USA: Ford And Thunderbirds
International Rescue : An independent, privately funded organisation dedicated to providing life-saving emergency assistance in situations that exceed the limitations of state, military or security forces.
Ford : A global automotive organisation, providing International Rescue’s fleet of high-tech ground based vehicles with the power, design and capability to support rescue missions anywhere in the world.
Directed by Jonathan Frakes and produced by Working Title, ‘Thunderbirds’ is a live-action feature film based on the cult television series. Essentially a prequel to the original show, the 2004 film stars Bill Paxton, Sir Ben Kingsley, Anthony Edwards and Sophia Myles as a young Lady Penelope.
To bring International Rescue to life for an entirely new generation worldwide, the scale and potential of the five Thunderbirds vehicles were magnified and, just as importantly, a unique and futuristic car was required to sport the legendary registration FAB 1…
SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION
A bold and adventurous car company was needed to come on board – one that would be prepared to have fun and work in a collaborative role with the film makers...
A company that would be genuinely excited and enthusiastic about the project, and provide other vehicles for the film, where required...
So they turned to Ford, who came to the (International) Rescue.
ANY COLOUR YOU WANT, AS LONG AS IT’S PINK
Unlike the original TV series, the new FAB 1 was not to look too old-fashioned or sedate…
It needed to be big for the big screen…
Something larger than life, with power and presence…
So, Ford Design Europe created a fantastical version of the Ford Thunderbird as Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward’s FAB 1 limousine – a stunning 23-foot, six-wheel, bubble canopy vehicle which boasts a host of high-tech accessories and transforms into a jet plane and hydrofoil for key sequences in the film.
THUNDERBIRDS: POWERED BY FORD
Thunderbirds’ also features the Ford EX 4x4 concept which appears in one of the movie’s chase sequences on Tracy Island, as well as other Ford production vehicles. These include the TV reporter’s Ford Focus C-MAX, a Ford Transit satellite truck and even a fleet of Ford Mondeo police cars.
And Ford supplied a bespoke Ford Thunderbird and Ford Streetka – both in signature pink – for Lady Penelope’s fleet, which is based at her country residence, Creighton-Ward Manor.
Ford even designed and delivered an additional selection of virtual vehicles.
Ford’s main philosophy for Thunderbirds?
To get into the spirit of the film by being inventive, imaginative and to have some fun along the way.
This is the story of Ford and FAB 1…
It all began in January 2003 when Working Title approached Ford with the opportunity of working in a collaborative role as design and technical con******ts on ‘Thunderbirds’. In particular, Chris Bird and Chris Svensson of Ford Design Europe were offered responsibility for the main design execution of FAB 1, working closely with the filmmakers and visual effects specialists. It was an offer they were keen to accept.
“Being involved in a film like this is unusual and exciting for automotive designers,” says Svensson, "especially for my generation who remember watching ‘Thunderbirds’ as kids. However, some of our younger designers didn‘t have a clue what it was all about to begin with, so we got hold of some videos to educate them. There was a total enthusiasm from everybody to take part and that came across in the amount of work and ideas that were put forward – not just vehicles, but furniture and product design as well.”
The core team comprised Chris Svensson as project director, who worked on the initial theme selection and detail execution. Also, Daniel Paulin (who was also responsible for styling the Ford Focus C-MAX) did the exterior and Tony Hunter, on assignment from Land Rover, worked on the interior.
Hunter, who had previously worked on the Mini interior, was all set to take on something a lot bigger. And his experience even covered creating other fantasy film vehicles. “I was involved in the creation of a special edition Defender for the ‘Tomb Raider’ film in 2001,” he explains. “It was a high-capacity pickup version with a big roll cage – very extreme, very military in feel.
“Working on ‘Thunderbirds’, however, was a different beast entirely. I was a big fan of the series when I was growing up and used to watch it at my Gran’s. So obviously when I was asked whether I fancied working on FAB 1, I jumped at the chance.”
In a nod to the origins of ‘Thunderbirds’, the filmmakers and design teams created a ‘retro-futuristic’ world. All the locations, sets and vehicles are in a highly stylised, primary coloured world, where play meets purpose and style meets strength.
“Jonathan Frakes and (production designer) John Beard took us around Pinewood and talked about the film’s aesthetic,” explains Svensson, “so we had a good understanding of what they were trying to achieve.”
“The design of the film is the spiritual successor to the look and feel of the television series,” adds Frakes. “Lady Penelope’s FAB 1 harks back to the inventiveness of the original show but is infused with a grander, more contemporary and not to mention, live-action vitality.”
How much scope did the designers really have – were they given ‘carte blanche’?
“We wanted to make the car much lower and sleeker,” says Svensson, “but that wasn’t possible because they’d already done a lot of development work.The basic architecture was fixed so our job was to design the front, back and the interior, as well as all of the detail execution.”
So, with Ford’s involvement in a film called Thunderbirds, surely the design for FAB 1 was always destined to take its cue from the iconic Ford Thunderbird?
“I definitely felt that we should pick up some of the design cues of the Ford Thunderbird,” agrees Svensson. “It seemed the right idea for both the film and the product. “We wanted to take a car that has both a uniquely iconic status and which doesn’t necessarily ‘age’.
“It’s such a characteristic product that you can scale it and still have the essence of what is a Ford Thunderbird. Whereas if you scale a traditional looking car, it would just look odd.”
THE THUNDERBIRD LEGEND
“With its introduction in 1954, Ford brought to the road that heart stopping, head turning, intangible thing that few can define, but all recognise in an instant. The Ford Thunderbird spans generations and decades – and embodies passion, excitement and confidence.”
J Mays, Ford Motor Company Vice President of Design
Two men are credited with being primarily responsible for the birth of the Thunderbird: businessman Lewis D. Crusoe and George Walker, later chief stylist at Ford, who was described by contemporaries as a “stylist with the soul of an artist burning in his heart.”
The name Thunderbird comes from the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico where, according to Native American legend, the Thunderbird was a divine helper of man. Its great wings, invisible to the eyes of mortals, created rain and thunder, giving the desert inhabitants water to live on.
The Thunderbird legend began in October 1954 and has included two-seaters, roadsters, convertibles and four-door models, hardtops and sedans. More recently, it has returned to form part of Ford’s ‘Living Legends’ line up in the US and the current production car (provided for the film in pink, of course), has clear styling cues that hark back to the original. Thunderbird’s originality and individuality has etched itself into automotive history.
A selection of variations on the Ford Thunderbird theme was reviewed internally before the designers took the sketches to Pinewood for discussion with Jonathan Frakes and John Beard, who were more than enthusiastic.
“As soon as we saw their first sketches for FAB 1, we knew we were onto a winner,” says Frakes, “not just from the exterior but in the interior details as well. I think it’s fair to say that the designs exceeded our expectations – the contribution Ford made was fantastic.”
How similar is FAB 1 to the celebrated Ford Thunderbird?
“It’s strange, because when you look at FAB 1 from the front end, you’d think it’s a Ford Thunderbird,” says exterior designer, Daniel Paulin. “But if you compare a Ford T-Bird side by side with FAB 1, they’re not that similar. The resemblance is in the accentuated grille and the power bulge on the hood.”
“Overall, we had to make sure that we aligned with their vision for the film and, to some extent, make sure the essence of Ford came across – the creativity, the emotional side and the excitement,” says Svensson. “You can imagine that it would have been an absolute nightmare but it was amazing how it all gelled together nicely.”
In keeping with the film’s ‘retro-futuristic’ design, FAB 1’s interior features classic elements, such as the inclusion of old dials and switches, mixed in with a more contemporary, luxury design aesthetic.
“The interior has a sort of ‘1970s /futuristic’ feel,” says Hunter, “with lots of curvy, sexy shapes to make the interior like a self-contained pod.”
“We wanted the interior to be a bit avant-garde, a bit tongue in cheek,” adds Svensson. “You know, feather boas and stuff like that. It’s a luxury vehicle, the epitome of excess, so we had a lot of fun with the ‘over-the-top’ details.”
“We wanted it to have a very luxurious club feel with padded leather panelling on the doors and for Lady Penelope’s seat to become almost like a throne,” says Hunter. “We felt the use of materials like wood, sheepskin, leather and chrome was quite appropriate as well.”
While the interior isn’t necessarily ‘automotive’ in feel, the Ford design team wanted to establish a synergy with the exterior detailing.
“We didn’t want people to look at FAB 1 and think that the interior was done by a completely different team from the exterior,” explains Svensson. “If you look at the headlights and tail lights for example, the ribbing inside is the same detail as the clocks on the instrumentation panel.”
And while FAB 1 expresses all the qualities of a young Lady Penelope – style, presence, allure – the designers still managed to spare a thought for the man in the driving seat.
“As far as Parker’s concerned, we were aware that the car would be able to fly and travel on water as well, so we added lots of throttle controls and so on to make it look like it was something adaptable and yet futuristic as well.”
Following a final design review at Pinewood, Ford set to work producing fully detailed three-dimensional CAD (Computer Aided Design) models of the car alongside visual effects specialists, Framestore CFC.
“We were like one big team really,” explains Framestore CFC’s Mark Nelmes. “There was a lot of cross-referencing with the CAD models and everyone, including the director, had an input into the final build. I felt we worked together really well.”
“It was a very smooth process,” agrees Frakes. "Ford treated the project as a genuine opportunity for collaboration and as such, played a vital part in bringing the film to life.”
So how different was it to design a fantasy car like FAB 1 for the big screen compared to a ‘real’ Ford vehicle for the road?
“The difference is quite distinct,” says Svensson. “From a timing perspective, the process of creating a concept car would take about six months whereas this was done in half the time. If it were a real Ford vehicle, the process would take three years.”
“It was also different from a quality, detail and execution point of view,” he adds. “Normally, we take CAD models and then mill in clay so that we can fine-tune the surfaces and make sure everything is beautifully finished.
“FAB 1, on the other hand, went straight from CAD to build but, as you’re only going to see it on screen for a few seconds at a time, it didn’t really matter as much.
“The actual vehicle was built down at Pinewood. It’s actually quite an old process, much more akin to theatre rather than automotive design, so we left it in their hands and at the end of the day, I think it works.”
FROM REALITY TO FANTASY
Making sure FAB 1 drives and looks like a futuristic car is one thing; creating a vehicle that flies in the air and travels across water is quite another. But thanks to advances in special effects, this flight of fantasy was to become a reality for FAB 1. Not that it was thrown together, you understand.
“The script is quite action-orientated and most of the action in the film is with something that doesn’t exist, so there’s computer graphics in pretty much every scene,” explains Mark Nelmes (Visual Effects Supervisor at Framestore CFC). “An average shot would take around 15 working days across all the people who worked on it, so it’s a pretty involved process.”
Working on FAB 1, however, needed a different approach because it was built as a real car for some shots and computer generated for others.
“FAB 1 has some integral scenes in the movie,” says Nelmes, “so we didn’t want it to be completely ludicrous. It sounds silly but, as an example, we didn’t want a car that had wings sprouting from nowhere because it would look wrong and not fit the whole aesthetic of ‘Thunderbirds’. That’s why we needed to work very closely with Ford because, although a flying car is just ridiculous, FAB 1 could still feasibly have wings tucked inside.”
Automotive designers being asked to include space for a new gearshift is not unexpected but to think about where the wings will come from? That’s not so common.
“FAB1’s double front wheels were actually very tricky as well,” adds Nelmes. “One wheel has to turn further than the other, otherwise it counteracts the first one. If we hadn’t gone through the process we did with Ford, building up to a 3D model, we would have ended up with a car that could only drive in a straight line and not turn corners!”
VEHICLES OF THE FUTURE
In addition to FAB 1, the production team identified three or four scenes in the original ‘Thunderbirds’ script and asked Ford to imagine what kind of vehicles might feature.
“We asked Michael Ani, a contract designer who works for and really understands Ford, to create sketches of alternative vehicles that could be placed throughout the film,” explains Svensson. “The ideas we wanted were based on futuring Ford products, without tying them to current Ford vehicles. We even went into areas that we wouldn’t ever contemplate, like public transport, single-seater scooters and even surfboards. Eventually, Chris Bird and I
identified six vehicles that we wanted to build as CAD models from the sketches.”
Unfortunately, the vehicles didn’t make it to the final cut but may well make an appearance if (or when) there is a sequel.
“Because this ‘Thunderbirds’ is set so near the present day, I decided that using such futuristic concept vehicles would have been a step too far,” says Frakes. “They were great to look at but ultimately could work when the next film is set more clearly in the future.”
FORD EX: TO THE EXTREME
In ‘Thunderbirds’, the Ford EX is put to use by the Hood’s henchmen in an exciting chase sequence through the forest on Tracy Island.
In reality, it’s a purpose-built, two-seater, open-top concept vehicle with a skeletal spaceframe that has a 300 HP engine driving all four wheels and carbonfibre body bits bolted to it.
“It’s extreme, I’ll give you that,” admits its creator, Ed Golden, Design Director for Ford in North America. “It was built as an ambassador for our ‘No Boundaries’ marketing campaign here in the States, but now that it’s made it onto Tracy Island, the world’s its oyster.”
Not only does it score in the styling department – the Ford EX delivers a unique driving experience as well.
“The moment you turn on the ignition, via a start button on the side of the steering column,” explains Golden, “you’re greeted by a fantastic, throaty noise that needs to be heard to be believed. After that, well, let’s just say it’s fast and leave it there.”
Those who want to get their hands on one however, will be disappointed – the Ford EX Concept is definitely not destined for production. “No chance, I’m afraid,” says Golden. "The vehicle was a one-off concept… and we can’t find Tracy Island to get it back.”
LADY PENELOPE CREIGHTON~WARD’S DIARY
Tuesday, 13 November
Went to the Criterion for dinner with Jeff this evening. Wore smashing little pink dress from Chanel. We had long talk, and decided to get Brains to work on a new automobile for me, as soon as time permits. We discussed the notion of whether I should go for an old-fashioned Teutonic design but he waved it aside, maintaining that I should do better with something a little more stylish.
Monday, 19 November
Went to Lord Marlborough’s soirée in St. James’ this afternoon. Met a charming fellow by the name of John David Pickering. Spoke to him for the greater part of the evening – he’s obviously destined for greatness. Also chatted with Lady Katarina Elles who was her usual delightful self. Arrived home tired, but elated. Life has taken on a wonderful design. Brains is due tomorrow with his initial sketches…How exciting!
Thursday, 22 November
Meeting with Brains went wonderfully well. He is the personification of intelligence… and creativity. Told him I was v v interested in a large 4x4 or perhaps a sexy little coupé. Or a baby limo. I also ventured the concept of including space for a champagne bucket and glasses. It’s so refreshing to talk to someone who understands my needs. He’s to talk about my requirements with his friends at Ford and report back in a fortnight.
Monday, 3 December
Brains arrived via Thunderbird 1 with a portfolio practically stuffed with ideas and sketches. We spent the best part of the afternoon poring over the different ‘design concepts and exterior executions’, as he so delightfully put it. Everything in pink as requested. I just need to narrow down my options. Asked Brains to concentrate on interiors, as I couldn’t possibly be tied down to making a snap decision.
Thursday, 6 December
Completed v secret mission for International Rescue last night. Brains rang this afternoon. He tells me he has some interior sketches for me to look at but that I need to decide on which exterior I want! The impertinence. Have asked Parker to organise a courier to pick up these new ideas. In the meantime, I have decided to choose between the 6x6, the baby limo and the sports saloon…
Saturday, 8 December
This car design business really is quite fun. Brains has come up with some wonderful, bespoke interior designs… I just have to choose! Parker recommends that I should think about the vehicle’s practicality. "There’s a time and a place for looks, m’lady," he said, "and rescuing people from criminal activity isn’t one of them." Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?!
I disagree entirely, of course. I need a subtle vehicle that society and criminals will look upon with envy…
Monday, 10 December
Having told Brains to ‘think pink’, he’s really delivered with the interior. Both the sports saloon and coupe look delightful but Parker has requested more space up front. The 6x6 has echoes of Chanel in its colour and trim (which I love) but even so, I feel it’s a little too structural for my tastes. So I have settled on a baby limousine. Have asked Brains to see Parker about his requirements – he may want a place for his chamois leather but I have no desire to know where it will be kept…
Saturday, 19 January
Completed secret mission for International Rescue last night, then made appearance at charity gala for the Royal Society for the Blind. Lots of guide dogs, as expected. Parker tells me that Brains’ work on FAB 1 is nearly complete and that he expects delivery from the Ford chaps within the week. As I am in London over the next few days, I have asked Parker to arrange for the handover and test drive to take place at my Belgravia residence.
Friday, 25 January
Brains arrived in FAB 1, via air, this afternoon. Caused quite a stir on the Brompton Road, I understand. It looks perfect – very elegant and contemporary, if a little smaller than I had imagined. Our test drive took us past the Palace of Westminster, along the South Bank and back over Tower Bridge. Parker was impressed with the driving quality. I fear the only problem will be with the mews parking – these London streets really weren’t built for such a wonderful car…
Type: luxury baby limousine (front wheel drive with automatic gearbox)
Chassis: hand built (steel construction with twin front steering axles)
Length: 23 feet
Width: 6 feet
Weight: 1.5 tonnes
Top Speed: +250mph (estimated)
Powertrain: classified (no details available)
Capabilities: road, air, water
Features: bulletproof glass canopy roof; fully rotational driver’s seat; retractable wings; hydrofoils and Vortex-Aquajet Power (for travel on water); Retro Pack Air Brakes; air conditioning
Suspension: air (rear), hydraulic (front)
Body: carbon fibre and Kevlar composite
Interior: ivory hide /veneer wood panelling/ sheepskin mat
Wheels: 6 x 28-inch Pirelli tyres with custom-made hubcaps
Hiram ‘Brains’ Hackenbacker
A child prodigy, ‘Brains’ as he is affectionately known, is the engineering genius behind the design of all the Thunderbird rescue vehicles and pods. He began his career at the age of 13 as an engineer in the Ford Heavy Truck Development Team in Dearborn, Michigan, USA. Brains was also the brainchild behind NASA’s experimental, 5,000mph X-04AA jet. This brought him to the notice of Jeff Tracy and soon after, he became a full member of International Rescue. His experience also came in useful on FAB 1, bringing an intuitive understanding of designing large vehicles to the project.
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward
The daughter of Sir Hugh Creighton-Ward and his wife Amelia, Lady Penelope operates from her stately home, Creighton-Ward Manor, and is an unstoppable combination of brains, beauty and breeding. Known to Jeff Tracy from her days in the Federal Agents Bureau when she helped foil an attempt to commit industrial espionage in Tracy Industries, she went on (together with Parker, her butler and chauffeur) to join the team and is now the London agent for International Rescue.
Aloysius Parker, sometimes known as Nosey, gave up his criminal life after being caught by Lady Penelope, and is now her loyal butler and chauffeur. Parker is reputed to be one of the finest safe-breakers in the world and an excellent mechanic. He is very resourceful, and understands how a criminal’s mind works.