A Toyota Design Star Finds True Love At Chrysler

The Japanese designer's Chronos concept car is a hit

Osamu Shikado's pulse raced as he entered the suburban Detroit warehouse on a bitter-cold New Year's morning. Inside, under a canvas tarpaulin, was Shikado's creation: a $1 million Chrysler concept car called the Chronos. Designed by Shikado and built in record time, the Chronos sat hidden, awaiting the opening of the North American International Auto Show. But Shikado was itching to get a glimpse of his baby. When the tarp came off, the sight took his breath away. "It was my sketch come to life," he says.

Three days later, the Chronos was the talk of the auto show. As flashbulbs popped around him, Shikado knew he had hit a home run. The sleek, silver Chronos was the latest in a series of powerful, sexy concept cars, such as the Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler, from Chrysler Corp. And for Shikado, 43, who left his native Japan in 1994, its launch was the culmination of a personal odyssey. No designer had ever abandoned a career at Toyota Motor Corp. to emerge as a star in the U.S.

It's a high-stakes tale played out in a hypercompetitive arena. Shikado worked 14 years at Toyota on some of the world's best-selling cars, rising to become an assistant chief designer. But he had a burning ambition to break free of the bland Camry and Corolla and Toyota's bureaucracy. Frustrated and ready to gamble on his talent, Shikado quit his $80,000-a-year job in 1993. "Life is just one time," he says. "If I have a choice between something that's boring and something that's risky, I choose the risk."

His quest led him to Chrysler, home of one of the industry's most daring design teams. There, in the top-secret studios of the Chrysler Tech Center in Auburn Hills, Mich., Shikado has made his mark. Soft-spoken and conservatively dressed, he doesn't look like a maverick. But his calm exterior masks a fierce desire to create and compete.

SLIM CHANCE. When Shikado applied for a job at Chrysler in 1994, his future didn't look promising. After leaving Toyota, he first sought work in Europe, where the industry was in a slump: BMW, Volkswagen, and four Italian design studios turned him down. Unemployed and the father of two young children, Shikado was "deeply depressed." Since he viewed General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. as every bit as conservative as Toyota, "Chrysler," he was convinced, "was my last chance."

And it was a slim one. The carmaker usually hired designers fresh out of college. But Shikado's intellect and his determination to grow so intrigued Chrysler's execs, they hired him on the spot. "What he was doing was monumental," says Neil Walling, head of exterior design. "The fact that he gave up a job at Toyota showed an incredible dedication to design."

Shikado, in fact, has always followed his passion. As a boy growing up in

Osaka, he adored animated Disney films, and spent hours sketching characters from Bambi and Peter Pan. As he grew up, Shikado's devotion to drawing only intensified, much to the disapproval of his father, a stern high school biology teacher. Even his teachers urged him to "stop scribbling" and become an engineer. Shikado wasn't deterred. He entered the Kyoto City University of Arts in 1975. Upon graduating in 1979, Shikado landed a design job at Toyota.

ARCHIVES. It wasn't until he got to Chrysler, though, that he could really spread his wings. Shikado immediately plunged into his work. But only a handful of designers ever get a chance to do a concept car--much less a newcomer from Japan. Shikado had done well during his first 2 1/2 years, though he was hardly a star. His biggest accomplishment was working on the team designing the new Neon subcompact. But when his team was chosen to compete for a shot at designing a superluxury car, Shikado made the most of it.

It was an assignment 180 degrees from the four-door sedans that Shikado worked on for years at Toyota. "The task was to capture the essence of a historic Chrysler car," says Thomas C. Gale, executive vice-president for product strategy. Two managers and four designers, including Shikado, would work alone for two weeks to produce their sketches. Two finalists would then be chosen by Gale. Shikado's competitive fires burned as he contemplated the opportunity. "I wanted nothing but to win this project," he recalls.

The others went directly to their sketch pads, but Shikado's love of old cars led him to the tech center's photo archives for inspiration. After a few hours of research, one model stood out: the 1953 D'Elegance. Its big wheels, massive grille, and rakish roof embodied the prosperity of the 1950s. But two weeks was hardly enough time to translate the classic into a car for the '90s. So Shikado worked evenings and weekends. Happy to put in the extra hours, he let his imagination run wild as his embryonic car took shape.

When the two weeks were up, Gale eliminated four of the six competing designs. Shikado's and another by Mark Hall, one of the company's hottest stars, survived the cut. Now, the pressure was really on. Shikado and Hall had just three weeks to turn their designs into 6-foot-long clay models for final review. Shikado faced keen competition in Hall, a former jewelry designer and sculptor who had joined Chrysler in 1984 and had won kudos for the 1998 Chrysler Concorde sedan. But Hall knew little about his Japanese rival. "He seemed very quiet and technically proficient, not the kind of guy to be blowing his own horn," Hall says.

Hall and Shikado faced off around a single large block of clay--about half the size of a full-scale car--each executing his design on opposite halves of the block. Directing trained modelers on every little detail, Shikado's dream began to come alive. Occasionally glancing at each other's work, the two rarely spoke. Hall's design was a beauty. Whenever Shikado's confidence flagged, he just thought back to the photo of the D'Elegance and pushed on.

MASS MODELS. D-day came on Mar. 7. Gale, along with Chrysler Vice-Chairman Robert A. Lutz and other execs, slowly circled the two-sided clay model. Gale was instantly taken by Shikado's classy entry. "Osamu had obviously listened very carefully to the assignment," Gale recalls. Shikado, meantime, was a bundle of nerves as he waited out the decision over lunch. But when he returned to the office, Shikado got the good news. Overwhelmed with emotion, all he could think about was his father, who had died two months earlier in Japan. If only his father could have shared the moment, Shikado thought.

Even if the Chronos is never produced, it "will have a profound effect on what we do," says Gale, who envisions the Chronos' retro look making its way into mass-produced models. More important for Shikado, the Chronos means vindication and a bright future. At Toyota, "he was not so high-ranking," says Tetsuo Kitagawa, a Toyota spokesman. Now, Shikado has already been put in charge of a new concept design that will debut at the 1999 Detroit auto show.

Shikado says he's here to stay. His family has settled into the sizable Japanese community that has grown up around the Detroit auto industry. (Shikado declines to reveal the names of his wife, son, and daughter.) His son, 10, even wears a Detroit Red Wings jersey in street roller-hockey games.

In time-honored auto-design tradition, Shikado isn't breathing a word about his current project, except to say he couldn't be happier with his assignment. "Every time I present some sketches, [my boss] encourages me to be bolder," he says as he runs a hand across the broad hood of the Chronos. For Osamu Shikado, that shouldn't be a problem.

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