DEARBORN, MI – The U.S. auto industry has a plethora of vehicles that boast reliability and performance, but there are few that successfully convey a brand’s DNA, says Robert Gelardi, design manager, North American Design-Ford.

Gelardi and his team designed the interior of the ’10 Mustang with that philosophy in mind, as they identified what the brand meant by studying past models throughout the pony car’s rich history.

“Brand is the key differentiator. It’s your shield, your personality,” he says at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here. “It’s what buyers want to identify with.”

Gelardi cites Starbucks and Apple as companies that don’t just provide products, but also experiences.

Mustangs of the past succeeded because of their ability to offer excitement to drivers, but that trait largely came from the exterior sheetmetal, not the interior. So the interior became a key objective for the design team.

“We started to look at how to develop that form language,” Gelardi says. “We tried to play with sculptural forms and tension lines and (elements) that play with light and shadow.”

The team also turned to past and present Mustang owners, who shared their thoughts on what made the car so special.

While many owners’ stories related to the performance element of the Mustang, Gelardi says you can’t have a true experience with a car unless you’re sitting inside it. “It makes it critical to have the interior reinforce the brand.”

Past Mustangs interiors also served as inspiration. Many featured “double-pod” seating, in which the driver and passenger area was carved out in a circular form.

The double-pod arrangement wasn’t unique to Mustang. In fact, the car’s original designers were inspired by early British sports cars. Yet the layout was closely tied to the pony car and helped differentiate it from competitors, Gelardi says.

Craftsmanship is deeply ingrained in the Mustang heritage, so particular attention was paid to getting the details right and designing a quality product.

But that entailed more than “just chasing gaps,” Gelardi says, noting worrying about clearances between parts was “not going to get us there.”

Using real aluminum, rather than plastic, where possible was made to help bolster the perceived quality of the interior, as was the use of other genuine, high-grade materials.

Gelardi points to the aluminum Mustang logo that adorns the center of the steering wheels as an example of how quality was a driver in the interior design.

“If anything is the John Hancock signature, it’s the Mustang badge that is made of real aluminum and beautifully and precisely crafted,” he says. “If we’re going to spend that much time on a badge, the rest of car has to be fantastic.”

But while the Mustang’s heritage served as a roadmap for much of the interior design, it was of little use in determining how best to integrate new technology into the vehicle.

Ford over the last several years has used technology to differentiate itself from competitors, but the Mustang is unique in that it is a true “driver’s car,” Gelardi says.

It was decided that any technology featured on the iconic car should not take away from its performance roots, but that didn’t mean technology could not be used to accent the vehicle’s sporty characteristics.

From the time the Mustang was launched in 1964, it immediately was embraced as a car enthusiasts could modify.

That desire by owners to make their Mustang “truly their own” was the perfect fit for Ford’s adjustable light-emitting-diode interior lighting system.

“We used technology to customize (the car) in a way you couldn’t do before,” Gelardi says. “You can change the interior colors, and that’s a nice way of using the technology and reinforcing the brand.”

bpope@wardsauto.com