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GM’S REVOLUTION IN AUTO DESIGN

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Dave Holls, a ruddy-faced, General Motors design executive with slicked-back hair and a thick neck, does his best middle-aged imitation of a young boy in a candy shop. He peeks out of the double doors of the top-secret Cadillac styling studio, crooks his finger, smiles impishly and beckons a visitor into forbidden territory.

Inside--where outsiders are almost never allowed to venture--the air is thick with the smell of clay. Clay models are the stuff of dreams in the auto industry, and this room is where GM is dreaming of a brighter future.

Just past the doors, up on a raised platform in the expansive, flood-lit studio that recalls nothing so much as an artist’s loft, sits a full-scale prototype of the 1992 Cadillac Seville. It is the embodiment of a design revolution now under way at GM.

Rumors have been making the rounds in Detroit in recent months about the revolutionary design of this car--about how this car represents GM’s most complete break yet from the hidebound, look-alike designs that have plagued the world’s largest auto maker. The rumors are true.

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The long, sleekly sculpted body, in gun-metal stainless steel with advanced, wet-looking mica paint, shows hardly a trace of Cadillacs as we know them.

“I’m not supposed to be showing you that,” Holls sighs, but he continues the tour anyway. He styled Big Cadillacs as a young designer back in the 1950s, so this is like home for Dave Holls, now one of GM’s top design executives.

Across the hall, on yet another platform, sits the 1992 Cadillac Eldorado; again the subject of rumor and speculation. It’s far bigger than the current slow-selling model, with three inches more knee room planned for the rear seat. Much like the ’92 Seville, the Eldo has sharply edged linear styling. Longer, the Eldo returns the car nearly to the length of its long-lost rear-wheel-drive ancestor, phased out in the early 1980s by a fuel-conscious GM.

Neither car looks much like anything on the road today--they borrow nothing from the Ford Taurus aerodynamic look that now dominates so much of the world’s automotive design. And that’s just the way Holls likes it.

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“We don’t want to be bland,” insists Holls, who is quite mindful of just how much blandness has cost GM in the recent past.

“I look at the new Infinity and Lexus, (Japanese luxury cars) and I can’t see anything wrong with them, but I can’t find anything great about them either. They just have kind of bland designs. We don’t want to do that at GM.

“When you see a 1989 Cadillac with those big tail lights sticking out to there,” says Holls in a guttural bark, knifing his hands through the air for emphasis, “You’re going to say, ‘That’s a Cadillac.’ ”

“We can’t be bland, because we have five divisions and we have to make them look different. That’s our approach.”

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Change Seems Genuine

For GM, such thinking about design represents a revolution, a dramatic break from the disastrous sameness of the recent past. GM says it has had a bellyful of criticism about its cookie-cutter cars and is determined to make it easier for people to tell its car lines apart. The change seems genuine, and GM is taking the unprecedented step of throwing open its design studios to a few outsiders--without cameras--to prove the point.

The first signs of the revolution are visible now on the street, in smooth lines of the well-received Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, part of the company’s new “GM-10" line of intermediate-sized cars. While the GM-10 line suffers from poor interior design, its exterior styling marks a watershed in GM’s new drive to be different.

But the cars that represent GM’s real break with stodgy design have yet to be driven. Next fall, GM’s startlingly futuristic all-plastic mini-vans will hit the streets; with their broad use of flushed glass and low, car-like lines. These vans, to be sold by Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, should--along with similar offerings coming from the Japanese--redefine and shake up the mini-van market.

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Other cars still squirreled away in the design center, and shown only to a few outsiders, would help end the criticism of GM’s look-alike image. Among the most significant are thought to be the new Chevy Caprice, due in the spring of 1990, and two Buicks due in 1991, the Park Avenue with Jaguar looks and a longer Riviera. With these cars, along with the new Cadillacs, GM is clearly striving to differentiate its cars from each other.

But it has taken GM a long time to respond, and these cars still won’t be on the road for another year or more. In the meantime, GM must continue to muddle through with its current lineup, paying for the mistakes of the 1980s.

GM design officials now openly concede those mistakes, and recognize they have no choice but to change.

Forced to quickly downsize its fleet to meet mileage standards in the late 1970s and early 1980s, re-engineering cars to make them smaller became a much higher priority than exterior styling. In the end, GM shrank many of its longer models so badly that they lost their identity.

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Dozens of Bland Models

“We were longer, lower, wider--that was the secret (of GM’s success) going back to the 1930s, observes Chuck Jordan, design chief for all of GM. “If you want to boil it down, that was it. Then all of a sudden, after downsizing, we were shorter, higher, narrower.”

Stuck with dozens of bland, look-alike models that have turned off buyers, GM’s sales and market share have plunged throughout the mid- and late 1980s. Customers who were no longer able to tell the difference between Buicks and Cadillacs turned to distinctive Fords and imports instead.

Top GM designers, gathered here for lunch recently to talk about the problems of their recent past and their optimism about the future, recalled one dark moment when the look-alike problem really hit home with them.

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In 1983, Fortune Magazine ran a story on GM’s cookie-cutter image--complete with a cover photo of several GM sedans lined up side by side to show how difficult it was to tell them apart.

The article, designers said, struck a raw nerve; it forced GM management to deal with the problem.

"(The Fortune story) really yanked our tails,” says Stanley Wilen, director of design for GM’s Chevrolet-Pontiac and GM of Canada Group, as well as for its new Saturn division.

“It really got us upset; it became an infamous prod here. Not only we at design staff felt it, but then the corporation began feeling it. And all of a sudden that was one of the first objects of a program--get them different. And that was a blessing.”

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But such criticism has been just one of several key factors that have helped GM design launch its recovery.

With downsizing now behind it, GM is today able to focus more of its resources on a search for ways to manufacture slippery shapes and flushed glass components that its factories couldn’t previously handle. Instead of shrinking cars, GM designers now can focus on making them beautiful.

But more important, designers say, a new sense of freedom has been flowing in GM’s design center since the widely respected Jordan took over as GM’s chief of design from the methodical Irv Rybicki, who retired in 1986.

Sagging Morale Boosted

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Jordan has insisted on greater creative freedom for his designers, and has made sure they have the time and resources to express themselves. He has restructured the design operations in GM’s 36 studios to free up designers from many administrative and budgetary responsibilities. New business staffs have been set up to take on those chores, so the designers can spend more time doing what they do best--designing cars.

“The previous management was more budget oriented; that’s not my style,” Jordan says.

To buck up sagging morale when he took over, Jordan held a massive meeting with the entire design staff of 1,200 in a big auditorium on the grounds of GM’s Tech Center on his first day on the job.

“I said to them, ‘Hey, things are going to change,’ ” Jordan recalls. “They just needed freedom, and a directed vision, and a commitment to reaffirm the leadership in design of this place.”

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Surprisingly, designers also say that GM Chairman Roger Smith, heavily criticized in the press for GM’s look-alike woes, has in fact been pushing for more avant-garde styling in recent years. He has encouraged the new sense of creativity fostered by Jordan.

“Jordan has set tough standards, and we are turning out better stuff than we’ve ever done,” Wilen says. “But at the same time, I think the corporation has seen the wisdom of making business decisions based on the idea that individual designs are good for business and is putting the resources and people in place to make it happen. That’s different than it used to be.”

The design staff’s influence and autonomy has also been enhanced in recent years as a result of GM’s massive corporate reorganization, which began in 1984. The design staff was virtually the only part of the organization that was not turned inside out by the restructuring, which brought widespread chaos to the rest of GM.

The turmoil left the designers as the only people who hadn’t changed jobs; they thus knew more about ongoing programs than anyone else.

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Now the results of the new sense of freedom and creativity are parked all over the design center; prototype cars covered with tarps to keep out prying eyes line the corridors and sit atop pedestals in modeling studios. Only a few outsiders have seen them, yet these new designs have impressed observers, who see a total break with what GM now has on the road.

“I think they are going to give everybody a run for their money,” predicts Carl Olsen, former chief designer at Citroen and now director of the transportation design program at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, one of the world’s leading schools of automotive design.

“In styling and design, there is more talent under one roof at GM than anywhere else,” Olsen adds. “So when GM moves, the world trembles.”


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