The New American Car Design

Detroit decides to get dressed for success

Remember when Detroit was the epicenter of cool cars? From the postwar exuberance of tail-finned Cadillacs and aircraft-inspired Buicks, to the thrilling muscle cars of the '60s, Motown set the tone for automotive style. Then, just like that, the magic disappeared. From boxy look-alikes to bland, aerodynamic cars, domestic auto makers were rarely on the cutting edge during the 1980s and '90s. Design leadership was ceded to European auto makers: the powerful grace of BMW and Audi sports sedans, the muscular tautness of Porsche, the cute-as-a-bug Volkswagen Beetle, and the sleek, elegant Jaguar.

Now Detroit is gearing up for a design renaissance. Having closed much of the yawning quality gap with Japan, U.S. car companies are scrambling to catch up to the Europeans on sex appeal. Detroit figures bold styling is the way to woo Gen Y buyers, who grew up with import cars. Chrysler Corp. led the way when it embraced daring design as its salvation as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 1992. From swoopy LH sedans and the aggressive Viper sports coupe to the bug-eyed Neon subcompact and this year's gangster-getaway car, the PT Cruiser, the designers in Auburn Hills, Mich., put Motown styling back on the map.

JUICY CARROTS. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are getting religion, too. They're recruiting hot designers from European rivals, paying fat salaries and bonuses to design-school grads, and giving them all a stronger voice in the development of new models. These days, Detroit's design chiefs rank higher in the corporate hierarchy and have greater access to the top brass. "This is a really exciting moment in Detroit," says Carl L. Olsen, head of transportation design at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, a leading U.S. auto-design school. "People are showing quite risky things."

What changed? For one thing, technology has made it easier to turn even mass-market models into stunners. Add to that the industry's cost-saving push to build more vehicles from a few basic chassis, or platforms. For the cost of a new sheet-metal skin, the manufacturer gets the illusion of an all-new vehicle. That makes it feasible for an auto maker to turn out niche creations on a shoestring. Ford, for example, is busily churning out novel twists on its big-pickup frame: the SuperCrew and Lincoln Blac approach.

That's why Ford is recruiting droves of designers from British and German rivals and giving each of its brand-name divisions its own design team to create distinctive families of cars. The design teams already in place have produced the sublimely nostalgic 2001 Ford Thunderbird and edgy new Focus subcompact, both of which are drawing raves. Says Ford design chief J Mays: "This is the biggest revolution in design in the last 40 years at Ford."

SIGNING BONUSES. The design boom has auto makers looking outside Detroit for fresh talent. GM runs recruiting ads designers in Wired magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Information Week as a way to attract young talent with computer and animation skills. Last year, Chrysler hired Audi design star Freeman Thomas, 42, who did the first sketch of the Audi TT and is expected to eventually lead a new generation of Chrysler designers.

Ford has conducted the most aggressive hiring binge. CEO Jacques A. Nasser started a couple of years ago by recruiting Mays, a former VW designer best know for designing the concept car that led to the new Beetle. Since then, Mays has picked Audi's Chris Bird to lead Ford's small-car studio in Britain and Rover designer Gerry McGovern to steer Lincoln. McGovern, who made a name with his innovative work on the new Land Rover Freelander SUV and the Rover MG sports car, is charged with creating a new image for Lincoln, the important but muddied American luxury marque. He is bringing along a cadre of designers from BMW, Rover, Honda, Toyota, Renault, and Saab. "My team is so bloody international, I can't pronounce half the names," McGovern says.

Of course, Ford also bought its way into European design with its purchase of Jaguar Cars Ltd. in 1989 and Volvo last year. With Jaguar, Ford's job is to restore quality and profitability without destroying the sinuous elegance that distinguishes the brand's cars. At the Detroit auto show in January, Ford execs glowed at the praise heaped on the F-Type concept car, a gorgeous high-performance roadster designed by Jaguar's British studio. Asked what might possibly prevent Ford from bringing the two-seater to production, CEO Nasser replied succinctly, "Stupidity."

The surge of demand has created a seller's market among fresh recruits, too. Graduates of the Center for Creative Studies command salaries 20% higher than a few years back. Throw in signing bonuses of as much as $20,000--"which didn't even exist a couple of years ago," Olsen says--and a rookie designer can make $100,000.

Car companies are striving not to stifle all this new talent. Gone are the days when trainees paid their dues drawing door handles or wheel covers for years before being allowed to pen a car design. Bird, 43, recalls when design studios were like "monasteries" where young stylists went to "learn the ways of the great masters." Now, the masters are listening to Internet-savvy recruits who have designed everything from vegetable peelers to home furnishings. "It's kind of tough sometimes to hear them say that what we're designing in the studios is not something they'd ever drive," Bird admits.

HAS THE BOSS'S EAR. The newly refurbished design teams also wield more clout in the executive suite these days. Mays, for example, ranks just two rungs below Nasser and, unlike his predecessor, Taurus designer Jack Telnack, meets often with the CEO. Nasser, who judges vintage cars each August in Pebble Beach, Calif., is known for prowling Ford's design studios on Saturdays.

GM is giving design a stronger voice, too. Design chief Wayne K. Cherry holds day-long design reviews with the company's top management at least once a month. In the past, they happened less frequently. And these days, designers don't go to reviews with brass toting just a sketch, says Ed Welburn, director of GM's Corporate Brand Character Center. They go armed with 3-D models, animation, engineering support, and a detailed business case for the new car.

There's still plenty of ground to make up, of course. Detroit's most impressive designs still exist mostly as concept vehicles or small-volume products. And some of the most arresting vehicles that make it to showrooms could turn out to be embarrassing flops. "Some of this stuff is butt-ugly," notes Christopher W. Cedergren of NexTrend Inc., a Thousand Oaks, Calif., auto consulting firm. He won't name names, but some recent love-'em-or-hate-'em examples spring to mind, such as the GMC Terradyne and the Ford 24/7 Internet cars. Still, carmakers--flush with record-breaking profits--are showing more willingness to take chances and heap dollars on unconventional vehicles. And it can pay off. Chrysler already has boosted output for the PT Cruiser by 50,000 vehicles, to 235,000, before it even goes on sale.

CREASES ARE BACK. As with most revolutions, the participants in this one did not come altogether willingly. Detroit's eroding share of the passenger-car market, especially among younger buyers, forced the Big Three to take more risks. Design is once again seen as a key to attracting younger buyers and others who have defected to more stylish makes. "They expect more style and panache," says NexTrend's Cedergren.

Motown's pitch to younger buyers includes such radical designs as Pontiac's Aztek SUV, arriving in June, and Ford's Focus, introduced last fall. The Focus' crisply creased lines along its hood and over its wheelwells and its roomy interior have helped pull in younger buyers, says Ford Div. General Manager James O'Connor. He notes that one-quarter of U.S. buyers for the Focus are 25 years old or younger vs. 17% for its predecessor, the unlovely Escort.

The shift in direction is most noticeable at GM. Anxious to boost its flagging market share by shaking its stodgy image, the biggest auto maker is turning loose its long-stifled designers. The result: a string of dazzling concept vehicles at this year's auto shows, such as the startlingly retro Chevrolet SSR roadster-pickup; the low-slung, sophisticated Buick LaCrosse; and the H2, a smaller, more comfortable version of the original Hummer SUV. "We've dialed up the focus on design," says GM Chief Executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr.

GM is also showing more urgency in bringing some of these concepts to dealer showrooms. Computer-aided design software allows stylists to morph their ideas from the sketchpad into 3-D life in weeks instead of the months it took to carve a clay model. New composite materials and manufacturing advances make it easier to stamp out more complicated curves and angles in sheet metal and then get them to fit together precisely. The SSR concept, with a look that its young designers dubbed "funk-stalgia," was done entirely on the computer screen last summer, then electronically milled from foam to show GM's top execs.

Design staffers whipped up a video simulation of the SSR driving up to an all-night diner in a thunderstorm, tires swooshing and convertible top rising into place. The brass liked the SSR so much they were eager to display a prototype at the Detroit auto show in January. GM design chief Cherry swallowed hard over the rush job and told them, "Sure." The car was one of the show's hits, convincing many in the industry that GM will speed it to market in the next couple of years. That fast turnaround, from idea to design to market, stands in stark contrast to the auto maker's recent past. "When you see design changing at GM, you know things are changing," says Dyan Sublett, a senior vice-president at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., another leading car-design school.

"WHAT-IFS." Indeed, in the era that began with the early '80s, the Big Three--under siege from highly reliable but bland Japanese passenger cars--went into a sort of design hibernation. The result: GM's indistinguishably boxy sedans, such as the Chevy Corsica and Beretta and the Cadillac Cimarron. Ford and GM ceded styling to consumer focus groups--a big mistake. Consumers are notoriously bad at predicting what their tastes will be four or fives years later. Plus, that process tends to create cars by committee. "This is how we come up with products that look like they had four designers who never met each other," says NexTrend's Cedergren.

GM executives decided that design was a luxury they couldn't afford in the cash-strapped mid-'90s when the company was frantically rebuilding its shabby lineup. So they played it safe with their bread-and-butter models. "When you've got your [full-size pickup] segment selling 800,000 units, you're more careful," Wagoner says. But once the core lineup was taken care of, GM had the inclination--and the cash--to take more risks with innovative niche products like the Aztek and next year's Avalanche, a clever blend of SUV and pickup truck. Now, instead of just remaking the bread-and-butter models, says Oldsmobile design boss Phillip Zak, "we do a lot of what-ifs and experimental models."

RISK CULTURE. Chrysler, faced with its own near-death experience in the early '90s, went in the opposite direction from General Motors. Then, President Robert A. Lutz was the driving force at the top. He was known to sketch an idea for a car, such as the Atlantic, a '30s-inspired coupe, on a cocktail napkin. But more important, he and design chief Thomas C. Gale made clear that styling was vital to Chrysler's remake. Even when finances were running on fumes eight years ago, the company never stinted. The message to the rest of the organization: "Design isn't just `those crazies over in the corner who we'll talk to when we need 'em,"' says Gale, who is now executive vice-president of Chrysler product development, design, and car operations.

Chrysler's challenge will be to keep taking design risks under Daimler's conservative leadership. The PT Cruiser, which was well under way when Daimler acquired Chrysler in 1998, struck some of the incoming German bosses as outlandish. Still, early signs are encouraging. In January, Chrysler displayed the Dodge MAXXcab, a passenger-friendly pickup with a minivan-like cabin. And it's expected to bring another concept car--the 300 Hemi C v8-powered convertible--to market in the next couple of years.

Detroit's greater willingness to give designers their heads is a big morale-booster in the studio. "I don't think I've ever met a designer who doesn't want to take risks," says GM design chief Cherry. The difference is that now the same attitude has trickled up the ranks into the executive suite. That's why the odds are getting better that car buyers will actually get to see some of those sketch-pad drawings come to life.

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