It's all downhill now for Ford Motor Co.'s Roger Kim.

The 28-year-old designer had been with the automaker for about 12 months when a company executive spotted his roof rack sketch.

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

The drawing featured an integrated ramp that could be extended beyond a 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 suggests. “Two on 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 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, ruing the suggestion that his career already may have peaked.

So much for a promising career.

But the way cargo carriers are evolving and proliferating, it's likely he still has a bright future.

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

Clearly, automakers are giving loads of attention to roof racks.

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

Who broke the mold? The consensus favors Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., which literally raised the roof when its 1999 Xterra SUV was unveiled.

With Xterra's trademark “stadium seating” came a roofline that resembles a gentle ocean swell. And Nissan designer Robert Bauer went with the flow.

Instead of disguising Xterra's quirk, its rack — also built by JAC Products — 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 came after some careful study. Roof Rack Man had observed people with active lifestyles as they clambered over their vehicles, desperately looking for ways to anchor kayaks, tents and snowboards.

“There does seem to be a great yearning for experience, for hands-on experience,” Mr. Hirshberg adds. “And a lot of it does seem to be outdoors. It's beyond do-it-yourself. It's beyond surfing.”

Meanwhile, Ford was watching the watchers.

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

Hence his hinged roof rack.

And even though it has yet to appear in showrooms, Ford has found a new use for the rack. Designers discovered its ramp can be helpful when loading up the vehicle, because it can be returned to its rooftop position after loading.

But because this maneuver requires physical strength commensurate with the cargo, Ford doesn't recommend it for everyone.

Meanwhile, roof rack evolution continues. Just as Xterra inspired Escape, the latter prompted innovation on a Ford concept unveiled at the North American International Auto Show.

Sportsman is an Explorer derivation that boasts a fully detachable, modular roof rack designed for sport fishers, but engineered for virtually any outdoor enthusiast.

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

Sportsman's roof rack even addresses the all-important problem of tie-downs. Integrated into the B and C pillars are rectangular reliefs to accommodate hooks.

While there are no imminent plans to feature the rack on a Ford product, Mr. Platto leaves the door open to speculation. “It would be fairly easy to do if we chose to,” he says.

Oh, and if you're thinking of marketing Mr. Kim's idea yourself, forget it. He's taking the executive's advice and a patent is pending.