettering were standard equipment on the humblest economy car, the Range Rover’s grille/headlight/bonnet combination was the equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House: simple, focused, modern, and horizontal.

Every Range Rover since the original has maintained this basic design principle, although a sort of creeping Dubai-Baroque crassness has overwritten the 1970 model’s simplicity. It’s been extended to the Discovery, the Freelander, and all the successive models to fill those niches, usually with “Land Rover” in place of “Range Rover.” None of the brand’s three non-English custodians has dared tamper too much with the idea.

The second of those custodians, however, is Ford. Seven years ago, it handed Land Rover to India’s Tata. All of the intellectual property changed hands at the same time. Yet in the time since then, the Ford Explorer has come to resemble the Generic Range Rover Look more and more. The absolute apex of this is the 2017 Ford Explorer Sport, which offers a front end that meets all three of the major 1970 characteristics. The relatively simple grille nestles between a pair of headlamps and combines with those headlamps to make a flat top line that mirrors the leading edge of the bonnet, on which we have a set of unassuming block letters reading “E X P L O R E R”.

2017 Ford Explorer Sport

You can argue that the Explorer’s current front fascia incorporates many cues from the 1990 original, and you’d be right to do so. You could also point out the Explorer’s pronounced body-color C-pillar goes a long way to divorce it from any Range Rover. Finally, you can argue that the 2011 Ford Flex Titanium was actually a closer riff on the third-gen Range Rover than the Explorer is on the current model. But none of this contradicts the central fact that Ford’s prestige volume SUV shares an uncomfortable amount of brand DNA with Ford’s former luxury brand.

Car Not A Costume, Ford/Aston Martin, Image: © 2016 Matt Posky/The Truth About Cars

The pre-facelift Ford Fusion shares a similar amount of visual language with the generic “modern” Aston Martin look that started with the DB7 and continues through the current lineup. The grille isn’t exactly the same shape, and the Fusion’s headlights actually anticipated the flatter, smaller look of the current DBS and Vanquish, but you’ll still search in vain for a mass-market family sedan that the Fusion resembles as much as it does an Aston Martin. Again, this riff took place a decent interval after Ford sold Aston Martin to the Kuwaitis, and there are extenuating circumstances; the rest of the European Ford lineup has similar grille shapes. Only on the Fusion does it quite approach the old DB5 shape, although the higher trim levels of the C-Max uncomfortably resemble the abortive Aston Martin Cygnet.

Still, Ford could have done any number of things to keep the Fusion from looking anything like an Aston Martin. Those things were very carefully not done and as a result we have an admittedly handsome sedan that nevertheless provides the viewer with a strong sense of deja vu. If this offends the customer, the sales figures don’t reflect it.

I’m not aware of JLR or Aston Martin taking public exception to the appearance of either Explorer or Fusion. Most likely they figure that domestic-car styling trends tend to be short-lived and that this, too, shall pass. Furthermore, the prestige of both the Range Rover and Aston Martin marques is more than strong enough to survive a short-lived association with lesser machinery. This is not always the case with copycat cars; one can argue that the fortunes of Infiniti’s J30 were significantly undermined by the appearance of the similar-looking Nissan Altima a year after the J30’s debut, and I doubt that Infiniti G35 Coupe sales were helped in any way by the Altima Coupe that resembled it with the kind of detail that non-poisonous butterflies employ when they imitate the appearance of the monarch.

The amusing possibility, of course, is if customers become attached to the design language of these two reminiscent Fords. If that turns out to be the case, then the designers in Dearborn will find themselves in the same pickle that must dominate the thoughts of their counterparts at Land Rover and Aston Martin; how do you make the car look new without upsetting the buyers? Wouldn’t it be funny if, long after Spen King’s departure from this vale of tears, Ford was forced to join the ranks of the men who continue to be forcibly guided by the low-percentage effort of his dead hand?

[Images: © 2016 Matt Posky/The Truth About Cars, Ford]

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46 Comments on “Ford ‘Fair Games’ Its One-Night Stands...”


  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    A sad turn of events. Remember when America led car design?

  • avatar
    Compaq Deskpro

    Corvette, Corvair, 70’s Lincolns T-Birds and Caddy’s, current Caddy sedans, hell even Japan, consider the original 240z. This is nothing new.

    Also, while the front grill is Aston Martin, the sides are not. Aston tends to have very smooth curvy slab sides. The long straked sides come right off the new Jags.

  • avatar
    threeer

    One has to wonder how much (if anything) is left that will be truly “original” when it comes to car design. Maybe its just me, but it used to be easier to tell one make/model from the next (of course, the rear-end of the new Civic is surely an exception…kind of hard to miss that!).

  • avatar
    Polishdon

    Heck,

    Look at a 1989 Plymouth Acclaim and a 1990 Lexus LS400, They are also a similar design (Front end especially)

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Which is odd, since the LS is a straight-up aping of the W126 S-Class.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        See, I never though the original LS400 was a copycat of the S-Class. I think the S-Class set a paradigm for what a world-class flagship sedan should be (Detroit had long ago dropped the ball), so Lexus drew some inspiration from that, but they look entirely different to me. Where the S-Class was upright and classic, the LS400 was definitely more 90s-modern, with wide, horizontal elements and curved edges.

        Now, the second-gen Inifiniti M definitely looks like it tried to crib the styling of the W140 S-Class.

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      I always thought it was their complete lack of design that made them similar. Plenty of late 70’s and most 80’s mid and large sedans looked almost exactly like these cars. BMW’s had round quad headlights though, which really made them stand out from the crowd.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    The Flex may have a bit of Land Rover but it also has a bit of supersize Mini styling. Although at the rate Minis are growing they may be Flex sized by the end of the decade.

    Too bad they didn’t decide to borrow some Jaguar styling cues for their more pedestrian cars.

  • avatar
    yamahog

    “It looks like a bently until a m*******ucking bently pulls up beside you and then it looks like a Chrysler 300” (paraphrasing here).

    It’s interesting that Ford aped its former brands, but mass market automarkers aping luxury autos is nothing new. I think it’s more uncommon when a brand develops a style all its own – Nissan maybe does this and VW does a really good job of making VWs look different but conservative (although perhaps VW didn’t change, rather the world around it did).

    What attracts explorer buyers more? The police car facsimile or the range rover styling cues?

    The other day I had an explorer ride my ass on a one lane road. I slowed down to give myself more time to look for deer and the car got closer – sorry bud, I’m not speeding up for someone driving the SUV of preferred by law enforcement officers. I’m not rolling the dice on a speeding ticket because you refuse to pass.

  • avatar
    nels0300

    I wish Honda and Toyota would start ripping off styling.

    I’d be all over a Civic hatch that looked like an Audi or VW.

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      They do, or did, all the time. The first generations of Celicas were just a mix of Mustang and Mopar bits downsized a bit, and any Lexus sedan up until they started ripping famous sci-fi movies were a rip off of certain german luxury cars. And Honda has a long history of mixing BMW and Mercedes elements but with typical fwd proportions.
      VW and Audi really has no real styling traits to rip off though. Their thing has always been to be as purposefully generic and traditional (some will say timeless?) looking as possible, which is extremely hard to rip off. Actually you can almost say VW and Audi are already a decade or so behind Lexus and Acura, while refining them even more, and adding fancy headlights and grilles/badges.

      • 0 avatar
        nels0300

        Yes, traditional. That’s what I wish Honda/Toyota would rip off. Not that wacky styling like Lexus and the new Civic hatch. The current Accord is nice and tasteful, but if the Civic hatch is any indication, Honda will mess that up in 2018.

        Take a page from Hyundai/Kia and go and poach a Peter Schreyer.

      • 0 avatar
        White Shadow

        Except that some manufacturers ripped off the Audi grille, but then had to stretch/warp it wildly out of proportion to make it their own. Yes Lexus, I’m talking about you….

        Nobody does headlights or grilles as well as Audi.

        • 0 avatar
          Zykotec

          You mean that huge gaping hole that covers more than half the front end, that appear on mos tpre-war and some 50’s cars, or just the rectangular hole between the headlights on older Audis?
          They do headlights and taillights really well, but I guess it’s the only time the designers are allowed to be creative. (not saying they do a bad job at making the restrained classy looks, but it’s never even remotely close to outside any box, except for the subtle hips on the 5’s )

        • 0 avatar
          WallMeerkat

          The Audi grille was a ripoff of a Rover grille.

          Look up pictures of the 75 V8 – this was before the VW/Audi ‘goatee’ era.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    WRT to Land Rover, one could argue that Ford had established the styling long ago.

    I thought FoMoCo retained a small amount of ownership in Aston Martin (15-17%)? Even if correct, that still doesn’t make it OK that they used A-M styling cues on the newer Fusions.

    These Fusions look like someone overinflated a DB7 by about 200 psi.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    From what I understand, you only get “E X P L O R E R” spelled out across the leading edge of the hood on the Sport trim; the others are barren of letters. But the whole D4-based Explorer design, especially after the refresh, totally looks like a Land Rover / Range Rover; that’s one reason it’s probably doing so well. Ford is definitely taking style cues from former brands. I guess, in Jack language, it’s the equivalent of the ex-spouse who takes your house and money in the divorce that she instigated and insisted upon, and then moves another guy in.

  • avatar

    When the Tesla Model S was introduced, I pointed to the faux grille and simply said to Tesla’s head designer, Franz von Holzhausen, “Maserati?”. He smiled widely and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, it has a completely different shape,” and paused. Then he said, “It never hurts if your design evokes more expensive cars.”

  • avatar
    FalcoDog

    And the front of new MKZ looks like a Jaguar XF. So what. Everybody copies everybody. Except for the Cube. That would be a copy of a refrigerator.

  • avatar
    gsf12man

    To me, the Fords look a lot more like Fords than Aston Martins. Your third illustration illustrates this. (I thought one of the first of the current-style Explorers that I met on the highway was a Range Rover Sport, so I’ll just set that argument down and back away…). But I really think the world of automotive journalism has beaten “Aston Martinesque grille” to death fifty times over.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Jack, seriously, take a look at a first gen Ford Bronco from 1966, especially the top of the hood and front fenders (which are what really sets it apart from a 1961 Scout), and rear overhang. Then look at the first Range Rover, made 4 years later.
    Then hide in shame for a bit…

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I’m always ready to hide in shame but the first-gen Bronco is no more a guideline to Range Rover design than was the ’65 F-100 I mention in the article. The hood in particular slopes to a crease. Virtually every passenger car of the Sixties had those same hood character lines, even the Continental. The Rangie was demonstrably different.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        Ok, you don’t have to hide in shame XD , but I can’t think of any other cars right now where the side continues straight forward while the middle slopes down in such a characteristic way. On most other 60’s cars with sculpted hoods each plane would normally be parallel seen from the side.
        Offcourse on the Bronce the ridges on the sides are the fenders, and on the RR it’s part of the hood.
        As for any other likeness between a Bronco and RR that was probably just because they were both short offroaders.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Was it a coincidence that the 1966 and 1967 Fairlane had stacked headlights?
    It just so happened that the designers at Ford decided to use that design attribute a year after the 1965 Tempest and GTO debuted with stacked headlights? Stacked headlights of course first appearing on Pontiacs in 1963.
    And how coincidental that the 1965 Plymouth Fury, Ford Galaxie, Mercury Comet, and Cadillac DeVille all had stacked headlights for the first time.

    And people say modern cars all look the same…

  • avatar
    gasser

    Best looking car in my lifetime, the Chevy Impala SS 1965. Glorious from the prow of the grille to the sweep of the C pillar to the back lights on the drop away line of the trunk. Fifty years later, I still love it. I had the fortune to drive a buddy’s “65 SS convertible back when it was new. BRG with a tan interior. Nothing then or since has done it for me like that car.

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    The DB7 itself looks like (and indeed, at one point was the proposal for) a Jaguar.

    Mid-size sedans looking like big sports cars is nothing new – the Rover SD1 was meant to be a 5 door Ferrari Daytona. Peugeot tried to ape the front grille of a Ferrari 355 with the Peugeot 407.

    The Aston Martin Cygnet ended up looking like an Austin Mini, with their traditional grille.

    If the Fusion/Mondeo looks Aston Martin like, the Mustang is a poor man’s Aston. Yet in the 80s Aston Martin tried to look like a Mustang with the V8.

    Land Rover now displays the model name (or subbrand as they are now) above the grille – ‘Discovery’ / ‘Defender’ / ‘Range Rover’.
    Mitsubishi has copied this too with their SUVs.
    The new Discovery looks like a mix of Ford Explorer and Saab 95 wagon.

  • avatar
    Eyeflyistheeye

    Ford poached Land Rover engineer Jim Holland as the lead engineer of the Explorer, so I’m not surprised at all.

    Ford had a good thing going with the cat-face Kinetic design language of the Fiesta and the Focus, it looked uniquely Ford and a natural transition from Euro Fords of yore like the Capri and original Mondeo, as a Kinetic Ford owner, I’m not too impressed with the general slab-sidedness of the Fusion and the Aston Martin grille. In fact, I thought the previous Mondeo (from Casino Royale) was the best-looking Ford midsizer ever made.

  • avatar
    Eyeflyistheeye

    As for originality, let me bring out my best Austrian economics and say that I think Ford is absolutely genius for keeping what’s theirs along with poaching (or keeping) Jim Holland from LR to engineer the Explorer. What’s that you say? The designs belong to Land Rover and Aston Martin and the platforms/parts belong to Volvo?

    Well, most of that design work was done under Ford’s ownership and funding. Volvo, JLR and Aston, although Ford didn’t do the best job of managing them, would have gone bankrupt or extinct if Jac Nasser didn’t keep throwing Explorer profits away to keep them afloat. If they didn’t want Ford to buy them out, they should have managed themselves better or have management raise enough capital to buy them out.

  • avatar

    Ford had wasted so much money saving these morbid British brands so it deserves to use any parts from their respective part bins and rip off their design ideas any way it likes – nobody should blame them for doing that. And BTW former JLR owners had screwed up Ford big way playing GM vs Ford to get unrealistically high price (While FIAT got Chrysler for free and blackmailed GM for billion $$) – talk about Europeans hugely outsmarting their Americans counterparts at every turn. Europeans are very smart while Americans are naive and usually try to solve problems by throwing as much money as they can on things that proven to not work (like public schools e.g.) and trying to overwhelm just by sheer quantity.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    This is pretty much the Jack Tramiel playbook, isn’t it?


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