Detroit — If Ford Motor Company's guess is right, it could be in the forefront of tomorrow's automotive design.
But if it's wrong, Ford could be in deep trouble in the showroom.
While all carmakers - domestic and import - are looking to aerodynamics for further gains in fuel economy down the road, Ford is taking some major strides for 1983, with the first evidence due in the showroom in the fall.
The '83 Ford Thunderbird, for example, coming early next year, shows a dramatic shift in styling from the boxy cars that have rolled off US assembly lines for years. While the boxy-shaped cars provide more inside space, carmakers assert, Ford believes it has an even ''better idea'' in space management in its newer designs.
Ford, like all the other US car manufacturers, has been losing billions of dollars because of the deep-rooted depression in new-car sales. The No. 2 carmaker has taken a $2.7 billion red-ink bath in the last two years alone and watched its share of the domestic-car market shrink from nearly 24 percent a decade ago to less than 17 percent today.
(Each percentage point in the marketplace is worth at least $800 million in annual revenue.)
To compensate for the decline, Ford, like every other US carmaker, has lopped billions off its operational costs, through massive layoffs, blue collar and white, as well as newfound efficiencies in the way it builds cars.
Ford, for example, says it has cut at least $2.5 billion off its annual costs in its persistent battle to ''get lean.'' The only way to succeed in today's auto market, the industry insists, is to get lean and stay lean.
Thus, in wooing the car buyer's dollar, Ford is exploring new ground in automotive design as well as futuristic ideas in electronic control and convenience items.
At Ford's electrical and electronics division, for example, I ''talked'' to a car and it did exactly what I told it to do. Speaking into a microphone, I demanded: ''Wipers on'' - and the windshield wipers began to sweep. ''Wipers off'' - and they stopped. ''Open door'' or ''raise antenna'' - and the car did just that.
At some point down the road, such voice commands may be commonplace.
In 1983, Ford will have a ''talking car'' option for the new Thunderbird and Cougar, consisting of a single electronic module that produces reminder messages through synthesized speech, such as Nissan has had in the Maxima for the last two model years.
Ultimately, the company will market a satellite-navigation system, quite different from and more complex than what Honda is now selling in Japan, which will pinpoint a car's location on a map display and help a driver reach his destination. Using data from a Transit navigation satellite, the system can locate a car with accuracy within 1,000 feet anywhere in the world.
A hand-held transmitter will help locate a car in a parking lot by blowing the horn and turning on the headlights.
When fully developed, radar braking will reduce accidents and advanced sound systems will really bring the concert hall inside the car.
''We're working heavily on convenience-type electronics,'' asserts Jerome G. Rivard, chief engineer of the laboratory facility. With an annual budget of $75 million, it gives some idea of the importance the company places in its future products.
What Ford seeks is exclusivity in its features - at least for a while.
''We have more electronic instrumentation on more car lines than any other manufacturer,'' Mr. Rivard declares.
''In engine controls, we're probably two years ahead in technology,'' he adds. ''We are strong in vehicle controls as well, primarily because of the convenience and performance features of such unique products as Ford's speed control, with finger-tip switches located on the steering wheel, and our keyless entry system.''
While Ford is clearly making sharp gains in electronic developments and applications, it is in its future designs that it may be taking a chance.
The front end of the '83 LTD is softly rounded, for example, and the hope is that car buyers will see the change - and like it. The new Thunderbird, scheduled to debut after the first of the year, is dramatically different from the car it replaces. The front end is rounded, rear fenders are curved, and the windshield and rear glass sharply sloped.
''The upcoming all-new Thunderbird has a drag coefficient of 0.35,'' according to Larry B. Socha, manager of the aerodynamics department at Ford. ''It was conceived to be an aerodynamically designed, new-generation vehicle, unrestrained by previous design concepts.''
The new T-bird requires only 6.2 horsepower to move it through the air at 50 miles an hour, about three-quarters of the horsepower required by the 1982 Buick Regal and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
The windshield angle of the Thunderbird is 60 degrees and the backlight, 63 degrees.
''Ford's objective,'' according to Arthur T. Lewry, executive engineer for aerodynamics for Ford, ''is to achieve an overall drag rating of 0.33 by 1990, for a total reduction of 35 percent.'' The increase in the corporate average fuel economy could be more than 21/2 miles per gallon, derived solely from aerodynamics.
Next spring Ford will introduce the front-drive Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz in the compact market, both of them including many of the aerodynamic features of the '83 Ford Thunderbird.
The 2-door Tempo and Topaz have projected drag coefficients of 0.36.
''Our 1983-model-year programs, such as the XR-7, the LTD, the Marquis, and the Thunderbird, demonstrate the integration of vehicle styling and the functional aerodynamics during the early theme development of the cars,'' Mr. Lewry says.
All of the new-for-'83 Ford vehicles will have drag coefficients at or below 0.40. The new formal XR-7 has a drag coefficient of 0.40, a 7 percent improvement over the 1982 version, reports Mr. Socha.
In fact, Ford has to do something to make it stand out. Ford, for example, is running far behind General Motors and Chrysler in front-drive cars. Some buyers figure that a car that isn't front drive isn't up to date.
Many engineers argue that the main advantage of front drive is in small cars, because of the space gain inside the vehicle, but in the larger cars there is no reason to make the shift. Mercedes-Benz cars are still all rear drive, and so is Volvo.
Ford is taking a big risk in its aerodynamic drive, nonetheless, but risk is no stranger to Ford. In the mid-1950s Ford tried to ''sell safety,'' including seat belts, to the US public, but the attempt was a disaster and only sent more business to Chevrolet. Then it launched its unlamented Edsel on a fickle market and the car bombed.
Looking confident, Ford executives say the public will adjust to the new styles, especially if they make sense.
''If a design is logical, the eye will adjust to it,'' asserts Donald E. Peterson, Ford president.