Born in France but raised in America, so he pronounces it “Jack” — is the lead designer for Mazda Design Americas. We sat down with him to discuss Mazda’s new MX-5 RF.
Automobile Magazine: What was the reaction on a corporate level when you presented the design for the MX-5 RF because it was so radically different from the retractable hardtop?
JF: It was positive. Very positive. I think it may have caught a few people off guard, but a lot of people pushed for an MX-5 coupe, inside and outside the company. It was well received, especially when they saw what the vision was and how it could be interpreted. We knew we were going to do some sort of retractable hardtop, and we jumped on this idea of blending these two worlds. The 911 Targa came out a little bit before, and that made conversations with corporate that much easier. We said, “Look how stunning the car is, and we can do the same thing.”
AM: Why such a big change from the previous car?
JF: The third-gen car was our first retractable hardtop. It was a great measure to see what we could achieve, especially from a cost standpoint. That was a huge learning curve with that car, to be able to offer something like that for very little money. But it didn’t feel like a coupe to me. It had all the positives of a retractable hardtop, but when you step back, you say, “That’s a convertible.” This car, from a hundred yards away, it’s a coupe. It’s got all the right elements.
AM: What were some of your design themes and influences?
JF: Simplicity, really, which comes from the original MX-5 with the soft top. I had the pleasure of working on that car, and there was attention to priority. Get that proportion just right. Get the surfacing just right so that it supports this proportion. So going into the hardtop, it was that same thing: The proportions have to match the rest of the car. If we’re trying to do the coupe thing, what do we really want? Pull the cabin farther back, stretch the C-pillar as far back as possible. The surfacing on the hardtop as well—we didn’t want it to feel like engineers developed the top and just stuck it on. It needed to feel integrated and very fluid. If you look at the surfacing of the top, the rail into the C-pillar, it’s very subtle. We looked at lots of classic sports cars, old Ferraris, some of my favourites like the 250 SWB, where the cabin is pulled far back in the car. The Miata is so well balanced, so we tried to make it feel even more rear-wheel drive while not tipping the scale to where we’ve got too much weight on the rear. You now have this nice tension over the rear header with the C-pillar pulled all the way back. It feels like there’s way more energy and power at the rear wheels compared to the softtop.
AM: What were some of the engineering challenges?
JF: We wanted this very coupe-like profile with a long C-pillar. But then when the top’s folded down, where does that go? We worked with engineering from the very beginning to get the top folded up without so many shut lines. The more shut lines you’ve got, the more it disrupts the design. We were able to design those lines. If you look at the way the C-pillars land on the decklid, it’s got a nice line that resonates really well with the hoodline. I think that was the biggest accomplishment with design and engineering. The engineers at Mazda are so supportive. If we do something and we’re dead set on it, they’ll figure it out. They’re brilliant.
AM: Which cars influenced your own sense of design?
JF: The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday for car design. I like the classic silhouette of some of the front-engine Ferraris. I own a Volvo P1800. I also really love the whole wedge design thing that was going on, like the early Lamborghini Countach, the Ferrari wedge design, the Lancia Stratos concept that Bertone did. The excitement of those early wedge designs that Gandini and those guys were playing with are undeniably some of the coolest stuff. The Lamborghini LP400 “Periscopio,” it’s a spaceship, you know? It’s a spaceship, and they built it! You could buy one. And that’s bananas.
AM: When you drive an MX-5 RF, do you go top down or top up?
JF: Top up. I’d almost glue it shut! I’m all for convertibles, but I’ve been screaming coupe forever, so it’s top up all the way.
AM: Does it bother you to see one with the top down?
JF: No, because usually there’s a giant smile on the driver’s face