Designer Roger Kim had been with Ford Motor Co. for about a year when a company executive spotted his roof rack sketch.

“The first thing he said was, ‘We've got to patent this thing right now,’” recalls Mr. Kim, 28.

The drawing featured an integrated ramp that could be extended beyond the host vehicle's roof, and then folded over the rear hatch to create a vertical bracket. The result: a roof rack that doubles its own carrying capacity.

“Instead of two bicycles, you can put four bicycles,” Mr. Kim says. “Two on the top and two on the back.”

The innovative option was hurried into production and is expected to make its showroom debut next month on the ’01 Escape XLT Sport (Cost: $1,695).

On a slightly negative note, Mr. Kim also recalls a colleague's reaction following the mad rush from inspiration to installation.

“He told me this only happens once in a lifetime,” the young designer says.

But the way cargo carriers are evolving and proliferating, it's likely that Mr. Kim is not over the hill.

JAC Products, with locations in Europe and the U.S., is the world's leading supplier of OE roof racks — including Mr. Kim's design. In 2000, JAC Products shipped 4.4 million units worldwide. Since it owns nearly 70% of the market, that means nearly one-third of all vehicles manufactured last year were topped up.

Automakers are giving loads of attention to roof racks.

Gone are the days of fixed, two-rail “luggage racks” which were little more than glorified trim. Today, roof racks are perched like crowns atop trendy SUVs. Emblazoned with bold graphics, they feature tubular construction in fashionable brushed aluminum or flat-finish composites.

Who broke the mold?

Nissan literally raised the roof when its 1999 Xterra SUV was unveiled. With Xterra's trademark “stadium seating” came a roof line that resembles a gentle ocean swell.

Nissan designer Robert Bauer went with the flow. Instead of disguising Xterra's quirk, its rack exploits the slope to accommodate a removable pan for storing items you wouldn't want inside the vehicle, such as muddy shoes or soggy wetsuits.

“Robert did a mockup of that … and blew us away,” says Nissan global advisor and design guru Jerry Hirshberg. “Right away, before the car was released, everyone started calling him ‘Roof Rack Man.’”

The shift from form to function followed some careful study. Roof Rack Man had observed people with active lifestyles as they clambered over their vehicles, desperately looking for ways to stow kayaks, tents and snowboards.

Meanwhile, Ford was watching.

“We saw our Escape as being in direct competition with their car,” Mr. Kim says of the Xterra. “We wanted to make it rougher and tougher.”

Hence his hinged roof rack.

Meanwhile, roof rack evolution continues. Just as Xterra inspired Escape, the latter prompted innovation on a Ford concept vehicle, the Sportsman. It's an Explorer derivation with a detachable roof rack designed for sport fishers, but engineered for any outdoor enthusiast.

“This one, instead of deploying off the rear, deploys off the sides,” says Gordon Platto, project design manager. He likens the rack's fold-down modules to motorcycle saddlebags.

No imminent plans call for featuring that rack on a Ford product. But Mr. Platto leaves the door open.

“It would be fairly easy to do,” he says.