ELECTRONIC wizardry is on a fast track, but so is car design. Meet the striking new Ford Probe V, the most aerodynamic, drivable car around.
With a drag coefficient (c.d.) of 0.137, and a dorsal fin to give it more stability in high side winds, the Probe V is even more slippery than a jet-fighter aircraft.
``What we learn from Probe V will be adapted to production models in the years ahead,'' reports Donald F. Kopka, Ford's design chief.
When they speak of aerodynamics, the designers are talking about air-flow management, or directing the flow of air over, around, and under a car. The fewer the obstructions, the better the air flow, and the better the fuel mileage on the road.
To smooth out the air flow, the trend is to flushness, reports G. L. Halderman, head of full-size and luxury-car development at Ford. The designers are starting to close up the gaps so that ``things are going to fit like wristwatches,'' he says.
``The glass will be out flush [as it is in some cars already], and there'll be better fits and fewer moldings applied on top of sheet metal, doors, and the like. We're going to inset them so there are very nice fits.''
Although a c.d. below 0.30 has already been achieved in production cars, the brand-new Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable are the most slippery cars ever devised by Ford.
To lower the c.d. any further may require whole new vehicles and cost trade-offs. No one, however, expects a production car to equal or even approach the super-low c.d. of the Probe V, at least as far as car designers can peer ahead, even in their wildest imaginings.
John A. Betti, executive vice-president of technical affairs at Ford, sees this latest Probe as ``a model for Project Alpha,'' Ford's far-ahead research study akin to the General Motors Saturn and Chrysler Liberty projects. All three pursuits are not specific cars, but attempts to develop far more efficient, less-costly processes for designing, engineering, and building a car.
``Alpha is a systems approach to doing business,'' Mr. Betti explains. It's an effort to shorten the time span from concept to production car.
The Japanese now have at least a six-month advantage over Detroit in creating a new car from scratch. The decisionmaking process is quicker, and there are far fewer management meetings. At Mazda Motors, the chairman sees a new car only two or three times. His people put a new car together, they plan and program it, and then they show him the outcome.
Ford chairman Donald E. Petersen, by contrast, is heavily involved in the car-planning process right from the start and ``likes to come to the design center,'' says Ford designer Halderman. Mr. Petersen, as chairman of the design committee, personally approves all car design.
Ford is now toying with an early-1990s face-lift for its brand-new Taurus/Sable, even though the cars in their original form have yet to hit the showroom.
The designers are trying hard to drop the c.d. to less than 0.30 -- ``a tough task,'' Mr. Halderman says -- compared with 0.32 today. Actually, a lower c.d. probably doesn't mean much, anyway, but ``it's a lot when you print that number,'' says the designer, because of the competition within the industry.
Automakers can still make some changes in the '89-model cars, but only minor fixes. Any changes would have to be limited to ornamentation, such as a tail lamp, because the basic sheet metal and bumpers are set.
Will all cars look the same as they become more and more sleek?
That's highly unlikely, says Halderman. ``We now know how to make aerodynamic cars, but we don't want to lose the distinctiveness of some of the features of the past, either. You can't take any new theory to the point where cars become unrecognizable blobs. So we're putting some character back into the cars as well as some distinctiveness.''
A walk through the Ford Design Center here, sealed from prying eyes by locked doors and tight security, shows how automakers are thinking these days as they drive toward the 1990s.
An interior studio shows mock-ups of the Taurus/Sable, fully trimmed, but without doors. ``This is the extent we go to when we propose our themes to management,'' Halderman explains. A management committee makes the decisions. ``On any new-car program we do an extensive analyzation of what we think we should be doing,'' he says.
In designing a car for the future, or a component such as an instrument panel, seats, doors, roofs, grilles, or tail lamps, the Ford designers write down on a board all the things that the part ought to be, as well as what they want to do, or not do, to the component. Then they put up on the wall a myriad of pictures and ``for instances'' of pieces of parts and total concepts.
``We evaluate every piece of the display,'' says Halderman, ``and go through the same pattern, whether it's exterior or interior. All of the objectives are posted on a wall.'' One display shows ideas for a forthcoming new Mark.
Getting a consensus can sometimes be hard. Clay models abound, as do computer graphics. In one studio is a Toyota Cressida. ``We use every car in the world that we can find an example of,'' Halderman says. ``There is a lot of cross-fertilization. In the past we ended up with atrocious fits. Today we can see how everything is going to fit.''
Looking ahead, Halderman says, ``Our biggest challenge is the market itself and how we are going to compete. I think the competition from abroad is much tougher than it is from across town [GM], and it's getting tougher. We're getting new shapes and new ways of doing things.
``As tough as quality sounds, it's opening the door and allowing us to do things that we wanted to do for years. We never wanted big gaps around tail lamps and grilles, for example, but the manufacturers said we had to float everything. It's really giving the designer today an opportunity to express himself.''
Designing good-looking automobiles is never hard, designers assert. It may, however, be hard to sell an idea to management, manufacture it in a plant, or meet cost targets.
Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor. Car designers on the West Coast
In designing for tomorrow, carmakers pay extra-special attention to the West Coast, even going so far as to maintain a ``design presence'' in California. Ford Motor Company's design shop in Valencia, Calif., north of Los Angeles, is working on advanced programs and total car concepts.
``We're trying to get more of a feeling of what the California climate is and what effect that should have on our designs,'' says G. L. Halderman, head of full-size and luxury-car development at Ford.
Ford has between 75 and 80 creative designers in Detroit, plus a few on the West Coast, in addition to those at its Ghia studio in northern Italy.
Both General Motors and Chrysler rely on the work of design teams in California, and so do the Japanese. Nissan Design International, a few miles north of San Diego, has equal standing with Nissan's on-site design studios back in Japan.