Go West, Young Designer : Here, Far From Japan and Detroit, the Major Auto Makers Have Opened Shop to Draft Cars of the Future

John Lamm is a free-lance automotive writer based in Orange County.

The car of the future may be taking shape at this moment in one of the international cradles of automotive design--Turin, Stuttgart, Tokyo, Torrance, Newbury Park.

Those last two names don't exactly resonate with automotive history, but they are among the communities where major auto makers have established design studios in recent years, in the process turning Southern California into a center of international automobile design.

Toyota started the trend in 1973 when it opened Calty Design Research Inc. in El Segundo, later moving it to Newport Beach. Subsequent arrivals have included Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Chrysler and General Motors--10 auto makers in all. Some results of their labors can already be seen on the road: The '84 Honda Civic fastback CRX and two-door hatchback, for example, were conceptualized at Honda Research of America Inc. in a Torrance industrial park.

The auto makers came because of the freedom to experiment and openness to change associated with California. Explains Don De La Rossa, executive director of Chrysler's Pacifica design center in Carlsbad: "There's a belief that Southern California is a trend-setting area. Evidence has it that many things--automobiles, fashions, musical trends, among others--begin here and work their way eastward."

What's more, the region's affluent, international nature leads to an unmatched mixture of automobiles--foreign and domestic, economical and luxurious. "Where else could you see a 1957 Chevrolet pass a Lamborghini Countach and not be surprised?" asks Doug Halbert, assistant chief designer for Honda Research of America.

The weather is another resource. There's a belief that the look of an automobile can be properly judged only in sunlight, and several studios have been constructed here to use the light to best advantage. In addition, the lack of rain and snow helps to preserve a wealth of various types of automobiles from past decades.

From Newbury Park to La Jolla, design staffs, which vary greatly in size but generally average about 20, are at work in nondescript buildings, many of them camouflaged in industrial parks. The studios are protected from incursions by outsiders; too much is invested in the secrets within.

The Chrysler Pacifica design center in Carlsbad is typical. Its white-walled, well-lit main studio, where designers work on full-size clay models, measures 37,000 square feet. Glass-walled offices are on one side of the main studio; on the other is a car turntable for 360-degree viewing.

New car proposals originate with an auto maker's home office. The design developed in Southern California is usually judged against parallel projects developed by other studios. Despite its competitive aspects, with egos and company politics coming into play, choosing the design is a process of consensus, not a power struggle. Says Stewart Reed, a designer at Toyota's Calty: "The feeling is one of being part of an international team--remembering that our ultimate competition is not each other, but other auto makers."

Most of the Southern California studios are concerned with cars that will be built in the 1990s. An exception is General Motors' Advanced Concept Center in Newbury Park. Explains director Henry Haga: "If it happens before the year 2000, we don't want to know about it." Haga and his designers and engineers are helping to define the automobiles GM will produce between 2000 and 2010. The fluid, almost globular designs they produce resemble nothing on the road today.

The Japanese and American studios may soon be joined by the Europeans, which would make the state the unquestioned worldwide center of automotive design. But some voices caution against the industry putting all of its aethestic eggs into one basket. Says Gerald Hirshberg, director of Nissan Design International: "It's certainly understandable why Southern California is so appealing, but being concentrated here might be a mistake. . . . The California outlook is refreshing now, but if we're all still here in 15 years, will it remain fresh? Perhaps we need a broader, and more diverse, geographic base for the design studios."

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