Rolling Sculpture

A portrait of Ford Motor Co. auto design manager Earl Lucas Jr. at the peak of his creative powers
Rolling Sculpture

Many people don’t step back and think about how their cars are designed by artists. It’s easy to forget when the artwork in question is sitting on a snowy dealership lot instead of a museum pedestal.

But like any artist, auto designers need to learn to harness their energy and tame their creative process. At the same time, however, they must also fashion a 3,000-pound hunk of steel into a climate-controlled work of art that also drives.

That’s what Earl Lucas Jr. does every day.

Lucas is design manager at Ford Motor Co., and it’s his job to guide a vehicle from conception on a pad of paper to birth on the assembly line. It’s an enthralling and surreal job, often at the same time.

A scene from Lucas’ life illustrates that fact.

“One day, I came to work,” Lucas says. “ ‘You’re going to go to Chicago today,’ they tell me. OK. So I drive to Chicago and go to the Taurus plant, a car that I worked on from a blank sheet of paper. Now, there’s a manufacturing facility, where they’re making the car that I worked on. Then I fly back home to Dallas and my parents are driving that car!”

Lucas was largely responsible for the Ford Taurus’ comeback in 2010; he led the exterior design team that brought the sedan back to critical and commercial success. His design, with sinewy curves and a striking black grille insert on the front bumper, drew acclaim from auto critics and consumer advocates. U.S. News and World Report christened it the best sedan for its value for 2010.

The rest of Lucas’ resume is no less impressive, and it reads like a designer’s dream project queue. Before his time at Ford, Lucas was a senior designer for Reese Design, a firm in Austin, Texas.

At Reese, his crowning achievement was designing the interior of a Gulfstream jet for the Sultan of Brunei — at the time, the richest man in the world.

Ask Lucas what the assignment was like, and you might expect some grand answer about impossibly high expectations and the lavish budget. Instead, he breaks the project down like it was any other.

“You don’t have the entire plane designed at once; you do little bits of it,” Lucas says. “You design a seat, you design the cabinetry, you design the sconce lamps. Then, before you realize it, you have a theme, and you try to stream that theme throughout the en-tire product. You’re still trying to answer to the customer … even if money’s no object.”

Lucas first set his sights on jewelry making when he began attending the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. But when he and his mother arrived on campus from their native Dallas, she immediately saw that CCS could offer her son opportunities to apply his talents on a larger scale.

She encouraged Lucas to switch to CCS’ world-renowned industrial design program. Although Lucas initially balked at the competitive program, he found that industrial design condensed his passions into one discipline.

“It combined all the things I love to do,” Lucas says. “It’s drawing, it’s art, it’s sculpture. It’s interacting with people. It’s something that everyone can see you’ve been working on. My mother was right then, and she’s been right many more times.”

Today, Lucas is embracing another major change in his design perspective. As the auto industry adapts to consumers’ changing demands, like autonomous vehicles and ridesharing programs, designers are on the front lines of the industry’s response.

“The definition of the car is ever-evolving,” Lucas says. “Most people are thinking of autonomous cars as a living room that rolls. But it’s never gonna happen that way. Cars are going to take on more of a friendship role.

“Imagine you’re having a tough day, and your car can sense that. It puts on the right mood, maybe it suggests you need to call this person. It’s going to help you in your daily walk.”

Whatever the future holds for designers, the inherent artistry of a modern vehicle will be on display, for all to see.

“There is nothing like rolling sculpture,” Lucas says. “We don’t have to go to the gallery to see it.”

In the best cases, it might even get people to think a bit more about the design skill that goes into their vehicles — or inspire a young kid to get out her drawing book and sketch what she saw.

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