The automobile business has always been as volatile as the scenario of "Twister," so it should come as no surprise that J Mays, current hero of car design, sees himself in a Steven Spielberg role.
"There is an uncanny resemblance between what I do and what movie directors do," Mays explained recently from Detroit, where he serves as Ford's uber-design chief. "That's telling a story."
The Mays narrative is usually sweet, like the closing scene of a Spielberg movie. He is largely responsible for Volkswagen's New Beetle, which is about as cute as a car can get. He reinvented the Thunderbird in time for Halle Berry's wild ride in "Die Another Day." And next Sunday, Ford will unveil his updated concept of another retro favorite, the 1966 Mustang convertible. In red.
But hold the "Good Vibrations" soundtrack. The story he is telling this afternoon is discomfiting, not easy listening. On the eve of a new year, the auto world's most cerebral designer is linking the shape of a headlight to the psychic box we're in.
"Our mind-set right now is one that is unsure about the future," Mays said. "We're scared, given some of the things that have happened in the past two years."
He didn't need to list the sources of anxiety: terrorism, the specter of war, a miserable economy. What comes next is anybody's guess, which is the point Mays wanted to make. As the old proverb goes: We live in interesting times. But it's hard to look forward to trouble. That's why nostalgia has Mays -- and many of the rest of us -- in its grip.
"The past is a bit of a safety blanket," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that."
His response has been to package warm and fuzzy memories, chiefly from the supposedly happy postwar decades, into classy auto bodies. His cars -- many of them one-off concept cars, so far -- embody the essence of something positive from the past. But, he is careful to point out, the visual cues have to be transformed into something fresh. Mays calls it "retrofuturism." He makes no apology for pushing emotional buttons.
"I want to take the audience to an emotional world they haven't been to before, or haven't been to in a long, long time," he said. "We don't like to stay in 'today.' Reality just isn't much of an aphrodisiac."
The Harvard Design School awarded Mays its highest honor this year, wittily naming an exhibition of his work "Autoemotion." The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has gathered his fantasy fleet into an exhibition, "Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays," which runs through March 9.
Car buffs will recognize the exotic Audi Avus Quattro -- with gull-wing doors and polished aluminum body -- that influenced the design of the Audi TT roadster. A Ford GT40 muscle car reinterprets a 1964 legend for 2002. Concept One led to Volkswagen's wildly successful update of the car baby boomers drove in their hippie days.
The mass market is not yet ready for the more intellectual inquiries. The Ford 021C concept -- designed at his request by another retrofuturist, London industrial designer Marc Newson, and presented at the Milan Furniture Fair -- may be the ultimate designer object. A "24.7" concept introduced a digital dashboard, voice commands and a flat-panel display screen. Mays has called the high-tech exploration a failure, if only because few people could see beyond a boxy exterior to appreciate the innovations. And the Ma, unveiled at the museum, is a concept for an environmentally attuned, recyclable kit car. It is made of bamboo and carbon fiber and is held together with watch-quality titanium bolts.
"It's the antithesis of what someone might think of when they think of the auto industry," Mays explained. "Every once in a while, designers need to back up, and not carry the baggage" of commercial success.
Mays, who drives a Jaguar XJR and a Land Rover Range Rover, swerved around a question about those profitable but design-numbing SUVs. "They fit into the world our customers operate in," he allowed with what sounded like diplomatic finesse. He was clearly enthused about the coming of "cross-trainers," smaller vehicles that recall the family station wagons of yore.
Was he planning to revive the quaint old wood-panel wagon? Something like that would be a "reasonably sane idea," he responded, "without me telling you exactly what we're working on for the future."
Mays, 48, grew up in rural Oklahoma, where he says the closest he came to design was plowing straight rows in the fields. His first car was a 1966 Thunderbird handed down by his father. He made his way to Pasadena Art College. On the strength of a student project on aerodynamics, he was hired by Volkswagen/Audi. Mays says the Germans taught him how to design cars. He was sent back to California to figure out why Volkswagen's market share had declined. That's how the New Beetle was born. (Mays reinvented the old VW Bug with the help of Freeman Thomas, who is now at Daimler-Chrysler.) Mays switched to Ford five years ago.
It is not by accident that the New Beetle makes people smile. The distinctive bulbous outline emanates from the childlike simplicity of its essential geometry. Mays reduced the car to three circles: one for the body, two for the wheels. When turned upside down, the outline looks just like a Mouseketeer's hat. The wheels are Mickey's ears.
In the decade since the car's launch, equally whimsical and childlike PT Cruisers and Mini Coopers have hit the road. Mays isn't sure how much cuteness will be too much. But he is sure that "retrofuturism" is not a passing fashion. It is too deeply rooted in the fantasy of perpetual youth.
"I think you're going to be responding emotionally to exactly the same things you decided to respond to emotionally when you were 15 years old," he said. "I think you pretty much locked in what those dreams and aspirations are when you got your driver's license. The dreams may evolve, but they don't change."
Mays turned 15 in the autumn of 1969, the year men first walked on the moon. What interests Mays about that era is the way American culture was fixated on its future. At the time, he pointed out, the planet was spinning toward some pretty scary dates -- 1984 and 2001. But there was also heady anticipation about the shape of things to come.
The reality, of course, turned out to be fairly mundane. There has been no cataclysmic change.
"The future was not what it was cracked up to be," Mays said with a tinge of something that passed for regret. "Now, about the most far out we look to the horizon is what the cineplex is showing on the weekend. It's a different cultural mind-set."
He doesn't expect us to change much in the coming decade. But the designer's door is open.
"Should our anticipation of what the future holds take a turn in the near future," he said, "I think we will redirect our thoughts."
While waiting, get a car you can hug.