It happens to automobile enthusiasts all the time. You fall in love with a sports car or hot hatch and spend your time and money on an exciting relationship of touring and travel. Then another type of true love enters your life, and before you know it, you have a family. Many times, that sports car is traded for an estate wagon or (gulp) an MPV.
But could there be an alternate road? Perhaps a car that could accommodate a family for fun outings and even maybe enliven that daily school drop-off?
That was the question Ford designers decided to answer in a concept car design based on the idea of fun family touring. Presented at the 1998 Chicago Auto Show, the Libré was a four-seat sports car with some innovative features.
The designer of the car was Joe Ponce, and Car Design News recently sat down with him to discuss the Libré, New Edge design, and his career before and after Ford.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and content:
Car Design News: What was the original idea for the Libré?
Joe Ponce: At the time, the Spring of 1997, I had two young sons and was driving a Mazda Miata (MX-5). I thought it would be great to have a fun touring car like the Miata that could seat four. So that was the beginning of the Libré concept.
CDN: Ford has in the past, tried a two-seat touring car (Mustang, Thunderbird), but always returned to a four-seat configuration. Was there any discussion of these cars during the design process?
JP: No, the Libré was closer to Miata in the brief. There wasn’t an emphasis on muscle car-type performance so much as fun and good handling, more of a European roadster feel. To underscore this, the platform for the Libré was based on a European Ford Fiesta, rather than, say, a Mustang.
CDN: Speaking of roadster, was the Libré a true roadster, or spyder with no top planned?
JP: Actually we had planned for the car to be a phaeton or landaulet. We had planned for two roofs that could be configured in multiple ways. The rear seat could be covered and the front compartment open, or the front could be closed and the rear open, or both could be closed. There was a planned bulkhead and rollbar between the front and rear seats to facilitate the separation of the two compartments.
Unfortunately, the tops were not presented at the Chicago show, and, as a result, the entire concept was not presented to the public.
CDN: Was the Libré a two- or four-door car?
JP: There were two, or more accurately one-and-a-half doors, on each side of the car. The rear doors were rear-hinged half doors that could be opened only when the front doors were open, much like the half doors on the F-150 truck. Ford called this a ‘quad door’ configuration.
CDN: Any distinctives about the interior you would like to mention?
JP: The concept was to create a roomy, minimalistic interior inspired by the Porsche Spyder from the ‘50s with a visible front bulkhead that one’s feet pass through to the pedals, and carved-out door panels. The IP was a clean shape with tubes containing the gauges allowing the driver visibility even in the bright outdoors.
Another novelty inspired from the ‘50s was an adjustable rear-view mirror connected to a rod that ran along the front of the IP up to the top of the A-pillar.
CDN: The Libré’s design shows the influence of the New Edge design language, then a part of Ford at the time. Any comments on New Edge?
JP: New Edge was already well established at Ford when I was recruited. At the time it was mostly a language of character lines. My experience at GM had taught me a lot about the importance of surfacing, and I was able to combine the two, first in the Mercury MC4 concept, and then the Libré and other concepts.
As a general comment, New Edge seemed to work better in concept form. It wasn’t as successful in production form, as the highlights were uncontrolled and all over the place.
CDN: What is the principal difference between the design of a concept car and the design of a production car?
JP: Anything goes with concept car design, but there is always an accelerated time schedule (usually about a year). A production car has a longer timeline, but the constraints are baked in, so there is less freedom in the design.
The Libré was presented at the 1998 Chicago show, which, despite being the largest in America (in terms of square feet), doesn’t get the kind of press attention that is seen at the NAIAS in Detroit, and other shows. As a result, the well-received Libré quickly vanished off the radar, and Ford quietly retired the car after a few shows. It was then auctioned along with a number of other Ford concepts, a few years later.
As for Joe Ponce, he left Ford in 2000 and undertook private consulting assignments for a number of auto manufacturers. He also entered the fashion world, designing footwear for a number of brands. He currently is launching his own international brand of leather goods, Velocé.
The question the Libré attempted to answer two decades ago remains with us. There is no four-seat MX-5 or equivalent. Some small sedans are approaching hot hatch status – and Mazda’s own RX-8 hardtop 2+2 employed the same ‘quad-door’ layout as the Libré – but none of these have the openness and joie de vivre of the MX-5.
Could we ever have such a car? Is there a significant market for it? All questions still waiting to be answered… but the Libré certainly pointed the way.