DETROIT – Ford Motor Co.’s Airstream Concept cross/utility vehicle is the result of a fun and innovative process for designers thought up by Freeman Thomas, director of North American Strategic Design.

“When I joined the company a year and a half ago, I started a process where I got all the designers to contribute their ideas for great concepts that really contribute to the brand,” Thomas tells Ward’s. “I got every designer to contribute by creating a movie story board on their idea.”

The Airstream concept came from exterior designer Jordan Bennett, who created a storyboard titled an “American Journey,” which Thomas says is along the lines of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. The two explorers were the first to travel over land to the Pacific Coast and back.

Thomas says the philosophy behind the concept vehicle also has roots in Ford’s own history. “Henry Ford traveled America in travel trailers and tents with the greats, like Thomas Edison and Charles Lindbergh,” he says.

“So this is not something (our) company just came up with out of the blue. It’s something that’s steeped into the authenticity of its history.”

With the concept’s philosophy in place, Thomas approached Chief Creative Officer J Mays with the idea. It was Mays who suggested the Airstream travel trailer as the basis for the show vehicle, Freeman says.

“J Mays has a wonderful love affair with iconic brands like Airstream, so he created the bridge,” Thomas says. “We started to develop the concept, and we put a team around Jordan.”

Thomas likens Airstream trailers, which are instantly recognizable, with their aircraft-inspired aluminum clad bodies, to Coca-Cola and Apple, in that it’s “one of those Americana images that Europeans and (other) foreigners all want to be a part of. It transcends every social class.”

Furthermore, Airstream, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, evokes memories of the Apollo astronauts of the 1960s, who emerged from an Airstream trailer in front of a national television audience; an image that is part of the collective memory of millions of Americans, Thomas says.

Thomas’ design team pitched the idea to executives at the Jackson Center, OH-based Airstream Inc., who after reviewing preliminary plans embraced the project.

Thomas says during the evolution of the concept vehicle, the design team also drew inspiration from other sources, such as Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001:A Space Odyssey.

The story takes an optimistic look at the future, “but not in a way that most science fiction films depict the future in death and destruction,” Thomas says, who notes the concept vehicle’s interior was inspired by the movie.

“If you look at images from the movie, there’s expanses of red and white materials,” he says, noting both interior and exterior colors are important elements to the concept vehicle. Each of the three primary colors are assigned names.

The exterior color is called “Liquid Orbit;” while the interior colors are dubbed “Lunar White” and “Red Planet.”

“Those three actually describe man’s quest for space travel,” Thomas says. “First it’s orbit, then the moon and then Mars.”

To round out the interior, Thomas and his team approached Taiwan-based DynaScan Technology Corp., a developer of large 360-degree televisions used at expos and fairs.

Together, Dynascan and Ford engineers miniaturized the company’s huge televisions to create the condensed version found in the rear of the Airstream concept vehicle.

The 360-degree, cylinder-shaped television is able to create ambient mood settings, including a virtual lava lamp and a fire. Additionally, the vehicle’s detachable side mirrors double as cameras, providing a live video feed to the TV screen.

Not all elements of the vehicle are conceptual. Ford’s new HySeries Drive plug-in hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain is functional and currently undergoing testing in a Ford Edge prototype.

The fuel cell, developed with partial funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, delivers the combined city/highway equivalent fuel economy of 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km), Ford says.

Unlike most prototype fuel-cell-powered vehicles, the HySeries Drive is used as a generator to recharge the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery pack, rather than the primary power source to drive the wheels.

Thomas says in these many ways the Airstream Concept offers a glimpse at the future of the CUV segment, which Ford predicts will top 3 million units by the end of the decade.

bpope@wardsauto.com