In the dark winter months before General Motors Co. filed for bankruptcy four years ago, its top designer, Ed Welburn, was growing increasingly frustrated with the negative news about his company.
He gathered his 300-member design staff in the cavernous domed showroom at the automaker’s suburban Detroit studios for a serious, stand-up meeting. There were no chairs. Welburn, 62, normally bookish and reserved, spoke with passion.
“You are better than what is being written and said about GM,” he recalled telling them. “We’re going to survive this, and when we come out on the other end of this very dark period, the world is going to be looking to see what General Motors is capable of doing. And they’re going to be looking at design.”
The result of Welburn’s motivational moment: “The team really dug down deep -- they were angry,” he said in an interview in his sleek, postmodern office last week. “And they created some of their absolute best work.”
From the fires of Detroit’s descent into near-death, GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC have forged some of the most distinctive designs since tail fins were soaring in the halcyon days of the postwar-era. Models such as GM’s Cadillac ATS sports sedan, Ford’s Fusion family car and Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee are turning heads and stoking sales.
On the strength of stylish new showroom offerings, GM, Ford and Chrysler all gained market share in the first quarter for the first time in 20 years. Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp.’s staid standard-bearer, the Camry, has endured three months of declining sales as the automaker ceded U.S. share this year.
‘Safe is Out’
Detroit’s joy ride demonstrates that style now sells. Consumers, coming out of a deep recession, are driving cars that average 11 years old and they’re looking for more than just a new set of wheels. They want a car that looks new.
“Safe is out,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with researcher LMC Automotive in Troy, Michigan. “Instead of your bread-and-butter car that just gets you from Point A to Point B, buyers are looking for something with more individual appeal.”
Detroit is delivering in a way it hasn’t since GM’s original design chief Harley Earl put the first tail fins on a 1948 Cadillac and his successor Bill Mitchell carved gills into the side of the 1963 Corvette Stingray.
“The industry got away from design and what really sparked growth and passion and connection to vehicles in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” Schuster said. “Detroit is trying to make that connection again and their designs are doing that.”
It took nearly going out of business for GM, Ford and Chrysler to change their conservative ways and return to risk-taking, Schuster said.
“The slap-in-your-face shock of what Detroit went through ignited this,” Schuster said. “They are trying to come out of that and show the world that they have been reborn.”
J Mays, Ford’s chief designer since 1997, can trace a long history of design breakthroughs saving the company. The 1949 Ford resuscitated a company “brought to its knees” by the war effort, he said. The Thunderbird in the 1950s, the Mustang in the 1960s, the Taurus in the 1980s and the Explorer in the 1990s all came along when Ford needed them most, Mays said.
“Every time Ford Motor Co.’s butt has been up against the hot pipes,” Mays, 58, said in an interview, “it’s been design that has somehow allowed them to emerge as a successful company again.”
No Camry Clone
The pipes were positively steaming when Mays convened a meeting of his top designers in London in February 2008 to discuss what should be done with the Fusion, Ford’s family car that was a distant also-ran to Toyota’s Camry, the top selling car in the U.S. for 11 years now.
At the time, Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford was hemorrhaging cash, losing a record $30.1 billion from 2006 through 2008. Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, who arrived from Boeing Co. 17 months earlier, had bet the company on $23 billion in loans that had to be spent wisely. With sport-utility vehicle sales collapsing amid rising fuel prices, Ford had to fix its lackluster family car.
“We’ve got to find a way to create a break-out on this car,” Mays said he told his design brain trust.
Cloning the Camry wasn’t the answer, Mays told them, since most manufacturers were churning out “automotive appliances” in pursuit of Toyota’s sensible sedan. Instead, he said he wanted a $25,000 family car that looked like a $40,000 luxury car -- and since Ford at the time owned Jaguar, Aston Martin and Land Rover, these designers should know how to create luxury.
“Everybody wants what they can’t have,” Mays said. “Everybody aspires to look richer than they are.”
They crafted a car that was sleek like a sports sedan, with crisp creases inspired by the bespoke suits of London’s Savile Row. The key ended up being the car’s grille, a stylized trapezoid that rode too low on the previous-generation Fusion.
“Why is it down there? It doesn’t feel proud, it doesn’t feel confident,” Mays told his designers. “As we started to inch that trapezoid up between the headlamps, suddenly the car just took on this far more premium feel.”
Consumer clinics convinced skeptics inside Ford that Mays’s risky strategy to take the frumpy Fusion upscale was working. Potential buyers compared it to a Maserati and a Jaguar.
“There was all sorts of tension up until that point,” Mays said. “But once the clinics were over, everybody was happy.”
Now Ford is adding an extra shift of Fusion production at a factory in Michigan to try to keep up with record demand for the sedan, which has seen sales rise 25 percent this year. That’s despite a mixed review from Consumer Reports magazine, which wrote in January, “The Fusion’s sleek form reduces function.”
Other car reviewers compare the Fusion to Aston Martin, which Mays insists was not an inspiration for the car, despite Ford’s former parentage of that British luxury line favored by James Bond.
“We never had any thought in the back of our mind that we were trying to do something like that,” Mays said of copying Aston Martin. “We were just taking our inverted trapezoid and pushing it up on the front end.”
If Ford was in distress when the Fusion was being born, Chrysler was in critical condition, with the media writing its obituary in 2008 as the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based automaker was designing its make-or-break model, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“It was really bad, definitely a horrible time,” Ralph Gilles, Chrysler chief designer, said in an interview last week. “You have no choice but to succeed because you realize how critical it is. Everyone rallied together. There was less arguing, more doing.”
The Grand Cherokee, along with the Explorer, pioneered the SUV boom in the 1990s and fell from favor as gas prices rose and the big rigs became synonymous with conspicuous consumption. If Chrysler was to survive, it had to turn Jeep around and that meant moving away from the big and boxy look, Gilles said.
“You’ve got to make a little noise,” Gilles told his designers, “because you’re coming from behind.”
Their solution was essentially to have the Grand Cherokee hit the gym, transforming it into a trim, fit athlete. Car buyers who rejected old-school SUVs embraced this lithe and lighter Grand Cherokee. Sales soared 21 percent last year.
That success has given Gilles more freedom. When he presented several design sketches for a new, smaller Cherokee model to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne two years ago, the boss choose the most controversial rendering.
“We cheered,” Gilles, 43, recalled of the design staff’s meeting with Marchionne. “We were so excited to have him give us that confidence that we could execute the most aggressive one.”
Now Gilles said he feels pressure to “keep pushing and not let up,” particularly on the Chrysler 200 redesign coming next year, which will take on the Camry and Fusion. He wants to prove Chrysler’s government-funded bankruptcy in 2009 is paying off.
“You know everyone is looking deep at you,” Gilles said. “When you have a new car and you have a certain track record, people want to study it and say, ‘OK did they do something different? Did they fix it?’”
At Detroit-based GM, design Vice President Welburn is also focused on keeping the troops motivated. After his stand-up meeting in the design dome, he assigned all 10,000 of his stylists worldwide the task of drawing the next Corvette sports car in what he called a “global design blitz.” The finished product won raves at auto shows this year and goes on sale soon.
“Every designer wants to design a Corvette, but only a few get assigned to it,” Welburn said. “I thought that not only might we get something cool out it, but also that it would be good for morale.”
Now Welburn sees confidence restored in his studios, which is what gives the Cadillac ATS its sports-car slant and the new Chevy Impala its aggressive shark-nosed grille. He also sees it across town at Ford and Chrysler, which he said have never been more competitive. And he sees that design ethos spilling out of the car studios and influencing the art scene all over Detroit.
“I see a real renaissance in design and art in this city,” Welburn said. “For creative people, life experiences are the foundation of their creativity. Things were tough and things were frantic. Those things had an influence.”