Is that a car or a Gobot?

Times Staff Writer

HIP-HOP Escalades, million-dollar hot rods and hot-selling production cars — L.A. has it all, and ever since the first horseless carriages hit the streets more than 100 years ago, this city has been on the cutting edge of automotive design. Detroit, Japan and Germany may turn out the cars we buy tomorrow, but Los Angeles incubates those fanciful, even crazy ideas that shape the cars we'll see decades down the road.

Whether it's the incandescent quality of the region's sunlight, which, designers insist, is crisper and cleaner than in most other places on Earth, or the diversity of culture, income and lifestyle, it's not easy to explain. "It's on the cutting edge of every trend," said Toyota design director Kevin Hunter. "You catch the wave in Southern California and ride it across the country."

And it shouldn't surprise us. All it takes is a little imagination, vision and the willingness to step out from the crowd. And who says we were ever shy about that?

Credit the early buggy makers, of course. These were the sheet metal benders and the mechanics, the draftsmen and engineers at the Walter M. Murphy Co. in Pasadena or Earl Carriage Works in downtown, to name two. They knew what lay ahead of them. They not only knew that an engine strategically placed on top of four wheels would catch like wildfire, they saw a market just waiting to be tapped. They just had to figure out a better way to house the engine, the transmission and even the passengers.

And they did. Their first customers were the wealthy executives from the region's growing business and industrial community, and that was only the beginning. In 1908, when the first movie studio opened its doors in Hollywood, directors and film stars — whose marquee status demanded cars that were strikingly different from those driven by the hoi polloi — began asking the local carriage shops to come up with custom designs.

When the likes of Mary Pickford or Cecil B. De Mille would buy a new car, they would often send it out to be customized, and that look would quickly become de rigueur for Hollywood society — and was often captured on the big screen. California style, marked by free-flowing lines, polished metal accents, light and bright exterior colors, fancy interiors and open tops, captivated moviegoers all over the country, and eventually the one-of-a-kind look was not so one-of-a-kind.

Nearly 50 years later, however, it turned around most dramatically when a growing Japanese carmaker decided to marinate its designers in the multicultural Southern California melting pot and opened its Calty Design Research center in Newport Beach. Since then, 13 of the world's biggest automakers have followed Toyota into Southern California with their design studios, trying to distill our unique elixir of sunshine, lifestyle and energy into tomorrow's cars.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. California was — and is — the home for individualists who've hopped, chopped, leaded, lowered and turned Detroit production cars into creations — hot rods, dry-lake racers and lowriders — that blend aesthetics and speed. We saw it in "The Fast and the Furious," and we see it in four concepts from designers who call L.A. home and whose work has been singled out by other designers as some of the best the region has to offer.

Shaken and stirred Some stylists work by focusing on production cars, but at many studios, the principal job is to peer into the future, and when Volkswagen's chief U.S. designer, Derek Jenkins, looked into his crystal ball recently, he saw the GX3.

Unveiled in January at the Los Angeles Auto Show, this spacey, low-slung, three-wheeled roadster concept is the brainchild of Jenkins and a secret research and design team, Moonraker, named for the James Bond movie.

For a year, team members have lived and worked in a house overlooking Zuma Beach; they have driven the Mojave sands and the High Sierra snows and interviewed coffee shop baristas and Century City barristers. Their assignment was simple: to soak up the essence of American culture in an effort to better understand the U.S. car buyer.

"We could have gone most anywhere for this, but L.A. really is the perfect place for this kind of design research," Jenkins said.

Both motorcycle and automobile, the GX3 was designed to be a nimble, fuel-efficient, fun-to-drive and easy-to-park package. Obviously its aim is to win over drivers tired of high gasoline prices and crowded roadways while indulging a passion for performance and individuality.

Jenkins hints of a production version of the GX3 and promises more glimpses of the future from Moonraker.

Homeward bound Senon Franco III, a 27-year-old GM designer just two years out of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design — alma mater for many of the world's top auto designers — is working to address the needs of young professionals in a gridlocked and overpriced urban landscape. His solution is PAD, a six-wheeled vehicle that performs like a car but can double as a motor home.

In detailed exterior drawings, Franco spreads out his dream of a humpbacked mobile studio apartment nearly the size of a FedEx delivery van but with the geo-mechanical look of the Transformer and Gobot toys that he played with as a child growing up in Sacramento. Power — for mobility and daily living — would come from a clean bio-diesel and electric hybrid system.

Jay Bernard, a 37-year-old transplant from Detroit, was charged with designing the interior. He says he took his cues from L.A.'s entertainment-rich environment, packing the vehicle with the latest in audiovisual stimulation, including walls "upholstered" with liquid crystal display screens that provide a colorful and ever-changing wallpaper.

PAD (the acronym for Pre-Fab Affordable Dwelling) may never be built, but that hardly matters to Franco or Bernard. They fully expect some of its features to show up in GM's designs down the road.

A current affair Shawn Moghadam's portfolio has its share of sleek sports cars that would be at home on today's freeways, but the 29-year-old Art Center senior knows most of these are irrelevant. Electric drive will replace gasoline engines in the not-too-distant future, he says, and the shape and style of cars will change radically as the necessity of housing the internal-combustion engines disappears.

"That's the great thing about electric. When we can put the drive motors in the wheels and the power source in the floor, we have complete freedom" to devise new shapes for the automobile, Moghadam said.

One of Moghadam's designs looks like an oversize Canon Digital Elf camera on wheels. It is a single-seat electric commuter car for a hypothetical shuttle service for Las Vegas hotels and casinos. It's a tall and narrow rectangle — no hood, no trunk — intended for short trips and easy parking.

There's "an impatience for change like never before. Everyone believes it is time for some major shifts in the way we think about cars."

Learning curves Not all changes are being dreamed up by students or designers whose diplomas still smell of fresh ink. The film industry that jump-started L.A.'s auto-design universe is still supplying juice, particularly in the automotive stylings of such futurists as Harald Belker.

Since 1994, Belker, a former Porsche and Mercedes-Benz design hot-shot, has been dreaming up cars, spaceships and other vehicles for feature films. His work includes the Batmobile roadster used in 1997's "Batman & Robin," as well as the cartoonish "The Cat in the Hat" cars used in that 2003 release.

But his most famous, and a car that epitomizes his dream for the future, was the curvy, magnetic-levitation "Minority Report" Lexus that won more raves than the 2002 film's star, Tom Cruise.

"In movie work, I can think 50 or 100 years ahead and change things to fit the script's demands," said Belker, 44, who devised an entire intelligent transportation system for the Spielberg movie.

Horsepower should take a back seat, he argues, to practical considerations such as making cars smaller so more can fit on the freeways, and more comfortable since we'll be spending so much time in them.

"They should have a lot of entertainment features," Belker said, "and safety features that keep you from being hit or from hitting other people."

As for style, Belker believes that while the mechanical, angular Gobot look has a place, the aerodynamic shapes that have influenced car designers since the dawn of the jet age will continue to hold sway.

"There will be room for cars like the Honda Element or Scion xB that are boxy and angular because we're always looking for something fresh and edgy," he said, "but sensuous curvature always carries through."



Front-seat drivers

Many Southern California auto design studios serve primarily as think tanks and don't focus on creating cars that ultimately will sit in people's driveways. But a number of notable production vehicles have been conceived in the L.A. region. Here are some key models, and the years they were introduced:


Toyota Celica 1976 Calty Design Research,

Newport Beach

Mitsubishi Mirage 1989 Mitsubishi Research and Design,


Mazda Miata 1990 Mazda Design North America,


Lexus SC400 1991 Calty Design Research

Honda Civic Coupe 1993 Honda R&D Americas,


Acura TL 1997 Honda R&D Americas

Plymouth Prowler 1997 Chrysler's Pacifica Advanced

Design Studio, Carlsbad

BMW 3-Series 1998 Designworks USA,

Thousand Oaks

VW New Beetle 1998 Volkswagen Design Center

California, Simi Valley (studio moved

to Santa Monica earlier this year)

Nissan Titan 2003 Nissan Design America, La Jolla

Ford Mustang 2005 Ford Design California, Valencia (studio moved to Irvine in 2005) Pontiac Solstice 2005 GM Advanced Design,

North Hollywood

Toyota FJ Cruiser 2006 Calty Design Research

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