Payne: The Jurassic toy designer who makes Fords
If you loved Kenner Products' remote control "Ricochet" toy car as a kid and covet the new Ford Edge as an adult, meet Kevin George.
He designed both.
George, exterior design manager for the 2015 Edge crossover, came to Ford through an unusual route: the toy business. For a dozen years, he designed some of the most beloved toys on kids' wish lists — Ricochet, "Jurassic Park" movie figures, "Batman" vehicles, NASCAR models — for Kenner before he realized his life's dream and crossed over to the auto industry in 2001 to sculpt cars.
Where he once worked closely with Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park vehicle designs, he now pens cars for the legendary Blue Oval.
"The passion that kids had for their toys — I want them to grow up and have that same passion for their cars," says the 48-year-old, who has just completed a media tour for the Edge as it debuts in dealer showrooms this month.
Growing up in Kettering, Ohio, Kevin George's passion for autos started young. His father, a General Motors engineer, brought home a steady diet of development vehicles. He learned the language of car design. The lights. The lines. His friends wanted to play baseball or soccer.
"I wanted to draw cars," he says.
But when it came time to choose a university, the budding designer eschewed the traditional auto design factories of Detroit's College for Creative Studies or California's Art Center College of Design. He chose the University of Cincinnati. Once more, he learned from his father.
"He encouraged me to get an industrial design degree because he said I can always get a product design job," reflects George. "He warned me that the auto business was very cyclical."
After graduation in 1987, George took his "book" — portfolio — to Cincinnati's Kenner, a little toy company once known for Play-Doh and Easy Bake Ovens that had struck pay dirt by landing the "Star Wars" contract to produce action figures. The Hollywood connection was a gold mine for Kenner as it became the go-to company for movie merchandise.
Nearly every movie project had vehicles and young George lobbied for the assignment. His first project: "Ghostbusters" in 1989. Then came Jurassic Park.
"We gave away free movie design work," laughs George, because the lead time on making toys — design, materials, Chinese production, shipment to market — was longer than making a movie. So George and his team became de facto designers for Spielberg props like the park's tour trucks.
George read Michael Crichton's original novels. Worked with Hollywood designers. Spielberg came to Cincinnati.
"The trucks were initially based on the Ford Explorer. But I didn't like the vehicles, so we did a different design," remembers George, aware of the irony that he's now a Ford designer. He changed the roofs to clear glass. Added numbers. Spielberg approved.
Other blockbusters followed. Batman. NASCAR. The game-changing, all-wheel drive "Ricochet" design that introduced a remote control car that would always land on its feet — saving kids the trouble of rescuing cars turtled on their roofs.
The Ricochet, as its packaging promised, was "virtually unstoppable." But George's toy design career was not.
Kenner was bought by Hasbro. The Cincinnati division was closed and George took a different job in Rhode Island. The "non-cyclical" product design industry had suddenly hit a cycle. George faced a crossroads.
"My wife asked me: 'What is it that you want?' " he recalls. "'Follow your dream.'"
Ricochet's designer sent his book of toy vehicle designs to Ford North America Design Director Moray Callum — including a hot rod, '32 Ford split window. "I think he liked that car," smiles George.
He was hired. His first assignment: chief interior designer for the 2005 Mustang. Now that's hitting the ground running.
"It's great to have designers that come from a different background on our team," says George's boss, Chris Svensson, design director of the Americas. "They bring a different perspective to addressing a design challenge. It ensures we are evaluating every possibility."
George never looked back. He worried that car design might be different, more high-tech. But he's found that while the tools have evolved — CAD computer design, Oculus Rift virtual reality helmets — craftsmanship remains paramount.
"They do things the same way we did at Kenner," he says. "With a movie toy you ask yourself: 'What is the core fantasy of this film?' With a car it's the same. 'What is it that people like about a '67 Mustang?' I knew what to do. I knew how to capture the essence of the Mustang.'"
The same principle applied to remaking the Edge, a pioneer of the crossover segment and one of Ford's most familiar shapes.
"Just because you can change everything doesn't mean you should," he says of a design that integrates Ford sedan family cues like a Taurus-like grill and Fusion-like taillights — yet retains Edge's signature, sculpted stance.
George says he particularly enjoyed working on Edge's full-size clay model in the design studio, carving out big scoops of clay from the ute's slab sides to give it a leaner look.
Playing with clay. Drawing cars. Just like when he was a kid. He's living his dream.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne as he reviews the latest chariots every week.