Thursday, December 21, 2006

The New York Times
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December 17, 2006

California Customizer Makes Leap Into Ford Showrooms


THE Detroit auto show next month will be a coming-out party, of sorts, for the car customizer Chip Foose.

“I’ve been to the show before, many times of course,” said Mr. Foose, in an interview from Foose Design, his company here in this beachside community. “But my role has never been publicly announced. This time it will be.”

Mr. Foose will be in Detroit to unveil a special edition Ford F-150 pickup for which he had free rein to reinterpret the design. This follows the recent debut of a similarly conceived Foose Mustang. The Mustang, which is being manufactured at a rate of 80 a month, has been sold out at Ford dealerships, he said.

Mr. Foose, the rare customizer actually commissioned by a manufacturer to produce a special edition model to sell at its dealerships, likens himself to others who have put their stamp on cars, like the performance maestro Carroll Shelby, who created the new Ford Shelby GT500, and the Eddie Bauer retail company, which put its name on Ford S.U.V.’s.

The Mustang’s initial success seems to have given him the opportunity to do more with Ford. He was in Detroit last week meeting with the company to discuss developing more products.

Mr. Foose’s contribution has been in design only, but he said future Foose vehicles would be likely to have performance modifications (that retain Ford’s warranty coverage) as well.

“There are a lot of opportunities there, too,” he added.

Mr. Foose, 43, was still a student in 1989 when a hot rod design he sketched caught the eye of Chrysler’s design staff. Mr. Foose’s creation led to the Plymouth (later Chrysler) Prowler. That made him something of a prodigy in the design community, and his ideas have led to some industry-changing models for customizers. The past couple of years, he’s been the star of “Overhaulin’,” a Learning Channel show on which older cars are picked at random for a full-body makeover. He recently announced, in addition to his Ford collaborations, a partnership to produce a limited run of the Hemisfear, a more faithful rendition of his original Prowler design — and this time it will have a Hemi in it.

“They just chose the wrong motor,” Mr. Foose said of the car, which was sold with only a V-6. “They just didn’t capture the heart of the enthusiast with a V-6. If they had put a V-8 in that car, it would have been an incredible selling vehicle.” Instead, the Prowler remains something of an automotive novelty.

The Prowler’s fate raises the question: Does the mainstream auto industry really care what he and others in the surging customizing industry are doing?

“I believe they do, because you can look at what is happening in the auto industry, with the rebirth of the Mustang, the Challenger coming back, and the Camaro, and that’s the heart of this country: the muscle car theme,” he said. “There’s interest in re-imagining these cars.”

Beyond that, Mr. Foose has had a sub rosa design role with a variety of automakers. He will admit to participating in the development of Ford’s Legends series cars, like the Thunderbird, the Forty Nine concept car and the Ford GT. But he is bound by confidentiality agreements from citing specifically what his contribution was.

“I can’t publicly say that I ‘worked on’ those cars,” he said. “But I was ‘involved with’ the design team in bringing back some of that heritage.”

Mr. Foose tends to work on refashioning American iron — not necessarily because of any overwhelming sense of patriotism, but because there is “more to work with.”

“The American automobile companies have the heritage to play with that the importers don’t,” he explained, because they can summon childhood memories of a fabulous ’50s finned wonder or a ’60s muscle car.

Mr. Foose acknowledged that not everybody likes retro-themed designs.

“I know a lot of people have been beat up for doing this retro thing,” he conceded. “I don’t believe it is retro. I believe it’s evolutionary. I think it’s cool that the designers today are looking at the rich heritage that they have.”

Chip Foose, right, with Carroll Shelby, center, and Edsel B. Ford II at an automotive trade show this year

For him, it’s merely a matter of going back to what worked.

“To go back to something that worked really well, and revise it — that’s a good move,” he said. “It’s like I say, the first one may be referred to as retro. But where are we going to take the Volkswagen Beetle? The T-Bird? The Mustang? Or some of these cars that are, you know, referred to as retro. The next body form, if we just take that and refine it a little more, it’s no longer retro; it’s evolutionary.”

That’s the idea behind Mr. Foose’s current and future Ford models: to revise present designs, some of which, like the Mustang, are based on design language of past models, and bring them forward in a modern reinterpretation.

“I think the future is these ‘limited builds,’ ” he said. “Something that may not sell 80,000 units — it may be 20,000 of a certain car. There are methods of production where these car companies can produce cars like that today.”

But wouldn’t Mr. Foose be more likely to affect the changes he’d like to see in the auto industry by becoming a part of it? As it is, he remains something of a free agent.

“I’ve always said when you manufacture and then retail something, you become a slave to it,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed doing things my own way, because it allows me the freedom to do what I want and stay creative.”

His goal for the Foose Mustang was that it be mainstream enough to be sold through a manufacturer’s dealer network, but distinctive enough (compared with the regular production model) to justify its existence.

But do auto manufacturers have the gumption, not to mention the resources, to risk being different?

“I can’t answer all the questions for the manufacturers because I’m not there, and I’m not working with them necessarily,” he said. “But I know what we’re doing here at Foose Design, and what we doing is just pure playing with the love affair with the car.”