Thursday, 6 October 2011

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Corporate Style

So I was seven years old (EDIT:- No I wasn't, I was six. Elementary maths fail), and I wanted to be a car designer. Cool, OK, most kids my age wanted to be footballers, astronauts or pilots, and there were probably a few hopelessly precocious little bastards who wanted to be lawyers or realtors, but at least I had a direction in life.

But how to get started? Well, my Dad was the proud owner at that time of a Ford Cortina. I loved that car, it took me to awesome places like airshows and the seaside. Yes, that was it, before my eighth (EDIT:- Seventh) birthday I'd write to Ford and they'd almost certainly give me a job.

The drawings weren't brilliant, looking back at them. At that age I was more aware of detail; badges, spoilers and exhaust pipes than I was of form or proportion, but I'm willing to forgive myself that shortfall. Only one half page of drawings has survived the decades since they were lovingly created, now reduced to the consistency of papier mache I have scanned them in with the delicate touch of a man holding a first pressing of Rubber Soul.

My parents encouraged me. Reading, drawing and general creativity were definitely approved of in our household, and they were also good at feeding my fantasies. Mum was totally on board with my Car Design intentions, and it was her idea to show them to Ford. I seem to remember being almost too embarrassed to, but she convinced me.

I sent them off to the only address I could find for Ford other than one of their dealerships; which is just as well because I doubt a salesman would know what to do if a bunch of drawings by a seven year old were to land on his desk. They were folded, placed in a manilla envelope along with a covering letter that my Mother probably had a hand in producing, and popped in the post.

And that was that.

Until, that was, a Saturday morning in February, 1988. It was breakfast time and I was probably playing with Lego or watching Childrens BBC, or reading, or still in bed, when there was a commotion by the front door; Mum had opened the door for the postman and next came a call that would have gone something along the lines of;

“Christopher, there's a parcel for you.”

Indeed there was. I wasn't expecting one; as a seven (Six) year old I hadn't yet got into mail-order shopping and we wouldn't have the internet for another eleven years. But sure enough, there on the doorstep was a substantial, well wrapped parcel addressed to Master (I loved that!) Christopher Haining. And it bore the Ford oval next to the postmark.

How very exciting. First out of the envelope was a polythene sleeve containing my drawings, which had been sent back to me. Attached to that was a further small envelope, containing the following letter:

Now, I ask you this: Has a multinational corporation ever sent a nicer, more philanthropic letter to a seven (six) year old boy? There was no patronism, no product placement and no corporate cheese. Alas, there was no job offer, but it was still a lovely, polite, easy-to read letter. And it was for me.

Receiving an acknowledgement like this together with the return of my drawings was quite enough, but they had gone to far more trouble than just that. This was a parcel, and it was full of just the right material to encourage me to draw, draw draw, like there was no tomorrow.

There was a Ford range catalogue, bang up to date and with a lovely chlorine-y smell to it. There was a poster about the Cortina; I seem to remember my letter to Ford mentioned that my Dad drove one, so this was no doubt included as a nod to that. It was quite an excellent poster and I wish I still had it, it charted the development of the car from 1962 to 1982, as a timeline with dozens of period photographs. I loved it.

Also included was a publication called Dunton Today. It seemed quite dry and humourless on first opening, but I soon found myself loving it and re-reading it several times from cover to cover.

Dunton is Fords UK Research and Development centre. It's where all the designers and engineers perform their black magic and create droolworthy new ideas far from the analytical eyes of the media and public. Dunton today was their in-house journal, with sneaky peaks at current projects, tantalising glimpses of the design studios and images of creative types applying styling tape to clay models. I loved it. I loved the world it described. I was hooked.

Hooking me still further was another poster from the bundle. Titled “How a car is designed” it displayed a storyboard taking you through the stages of R&D from the initial concept sketches, all the way through feasibility studies, prototyping, testing and then production. The car represented in the illustrations; which were all marker-renderings just like you might see in a design studio, was an early Sierra. This suited me as at that time I found very few cars as inspiring as Uwe Bahnsens 'eighties masterpiece.

And finally there was another poster, the follow-up “How a car is built”. The same format as before, but showing the stages of the production process from molten steel to car transporter. I appreciated this poster very much, and it went on the wall side-by-side with the design one, but I found it less interesting. I was in mind that, once a car is designed, actually building the thing is just “something that happens”. It's like when you're saving up to buy something cool, two thirds of the fun is in the anticipation. Actually owning it becomes “just something that happens”.

Sadly, aside from the letter the contents of the parcel have long been lost. The brochure and the posters were sad victims of the “Great Maternal Clear-Out of '94”. Mind you, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dunton Today still lives on in my bedroom somewhere.

But that's all beside the point. At that moment, Ford had turned this seven (Six. Come On!) year old into a customer for life. No matter what monstrosities Ford would release in the coming years, I would stand by them. It can be no coincidence that every car I drew until I was at least fifteen would display a Ford badge on it somewhere.

I've changed as a person, since then. I'm about three feet taller, for a start. And I drive cars. But I don't own a Ford. Disappointingly, the only Fords I have much of a hankering for are those from my childhood. The Fords of today are excellent cars overall, everybody broadly agrees. But there are cars out there that I just desire more. I feel sad to have “abandoned” my favourite car marque, but then our relationship started twenty-three years ago, and I feel like I hardly know them any more; we've been apart for so long.

But I'd still love to work in Dunton.


  1. "But I'd still love to work in Dunton."

    Take it from someone who is currently doing a bit of work there on a regular basis, if you're into the actual "styling" process (no longer called design) of a passenger car, there are only a couple of places left in the global Ford empire, a couple in the U.S., Germany and Australia. That's it.

    Dunton design center mostly does Transit van stuff, apart from a few bits and pieces. All the car stuff has long gone.

    Also, Dunton itself does very little actual "research" anymore, it's mostly now done in Dearborn and in Aachen. It primarily focuses on engine calibration and powertrain development areas.

  2. Bah! In which case, I'd like to work in Dunton in 1988!

    And anyway, I recieved notification today that Ford are not taking my application for their Graduate Scheme any further. Their online application system is very defined, I don't feel it gives you a particularly good opportunity to show yourself off.

    Their loss!