Just think of the first-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS, the first “4-door coupe” in existence and the car that launched a thousand copies, give or take. Or consider the work of Chris Bangle, formerly the head of design at BMW, who helped introduce “flame surfacing” and the “Bangle butt” to the automotive world. For the record, Max Wolff (main picture with the new Lincoln MKZ) is not a fan of flame surfacing—or, for that matter, of any extraneous design touches that detract from a clean silhouette.
The 39-year-old from Melbourne has, for the past year and a bit, been the Director of Design for Lincoln, the luxury division of Ford Motor Company. In that short period of time, his influence has already been felt as Lincoln embarks on a new direction and works on chipping away at the market advantage enjoyed by Lexus and (former employer) Cadillac.
A graduate of Monash University, Wolff joined Holden in 1998 and worked on a number of interesting projects, including the 2002 Holden SSX sports hatch concept and the 2002 HRT 427 super-coupe from Holden Special Vehicles (pictured above). In 2004, he moved to Daewoo in South Korea and was responsible for, among others, the current Chevrolet Cruze.
Three years after that, he moved to Michigan to join the Cadillac division as Exterior Design Director. Wolff had a massive impact here, designing the stunning CTS Sport Wagon, the highly acclaimed CTS coupe and the CTS-V high-performance variants. Immediately prior to leaving Cadillac and GM, Wolff oversaw the designs for the forthcoming XTS and ATS saloons, for which there is plenty of breathless anticipation.
Now, he plans to change all that as he works on displacing Cadillac—and every other luxury car manufacturer—with his work at Lincoln. Little over a year after his appointment, the first example of his work was unveiled at the recent New York International Auto Show, the production version of the 2013 Lincoln MKZ.
CarAdvice: Why did you choose to leave Cadillac?
Max Wolff: A new challenge, mostly. I wasn’t super-happy with the ATS and the XTS; a bit too derivative, I thought. All the vehicles in a family don’t need to look the same, they don’t need to just scale up and down, they just need to have that family resemblance. For example, the grille on the new MKZ won’t be exactly the same for all future Lincolns, but they will be related.
CA: From a design perspective, how do you plan to grow the Lincoln customer base without alienating the traditional Lincoln customer?
MW: I think we can walk the line; we can attract a new customer and retain an old one at the same time. We have very loyal customers, but we do need to attract a new breed. The demographics, the age of our customers can only go down if Lincoln is going to be successful moving forward. And we want to grow the brand into a world-class luxury motorcar company.
CA: What’s your opinion of car design, circa 2012? Would you consider this to be a particularly strong period in time?
MW: I think we’ve just been through an interesting period where people were struggling with regulatory requirements [for crash protection and pedestrian protection]. But I think we’re coming out of that now. There’s also been a very superfluous approach to surfacing, with flame surfacing and the like [on cars from BMW to Hyundai], which I think will also change. One of the nice things about the MKZ, is that it doesn’t have that type of thing, so it’s like we’re at the forefront of a new movement in design.
CA: Which of your competitors is doing particularly strong work right now?
MW: From a design perspective, Audi is certainly doing good work in terms of execution. But I think there’s an opportunity to add more emotion, to be warmer and more approachable. There’s an element of storytelling to design, a way to make the object link to some type of emotional experience. This is something that a smaller luxury brand can do—and it’s like a fresh start for Lincoln, so that’s what we’re after.
CA: What is your vision for the future of Lincoln?
MW: We have a brand new studio [at Ford HQ in Dearborn, Michigan], which is still being built. I have a dedicated team of 25-30 designers, plus another 80-100 people in other areas and the support of design teams in Australia, California, London and Shanghai. Beyond the MKZ, we have seven all-new or significantly redesigned vehicles coming out in the next four years. We’re talking about the rebirth of the entire brand.
CA: What do you consider to be your most embarrassing moment as a car designer and your biggest success?
MW: [Laughs]. Every day, there are embarrassments. As to my greatest success, I’m more proud of what’s yet to come.