Black Designers Add Flair to New Car Models

Black Designers Add Flair to New Car Models

Ford Motor Co.'s Earl Lucas worked on the 2010 Taurus, a model showcased at the Detroit auto show.
Earl Lucas is one of a handful of black car designers in the industry, but his role in the design of Ford Motor Co.’s 2010 Taurus illustrates that something major is happening.

Call it change sans the blue donkey or red elephant.

Actually, strike that. Call it change on wheels.

No, better yet, call it style noir on wheels.

Black car designers are being tapped to handle critical auto products, and in the famous words of Martha Stewart, that’s a good thing. Lucas designed the exterior body of the reborn Taurus. Judging from accolades received at the 2009 North American International Auto Show, the vehicle is off to a promising start.

“When you look at the Taurus, it’s gorgeous,” one analyst said. “It’s the complete package.”

The marquee was once the best-selling car, eventually nixed, then brought back from the dead after Ford decided killing it in the first place was probably not such a hot idea. Ford hopes the Taurus, an American staple, and Ford Fusion cars will help lift sales.

“It’s one thing to do a good-looking car,” Lucas said. “It’s another to do a car that’s iconic.”

No. Arguments. Here.

I asked Lucas to explain why auto makers appear to be putting more black designers at the forefront of major design projects. It’s about talent and hardwork, he said.

And of course, there’s that other factor. “African Americans really have a sense of style,” he said, pointing to a shiny red Taurus rotating on display at the auto show.

Among those in this exclusive club are Ed Wellburn, General Motors Corp.’s vice president of global design; Crystal Windham, responsible for the interior design of the acclaimed Chevrolet Malibu mid-size sedan and director of North American passenger car design for GM; Michael Burton, GM director of exterior design for front-wheel-drive trucks and luxury crossovers, which are sport utility-esque vehicles that ride like cars.

Burton was lead interior designer for the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia. Ralph Gilles, Chrysler L.L.C.’s chief designer, gained notoriety for designing the bejeweled Chrysler 300C large sedan, a hit that was nicknamed the “Hip Hop Car” and caused automakers to ornate vehicles with chrome accent galore.

And so the story goes, blacks continue to redefine the arts, including car and truck sketches.
Designers, like other artsy folks, tend to pour their experiences into their work. The black factor, being an experience within itself, is no different.

“We’re an embellished people,” Burton said.

The auto industry is certainly paying greater attention. And quite frankly, on the backdrop of a global and, ahem, diverse economy, it can’t afford not to tap into all its resources. It’s about finding out what sticks.

And Ford is attempting to do that for a vehicle crucial to its comeback.