DETROIT — Tom Liu is the lead designer for a truck that can fly through the air.
It’s so tough it can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Well, maybe really short buildings.
Liu finds his inspiration from the comic book film star “Iron Man” and other science fiction movies and fighter jets.
“I also look at conceptual stuff designed specifically for video games,” said Liu, 30, of Royal Oak. “Sometimes they focus their styling and design based in a fictional futuristic setup. They think outside the box; they’re not living with real-life restraints. They go crazy on design. That’s where I’ll look to get inspiration.”
His drawings for the 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor are the stuff of dreams. It is his vision that the 117-year-old automaker chose to follow for the third generation off-road pickup that’s built to race 100 mph in the desert and crawl big rocks and deep crevices.
Ford on Wednesday debuted the vehicle, which has earned a cult following over the past decade. This third generation has enormous wheels and tires and suspension designed to keep your in-flight truck experience comfortable.
“There’s so much greatness in this truck,” Liu said.
The F-22 fighter jet is just one design that influences the truck’s shapes and angles, he said.
“Seeing those thin and elongated shapes on those futuristic aircraft designs like the F/A-37 Talon from the 2005 American military science fiction action film called ‘Stealth.’ Our design team completely reimagined the appearance of the marker lights from something that usually looks like Christmas decorations, to something that you would only find in sci-fi movies or video games. The thin wings and vertical stabilizers of those fighter jets, the way they accentuate the speed of it, for us it’s about a sense of going forward and back, gives a sense of motion.”
The team did a lot of work on the marker lights to make them three-dimensional, so other drivers can see light from the top, the front, the left, the right and the bottom of the truck, Liu said.
“The previous gen was one LED light and a capsule (bulb). This time, we put design and styling into the lights. They’re sticking out probably 5 cm from the grille and fenders; so you can grab and hold onto the lights and feel the dimension of the lights. This will bring our Raptor customers closer to the trucks emotionally,” he said.
“Not only do you see the light, but you’re appreciating the design in the garage. It’s very different this time. We amped up the Raptor DNA. We always look at styling, and making it cool. When we designed it, we had functionality, safety and styling.”
The key was to make the lights feel bigger and wider, Liu said.
While competitors are inspired by Ford, he said, “it’s tough for them to catch up. Leaders lead. We’re so much more pronounced and modern, so much more cool.”
The Ford description of Raptor reads like truck porn:
“Completely redesigned, a power dome hood with blacked out grille and headlights that stretch fender to fender.
“The hood has a new heat extractor and functional side vents at the trailing edge of the fender, all inspired by the intakes of the F-22 Raptor fighter plane. Aggressive front fenders emulate the windswept look of dust billowing off the top of the tires at high speed. The same concept extends to the rear, with blacked-out taillights and an available tailgate applique creating visual fender-to-fender width.
“A wider front skid plate offers greater coverage side-to-side and extends protection forward. Steel front and rear bumpers are built for the rigors of off-roading, with the rear bumper retaining the high-clearance design that tucks the dual exhaust tips high up against the truck.”
Liu, the son of a computer scientist and an English teacher, said his mother had passion for color and material design, and fashion design when she was younger. But she took a more traditional career path in education.
Liu earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. His first job was at Honda in the city of Guangzhou, near Hong Kong.
Their first family car, he said, was a 2011 Ford Fiesta Limited Edition.
“We didn’t have a car for a long time,” said Liu, who was born and raised in China. “My parents later immigrated here, and brought me over from Hunan Province.”
He has been at Ford since 2016. Working as lead exterior designer on the high-profile Raptor project, part of a $50 billion Ford F-Series franchise that defines the company, is his dream.
“We sketch and look at current product,” Liu said. “We look for something to make the new design more modern, to stay on stop of the trends and where industrial design is headed. We work towards capturing the essence of Ford DNA.”