Like President Barack Obama, who decided to raise his hand and take on the daunting task that only a few wanted (or really knew they had the wits that were needed to save America from another Great Depression), Earl Lucas, Ford’s highest-ranking African American designer, found himself in a similar situation. While Lucas wasn’t trying to save America, he did step-up to the plate to revive an American icon, the Ford Taurus.
Lucas’ design colleagues wanted nothing to do with the Taurus, which at the time was known as the Ford Five Hundred. The vehicle had gone through a name change and was just quite boring to say the least. Lucas, like our President, decided he was the right man for the task. He knew that he could put the sizzle in this big family sedan and restore the Taurus name. His friend and classmate from design school, Ralph Gilles, the brother behind the 300, had done it a few years earlier, adding swag to Chrysler’s line of family sedans (and wagons). Lucas knew he could do the same and that he needed to come with his A-game.
Indeed he did. When the 2010 Taurus hit the market, it was no longer the vehicle that should have been built strictly for the rental car agencies. It was once again the vehicle that everyone wanted to own due to its sex appeal. Lucas, like Gilles, had hit a sweet spot with the big family sedan.
So not only did the Taurus ring-up sales and cash for Ford, it earned Lucas an overseas assignment like his design colleagues Crystal Windham, the interior designer at GM, and Andre Hudson, the brother responsible for the Hyundai Sonata.
Recently, we caught up with Lucas. Unfortunately, we were unable to conduct a video interview with him due to his international assignment. Nevertheless, we believe that you’ll still find our two-part interview with Lucas to be just as inspiring as the other designers.
So Earl, did the success of the Taurus have any influence over your current international assignment? If so, how?
EL: The success of the Taurus had a great influence on the company deciding to offer me an international assignment. Since Ford is a global company, they are pushing hard to get all their employees an international experience. So, the more I understand about how places like Germany, the United Kingdom, and China works, it places me in a better position to make products that our global customer wants. I am thankful for the assignment.
How long is your international assignment?
EL:The international assignment is for 3 years. I have completed a year of the assignment.
Can you tell us what vehicles are you working on?
EL: I wish I could, but you know I can't talk about the programs I am working on. All I can say that it is totally different than the Taurus. That’s the beauty in working for Ford. The company has a large range of products and they all have their own particular challenges. In the past, I have worked on (Ford) F-150, (Ford) Edge, (Ford) Flex, (Ford) Taurus and (Lincoln) MKS. Working on products in Europe and the rest of the world is the next logical step for my career.
How has your current assignment shaped your ‘eye’ for car designs?
EL: My current assignment in Europe has not really changed my eye for car design, but more so by diversifying my life experiences. Anytime a designer can see and experience other cultures and environments ….they will grow and become better designers. All of life is reference and the best teacher.
What do you mean by life is reference and the best teacher?
EL: When we look at our lives or the things around us, you notice how shapes work together for the greater good (or they should work toward this goal). Being in a different environment makes you question everything. Which solution works better? But more importantly, why it is better? All colors and textures can work together but it is the proportion of elements that makes one product better or more noticeable. Designers have the task of using the ordinary things around us and make them extraordinary by learning from the heritage of the past and moving forward to the present. All of this is done for the sole purpose of creating products that connect with the customer on a much deeper level than simply style.
In the future, there may be a need for me to call upon my trips to Paris when designing the next front-end of a new car or I may have you refer to a graphic that I witnessed while walking the streets of London. So as you can see, my eye for design is based upon seeing and comparing what I believe as a designer. Every designer has a certain view of the world, a certain perspective on how things should work. Europe is simply giving me a deeper database to pull from and making me consider other possibilities of what can be done as it relates to designing.
Both of your design colleagues, Andre Hudson, who designs for Hyundai, and Crystal Windham, who designs for GM, had overseas assignments, before taking on high-profile assignments. However, you just completed a high-profile assignment. So, why do you think it was beneficial to your career to uproot your comfortable lifestyle in Detroit and move overseas?
EL: Well, let me start by saying that both Andre and Crystal are great designers! Crystal and I were classmates at CCS (the design school in Detroit) and graduated the same year. Living overseas is truly an experience that is beneficial to me as a human being regardless of the significance of the program. I love Detroit, but getting the chance to see the world was too good to pass up. My wife and kids are dealing well with the move; however, we still get homesick from time-to-time. I believe that I no longer have anything to prove as a designer in terms of completing major or minor program because I have done both. For me, work is evolving into sharing my experience with younger designers, creating an environment conducive to design and themes that get to the heart of the customer – regardless of the customer profile. If the company decides to let me handle another high profile assignment, then I will show my superiors again that I am capable and deliver a shape that puts Ford Motor Company in a fashionable light.
Based upon what Earl Lucas did with the Taurus, we can only assume that Ford more high-profile assignments in the pipeline. Look out for continuation of this interview. Unlike the other designers, this international assignment has Lucas working on another soon-to-be release project ….. which is outside of the auto industry.
Jeff Fortson is an auto analyst and editor of a car-buying website for women and minorities. To learn more about his popular car-buying workshop and/or to price a new-vehicle, drive on over to www.JeffCars.com. Follow him http://twitter.com/#!/JeffCars/.