Has the Ford Focus really been around for twenty three years? I was quite grumpy and quite old when it was launched, now I’m grumpier and older and think that the original car has aged rather better than I have.
Taking over from the final, and pathologically timid Escort, it’s hard to remember now just how modern and fresh the Focus looked in 1998 and what a game changer it was. Slightly daft dashboard aside, it was a great piece of industrial design and it drove really well too. I remember blatting round the lanes near Ford’s then Brentwood headquarters in Essex, driving a middle specification rep-friendly five door, enjoying the way the fully independent rear suspension helped to guide it round corners. It looked radical, worked well and sold massively.
None of the subsequent Focuses (should that be ‘Foci?’) have been duds, but the Mk2 looked boring, the Mk3 resembled a Fiesta in need of a diet, and the current one has a vague whiff of old model BMW 1 Series about it. Although it’s perfectly inoffensive to look at, the spark or originality has been lost. It’s got bigger and blander.
I have mixed feelings about cars that ape long gone originals, but think it’s a pity Ford didn’t reference the first Focus somewhere in the current car’s styling (tail lamps in the C-pillars anyone?).
Volkswagen has done this with varying degrees of success with the Golf, but I still reckon the 1974 original has a timelessness that its successors lacked. Some have been positively frumpy and the current edition’s front end appears to have been inspired by a 1970s Hoover upright vacuum cleaner. Like the Focus, the Golf’s glory days are probably behind it, as their makers launch differently branded electric models, but even VW’s ID.3 electric five door with its thick C-pillar and short overhangs has a familiar profile. It may represent the future, but its shape is still a homage to a world of flared trousers, bad beer and smoking on public transport (note to younger readers: these things had their epoch when the first Golf was launched in the 1970s).
So perversely, although I’d like to see some of the Mk1 Focus’s styling in the current one, I’d welcome an ID.3 that looked a little less familiar. Perhaps this is because both paths would give these cars a modernity that they perhaps lack.
The Issigonis-designed Mini (circa 1959) was a masterclass in rational design, brilliant packaging and bloody minded elements that reflected the personality of its famously grumpy creator. That it looked cute was a happy accident. Had it resembled a coal bunker, designer Alec Issigonis would have stuck with it, having said in old age that he knew better than the public what they actually wanted, and that market research was “bunk”. BMW long ago binned the original’s mix of compactness and space efficiency for a range of frankly rather bloated looking cars with mixed ability for interior packaging, whose visual template is now sixty two years old. Doubtless history is on BMW’s side, because the reconstituted Mini has been a massive commercial success, but whenever I see a modern MINI, I find myself thinking: ‘couldn’t they do something else as well?’
Many years ago Rover showed some motor show design exercises for Mini city cars. They had one box bodies, underfloor engines and egg-like silhouettes, still looked like Minis but they also looked genuinely new. Perhaps as electrification brings new packaging ideas, the company’s designers will use them to do something really fresh, rather than come up with another recalibration of ideas that have been around for decades.
Of course, if they do that the car buying public, which knows what it likes and often likes more of the same, might baulk at buying the new designs. That makes me quite grumpy too.