Mays is by far not the first designer to use heritage design cues in his work.

The announcement that J Mays will be leaving his chief creative officer role at Ford Motor Company on January 1 ends a 13-year run in one of the industry's top design roles. While best known for having a hand in reborn classics like the Volkswagen New Beetle, Ford Mustang and Thunderbird (above), Mays' legacy is more complicated and nuanced than being considered the father of what is known as "retrofuturism".

Although he may have coined the term, Mays is by far not the first designer to use heritage design cues in his work. In fact, a case could be made that Bill Mitchell, the chief of design for General Motors from 1958 through 1977, was the first to incorporate classic styling motifs in modern cars as evidenced by the Bugatti Atlantic influences on the 1963 split-window Chevrolet Corvette, the Auburn Speedster boattail on the 1971 Buick Riviera and the Bentley bustleback on the 1980 Cadillac Seville.

But, Mays can be credited with identifying this practice and calling it retrofuturism. Therein lies J Mays' genius – he was able to capture the spirit of the times, whether it be nostalgia or a fascination with the new and embody it in car design.


Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.



He was briefly a journalism major at the University of Oklahoma.

Where his predecessor Jack Telnack was known for developing the aero look and his contemporary Tom Gale was responsible for the cab forward design, Mays wasn't like other designers looking to develop a new form language. Instead, he sought to use the shape itself as a form of communication.

This may be due in part to his background. While he received a degree in transportation design from the Art Center College of Design in 1980, he was briefly a journalism major at the University of Oklahoma.

Audi Avus Concept

For Mays, design is not just about the object itself. Instead, the object is a canvas on which to visually tell a story about what the vehicle does, or what it represents to its maker, or what it says about its owner. And that's an approach that works with both heritage-inspired vehicles, like the stunning Audi Avus concept (above) that put him on the map in 1991, to contemporary vehicles like the Ford 427 concept (below). The Avus told the story of the Auto Union record cars from the 1930s in a flowing shape formed out of polished aluminum. The 427, on the other hand, was a contemporary concept that used a three-bar grille motif to convey a strong American personality. That bold grille theme found its way into production and was used across Ford's car and truck lines before the new European-inspired look took hold.

AUTO SHOW

Mays' other gift was an ability to surround himself with talented designers who could bring these stories to life.

Mays also extended his storytelling abilities to not just the cars themselves, but also the press kits, show stand designs and the videos used to present both concept and production cars.

But beyond redefining design as an alternative form of communication and story telling, Mays' other gift was an ability to surround himself with talented designers who could bring these stories to life. Moray Callum is an eminently able successor, but the two designers who should be credited most for Mays success are Freeman Thomas and Martin Smith. Both Thomas (who heads Ford's advanced design studio in California) and Smith (in charge of Ford of Europe design) have worked with Mays as far back as the Avus. Thomas is the creative genius behind many of the concepts, while Smith has, over time, developed the kinetic design philosophy from Europe that is now being used globally on Ford product.

In a way, Mays' retirement timing is impeccable. Even though he is responsible for a full range of designs from retro to futuristic, the cars he is most associated with are those tapping into heritage like the Beetle, Thunderbird and Mustang. If the all-new Mustang about to be revealed is received well with a fresh, contemporary look that offers a distinct break from the past, it will be proof positive that Mays and his legacy are much more than just retrofuturism.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 43 Comments
      Nick Allain
      • 1 Year Ago
      Everytime I see one of those Thunderbirds I think... you know, that design has aged quite well. Then I remember that it has a 280HP V8, weighs 3700lbs, and only came with an automatic.
        Chris
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Nick Allain
        It would have been nice if it was an actual sports car, like the original one was. Imagine how sweet a new "retro-futuristic" T-Bird with Corvette performance would have been. I don't know why they chose to make it a big cruiser for retirees.
          Chris
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Chris
          Most Thunderbirds may have been ho-hum, but the 1955-1957 is an icon, a classic. As a teen in the early 2000s, I was thrilled about a return to the original concept and look, but was disappointed when I saw the finished product. I thinks it's safe to say most others shared my opinion.
        Teleny411
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Nick Allain
        Yeah, it was a great idea ill executed. But the platform had potential. Too bad Ford didn't update it... Jag now has the XF and Lincoln has ???
      Ben Lee
      • 1 Year Ago
      More misses than hits IMO. Seems like Mays use of Bauhaus style really didnt work as well at Ford. Wonder if J will ever admit he and F Thomas didnt really design the TT. Mays and Thomas gave a lecture at my school once, found them to be very pretentious and blow hardy.
        Raymond Longchamp
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Ben Lee
        Also had the \"pleasure\" of dealing with Mr. Mays...has quite a high opinion of himself....
      scott3
      • 1 Year Ago
      Mays was average at best as he over saw his team do some very good cars, average cars and so horrific cars. In his case he did ok as no one hits them all out of the park but he did no harm the company.But he was no any Harley Earl.
      Carmaker1
      • 1 Year Ago
      Mr. DeLorenzo, it is understandable that one would easily assume that J Mays designed the Thunderbird, simply because it came out when he was in charge at Ford . That's not the true at all, as his predecessor, the heralded Jack Telnack was the one in charge of the 2002 Thunderbird design. Mr. Telnack even confirmed this himself. The Thunderbird was designed shortly before Telnack retired from Ford in November 1997. When J.C. Mays(also J Mays) arrived back then, his first work at Ford through late 1998 mostly concerned: approving Thunderbird details(trims, fabrics, interior materials, colors), concept vehicles, MY1999-2001 facelifts, and MY2001-2002 full redesigns/models(Explorer,etc.). J Mays' first new model/redesign under his tenure would likely be the 2002 Ford Explorer, which its design was approved by Mays in late 1997 and frozen in February 1998. Automotive development has very long lead times, that something like the DEW98-based Thunderbird required over 3 more years to go into production from design definition in 1997. People need to read between the lines a bit more regarding such items.
      fpb300
      • 1 Year Ago
      Designers have a signature. A person can see the likeness of the beetle Mays' designed and correlate it to the retro-bird. I never was a fan of J Mays. the retro-bird's design was lacking.
        Carmaker1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @fpb300
        The Thunderbird was designed under Jack Telnack in 1997, not J Mays. J Mays' first new model under him was truly the 2002 Explorer, something finished in late 1997 and frozen for production in Feb. 1998. The last model under J Mays is likely a 2017 model, since he leaves in January 2014.
      Walt
      • 1 Year Ago
      Bringing back that ghastly Thunderbird is probably best left off his resume.
        Carmaker1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Walt
        J.C. Mays(or J Mays) didn't work on the 2002 Thunderbird, it was actually Jack Telnack that was in charge just before he left in late 1997. J Mays took over in November 1997, after it was finished.
      ghlibi
      • 1 Year Ago
      Good Riddance! Taking cues from historical relics only stifle design. There aren't that many styling elements that work well with today's de facto aero-wedge shapes and forcing those ungainly cues onto today's sculptured metal is both unoriginal and tacky.
        jonnybimmer
        • 1 Year Ago
        @ghlibi
        "There aren't that many styling elements that work well with today's de facto aero-wedge shapes and forcing those ungainly cues onto today's sculptured metal is both unoriginal and tacky." Idk, I thought the Ford GT transitioned from the original GT40 design pretty seamlessly. Mustang wasn't exactly a botched job either considering how successful it is today.
      tbird57w
      • 1 Year Ago
      his horrific attempt to recapture the legendary Thundertbird(1955-1957) aura will haunt his legacy. IMO
        Carmaker1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @tbird57w
        He wasn't in charge of the 2002 Thunderbird design. Jack Telnack was in 1997 before he left. Mays took over in November 1997, after the Thunderbird design was already set.
          INCREDIBLE BOB
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Carmaker1
          And of course, I am guessing that management wanted the retro 2 seater. What WOULD HAVE SOLD LIKE GANGBUSTERS would have been a 4 dr Tbird aimed at the BMW 5 series, but the Lincoln LS was given that role
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
      adb
      • 1 Year Ago
      Sorry, but the difference between Telnack & Gale and Mays is that the former applied their skills to create successful mass-market vehicles. Mays is better known for clever niche entries and uninspiring and/or poor-selling mainstream vehicles (e.g., Five Hundred, Flex, previous-generation US-market Focus)...
        BG
        • 1 Year Ago
        @adb
        The Flex is a pretty impressive big station wagon, and great for trips and carrying real cargo, such as sports equipment. And it is different than the hundreds of look-alike crossovers/pseudo-SUVs that crowd American urban streets.
          Ben Lee
          • 1 Year Ago
          @BG
          I like what the Flex has become over the years. The updated grill work is cool and the car is simple and clean. Since Ford is all about facelifts instead of new models, it has survived over the years.
          adb
          • 1 Year Ago
          @BG
          Personally, I like the Flex, too, but I believe it's selling about 1/3 of what Ford originally expected--hence the 'poor selling' comment...
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
      Jaybird248
      • 1 Year Ago
      Whoever did the retro-Bird, I always wondered what happened at the rear. It looks like the designers grabbed their coats and left early. I suppose the fact that the original small-Birds had fins which nobody wanted to return to left them in a creative hole. As to Mays' designs generally, they blew hot and cold. The SUVs were boxes, the mid-90s Taurus a disaster, but partially redeemed by the major facelift they did. The smaller cars were better. I can recall no FoMoCo product of the 90s I really liked. One of the greatest missed opportunities was Lincoln. Maybe management kept design from what it wanted to do, but the result, whatever the cause, only hastened the brand's decline to where it is now, and to be honest, the new look isn't going to help much. That split grille may have looked good on a 1940 Continental, but today's version is just plain ugly.
        Carmaker1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jaybird248
        Nothing substantial prior to the 2002 model year at Ford Motor Company has J Mays influence. Only some minor facelifts introduced as 2000-01 models were the first under him. Nothing from the mid-90s is even related to him, so I'm not sure why you assumed that. He joined in '97 and It took over 3 years before any new model under Mays went on sale. All of that was under Jack Telnack and other individuals such as Doug Gaffka, etc. Even so, J Mays only gave design direction and selects or approves designs. He also would likely act as an intermediary between design and engineering, to ensure a designer's vision is maintained. I agree with you about Lincoln though.
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