Here’s What It Takes to Design a Ford Vehicle From Scratch

Ford banner
Ford banner | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Have you ever considered how many man hours went into designing the center console in your car? For as simple as it may appear, the answer would probably surprise you. The majority of us couldn’t even complete a usable freehand sketch of a concept car outline, more or less design a key component within a car’s cabin. There’s something about the automotive R&D process that draws people in, like a documentary on tree houses, or a behind-the-scenes look at how a limited edition LEGO kit gets made. These are things that we see every day, but somehow take for granted, never once considering the amount of planning, design, engineering, and assessment that go into something so commonplace.

As for auto manufacturers, the road to street-ready is a long and winding one, fraught with setbacks, deadlines, budget constraints, and redesigns, and that’s just within the design stages. Ford Motor Company knows the truth of this statement better than anyone, and isn’t afraid to admit that designing a car is just as challenging as it is rewarding.

Ford R&D Department
Ford R&D Department | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

In order to shine some light on the subject, we were invited up to Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan headquarters so that we could sit down with some of the great minds behind The Blue Oval’s lineup, and gain access to the R&D labs that make its design processes so special. Naturally, a lot of what we discovered was digitally rendered, and reminiscent of something one would see on the holodeck in an episode of Star Trek.

But there was also a very real, hands-on approach to automotive design and engineering at play here, and being that this is a company that is still deeply connected to its roots, cars are now conceived in both a traditional fashion, as well as with a cutting edge approach. Here are four key portions of The Blue Oval’s design process that every Ford owner should know.

1. Let’s get digital

Computer design programs for car manufacturing
Computer design programs for car manufacturing | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The amount of design time that goes into creating a digital rendering of a vehicle is absolutely mind boggling. When Ford’s chief designers walked us through the various stages of this process, we were blown away by the amount of time, money, and energy that went into transforming an initial pitch into a finished digital teaser trailer that’s ready for executive review.

What begins as artist renderings and outline sketches morphs into an immersive 3D digital experience, where designers breath life into a concept via Studio 2000x, a complex animation workshop that puts Pixar films to shame. Here, artists create a digital rendering of a vehicle, then play with proportions, lines, lighting, reflections, colors, and any other imaginable aesthetic aspect, before sending it on to the next stage of conceptualization.

Once 3D development steps leave everyone satisfied and hours of interactive visualization ensures that cargo hatches open and close fluidly, it’s on to polymodeling. This is where all of the depth and detail within a CG film come from, and every shadow, curve, reflection, glare, and background are inserted in order to match the feel of the vehicle itself, and in turn hopefully make the viewer feel something as well.

After that it’s on to animation, where everything gets hemmed together before heading off for review by the powers that be. In this final design stage, sweeping camera motions, wheel rotation, steering inputs, sound, and every other conceivable component that brings an animated sequence to life is instilled by a group of detail oriented specialists. Want a flock of birds in the background or a wisp of cloud overhead to add those subtle touches, before panning the frame out so you can see the entire automobile? This is where all that and more takes place, because without it Ford’s designers are left with a far less immersive sales pitch.

2. And then we’ll go virtual

Virtually dissecting a Ford Mustang
Virtually dissecting a Ford Mustang | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Ford has one of the most advanced virtual reality (VR) labs in the world, which allows a vehicle and all of its technical details to be taken out of the design studio and placed on a virtual operating table where a trained professional can dissect its innards.

The way Ford has its lab set up allows everyone in the room to see whatever the person wearing the VR headset sees via a massive display screen on the wall. By utilizing a duo of command wands and a chair that allows you to see things from the driver’s seat, one can closely inspect any vehicle in the automaker’s lineup, all without ever having to have an automobile physically present.

Ford's virtual reality lab
Ford’s virtual reality lab | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After donning the headset and receiving a crash course in VR etiquette, we discovered that one of the wands we were holding allowed us to dissect entire sections of the vehicle, offering detailed views of the inner workings of the engine, lighting system, and any other component. This tool allows designers, engineers, and executives the ability to pinpoint potential problems before a vehicle goes into production, and to better understand why a component was designed to function a particular way.

Another neat gadget we got to play with was a digital flashlight, which proved to be way more helpful than expected. Just because a section of the engine bay has been carved away doesn’t mean that there aren’t unlit areas within it that could use a little illumination. By offering a real life assessment, almost as if the car were in a garage, Ford employees can highlight key components without having the need to crawl around underneath a rear sub frame or hoist out an engine. Almost anything is possible in this 3D wonderland, and customizing a Mustang’s colors on the fly, turning lights on and off, and moving mirrors around are all tweaks that make Ford’s fully immersive VR experience a reality.

3. Clay made is still the best way

Ford clay model booth
Ford clay model booth | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This was an area of the tour that we did not expect to see up close, yet Ford went above and beyond and opened its doors to highlight an art form that few people get to see in person. This may seem old fashioned, but Ford’s decision to keep a full team of skilled clay specialists on hand to mold, form, and bring to life what once was little more than a digital rendering is a crucial part of the design process.

What starts with a steel frame and a gargantuan glob of warm clay gets milled down by a programmable robotic arm that’s been outfitted with a sharp spinning scalpel that follows the lines of whatever vehicle profile has been uploaded. When asked what kind of instruments they use, one clay specialist tells me that his work cart is filled with old wooden-handled tools that were handed down to him from mentors at Ford many decades ago, and that once all of their changes are made by hand, the entire clay model gets scanned and sent back for further computer analysis.

Clay modeling tools
Clay modeling tools | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Ford does this because there’s only so much that a robot can do, which means many of the more detail-oriented aspects of the clay modeling process are still tackled by a team of trained professionals. While the robotic arm shaves down one end of the rough draft, Ford’s team of clay experts finely hone other areas of the vehicle, taking great care to smooth out rough edges, and etch lines where things like tail lights and trim bezels will reside. They also keep both a watchful eye and hand on the life-size model to make sure nothing seems out of place or disproportionate. Outfitted with wheels, tires, badging, and a special kind of super-stretchy vinyl wrap, the completed clay model looks all the world like the real deal, which helps give Ford a tangible representation of what is to come.

Around 200,000 pounds of clay get utilized every year for the construction of full-size models, of which nearly 5,000 pounds get recycled thanks to a series of totes surrounding the model that capture flying chips (even a single grain of sand can ruin the finish). Once gathered, these shards are placed in a recycling machine that compresses and churns the clay with blades before sucking all the air out, and then passing it through a heated nozzle that gives the recycled material the right consistency for reuse.

Interesting Ford clay facts:

• Sulfur used to be a key ingredient in clay, but once heated it would cause electronics to malfunction, and it was eventually phased out in the 2000s.

• Designing the new Raptor required 1,935 pounds of clay, as designers spent nearly 20,000 hours modeling this single vehicle over the course of four years.

• The clay that Ford uses for modeling doesn’t contain clay at all, but a combination of waxes, oils, and fillers, which eliminates the need for water.

• Clay used to contain whale blubber until it was banned.

4. But can it go faster?

Henry Ford's 999 Race Car
Henry Ford’s 999 Race Car | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Story has it that Henry Ford was intimidated by his first race car, so he hired a bicycle racer by the name of Barney Oldfield to pilot the iconic “999,” eventually becoming America’s first nationally renowned race car driver. Ford utilized the success of the “999” as a marketing springboard for his next big venture, the Ford Motor Company, which took a far more pedestrian approach to transportation.

We can’t blame Ford for being wary of this speed demon either, because while the name “999” reportedly came from a steam locomotive that set a 112-mile-per-hour speed record in 1893, it’s the mark of the beast that shows up when you roll the damn thing that makes us worried. In 1904 Henry Ford himself would set an automobile speed record of 91.37 miles per hour behind the wheel of the “Arrow,” which was a twin to the “999.” Outfitted with a massive 1,155 cubic-inch inline four-cylinder engine that came mounted to a wooden frame, the demonic duo had clutches but no transmission, a single brake on the rear axle, no springs whatsoever, and made an estimated 70 horsepower on a good day.

Autocross course
Autocross course | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Over a century later and Ford Performance is stronger than ever, with cars like the flat-plane crank equipped Mustang GT350, all-wheel drive Focus RS, and carbon fiber GT supercar leading the charge. Over in the Roush building we learned that once a particular platform shows enough potential, it gets tapped for some love over at Ford’s performance team, where a team of specialists take said chassis and fine-tune it with an array of in-house and supplier sourced upgrades.

Simply referred to as the Ford Performance division, this dedicated team of tuning specialists are led by global performance chief engineer Jamal Hameedi, who is widely accredited for helping make the five-door Focus RS what it is today. What started off as little more than a practical economy car slowly evolved into an ST model, before later becoming the European inspired RS hot-hatch enthusiasts swoon over.

Hameedi’s job is to oversee a team that works alongside OEM Ford engineers, and painstakingly go over the entire chassis to offer an approach to tuning that leaves them within budget and plausible in their pitches to the powers that be. Once approved, their job becomes simple: Modify a stock Ford vehicle to a point where it can be both a track oriented animal, and a comfortable daily driver for the ride home. While full-blown race cars are born here as well, along with hardcore trucks like the Raptor, it’s the need to make a fully functional, street legal machine that spurns this team on. We find this last fact to be incredibly fitting, especially since it was a race car that jump-started this whole company in the first place.