Drivers Studied for Future Trends : Southern California--It’s the Auto Industry’s Lab

Times Staff Writer

It was the start of another beautiful day in Southern California. With the sun up and the top down, Mark Jordan headed north for Monterey one morning last August in a snub-nosed, cherry-red Miata.

Jordan knew the car intimately. For six years, he had worked as a key member of a team of Mazda workers who designed the two-seater convertible, a sports car that only two months into production was already being heralded as a design classic.

Now, as he drove on the Golden State Freeway, Jordan began to notice other motorists pointing at him, some silently mouthing “Miata” from behind their windows. The double-takes represented a payoff for Jordan, a stamp of approval from the very consumers whose attitudes and desires inspired the Miata’s creation--Southern Californians.

Southern California is the auto industry’s laboratory. In its vast think tank, motorists are studied like cells under a microscope, and car designers leave a lasting imprint--not only on cars like the Miata, but on styling effects as profound as modular auto body parts that shed like snakeskins and as mundane as plastic cup holders.


The Miata was designed mainly in Irvine. Crucial market research was conducted in a Pasadena auditorium. Road tests were run from Orange County to Santa Barbara. All to produce what auto designers call the California car.

“If there’s anything that fits the image of a California car, this is it,” Jordan said. “We wanted it to give a feeling of freedom, you know, taking the top down, getting out on the back roads, opening the throttle and letting go.”

In the last decade, American and Japanese auto makers have opened satellite design studios in anonymous industrial parks scattered from Thousand Oaks to San Diego. There are now 11 of them, employing a total of more than 60 auto designers who sketch, sculpt clay models of cars and tinker with computer mock-ups, hoping to find some untapped reserve of inspiration.

Similarly, American firms conduct more automotive market clinics and focus groups in Southern California than in any other section of the country. The Japanese bring their own peculiarly personal brand of research. Toting questionnaires and videotape cameras, they join motorists on shopping and camping trips, snoop after them as they drive, even move into their homes.


Last summer, Nissan dispatched Takashi Morimoto, a bespectacled intern from Tokyo headquarters, to a middle-class Costa Mesa neighborhood to unearth the “life style in a newly developed town” for a future car model.

There, Morimoto lived with an Orange County family, the Frenches, for a month and a half, observing, questioning and filling up pages of a notebook each night in his guest room. He accompanied the family on trips to shopping centers. He photographed their house from dozens of angles, then drove alone around the neighborhood, shooting every home on the block. This last activity was noticed a policeman, who pulled Morimoto over on suspicion of casing the homes for a robbery. Luckily, the Frenches were in that day.

The family found Morimoto to be a quiet guest, if somewhat curious. “He was very polite and all,” said 18-year-old Sheryl French. “He did follow us everywhere, though. Even when we worked in the garage, he would be there.”

Operatives like Morimoto come lured by the region’s image as a hotbed of inspiration. “This is the place where trends start,” said John Schinella, head designer at General Motors’ Advanced Concept Center in Thousand Oaks. “We’re here to pick up on them before someone else does.”

Said George Peterson, an automotive research consultant who has worked with American and Japanese firms: “They have to play here. Since just about everyone is designing and doing research in Southern California, anyone who doesn’t is going to have a hard time competing.”

Whether or not inspiration can be cultivated like a suntan, it is essential to good design, car people say. And good design is a strong selling tool. A “smiley” feeling from a car’s grill or a gentle contour to a roof, they insist, can be a subtle incentive to a buyer.

“You don’t see too many people out polishing their refrigerators,” said Ronald C. Hill, chairman of the Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena campus that trains many of the auto industry’s most accomplished stylists.

For students and veteran designers alike, Southern California’s inspiration comes in part from its inexhaustible variety of automobiles. When Mark Jordan came to Pasadena in 1974 as an Art Center student, he found the expected mix of Japanese compacts, American family cars and European luxury sedans. He was awed by the daily parade of “eyeball cars"--Lamborghinis, Citroens, Ferraris, obscure European models and flawless antiques dating back to the 1920s.


Tanned and taciturn--except when it comes to the subject of automobiles--Jordan, 35, is so steeped in the sounds and lineage of sports cars that he once convinced friends in a Monterey bar that, sight unseen, he could identify a Porsche by the burp of its muffler. When impressed by a car’s styling, Jordan uses a designer’s ultimate accolade: “Nice lines.”

As a student, Jordan frequented a Hollywood garage that serviced “tons of Ferraris.” He attended Porsche meets and cruised neighborhoods for exotic cars to photograph. Hundreds of snapshots now litter a corner of his Orange County home.

Stumped on a project, Jordan will drive for hours, “thinking about some hang-up. And then I’ll see something that triggers the solution.” In the Miata’s drawing-board days, he cruised in an old Triumph Spitfire to determine how the car should feel on the road.

Some studios try to artificially induce inspiration. At Nissan Design International’s San Diego site, design manager Gerald Hirshberg shepherds his staff on trips to the beach and art museums to “get their juices flowing"--eyeing cars along the way. GM’s John Schinella takes colleagues to observe parking valets at trendy restaurants to learn the latest pecking order among luxury models.

“Your antenna has to always be up,” said one designer. “The great ones in this business are obsessives.”

The craft pays well, but not overly so. Designers start in the $30,000 range and rarely--only if they become executives--make six figures. Art Center professor Andrew M. Ogden tells his students: “This is missionary work. If you’re in this for the money, leave.”

Sums Up Objectives

Mark Jordan’s mission, almost from the day he joined Mazda’s Irvine studio in 1983, was to find the perfect lines for a two-seat sports car. The plan was to build an economical convertible roadster like the British MG and Triumph, but one that did not break down as frequently as its high-strung prototypes. The risk was that the affordable sports car market, which once sold to 90,000 buyers annually, had been dormant nearly 20 years.


The idea came from Bob Hall, 36, a sardonic Mazda product planner who tapes movie-monster faces over his company identification badge. In previous jobs as auto journalist and radio show car expert, Hall sneered at cars he hated and got paid for it. It was a tougher sell to promote a car he loved.

The project was slow to win favor from Mazda’s Japanese executives. They worried about the shrunken sports car market and the steadily rising yen, which inflated the Miata’s projected sticker price from $8,800 to $13,800. Hall and Jordan worked on early sketches in their spare time, revising over lunch breaks and dinners.

Mazda had been among a wave of Japanese auto makers who had established design studios here by the early 1980s. The first was Toyota, which in 1973 opened a small shop in an unmarked building in El Segundo. Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Isuzu and Subaru followed. Even Volvo came from Sweden and pitched camp.

Designers Given Responsibility

Though most of their employees were Americans, the Japanese created satellites in the image of their own studios. In Southern California, as in Japan, designers were given more responsibility than their Detroit counterparts. Team collaboration was stressed. And, as in Tokyo, projects were given catchy phrases to sum up the essence of their goals. The Miata’s was: “Fun to drive.”

The phrases do not always translate well. Working on a luxury coupe for Honda, designer Andy Ogden was confused by the motto, “To take family friends to home.” He later learned that it came from his bosses’ fascination with the American habit of driving friends home after an evening out. “I guess they thought it was some great symbol of luxury,” Ogden said.

General Motors and Chrysler set up shop in 1983. The same year, Ford hired an independent design studio. They operate as outposts to monitor the Japanese and devise cars to compete with the imports.

“This is a vicious battleground,” said GM designer Schinella. “If the competition can grab this much of the market here, they’ll take the war East.”

Southern California’s studios are small compared to their home offices. Most are in direct computer link to Detroit and Tokyo. GM’s Thousand Oaks studio employs 40 people, including eight designers--a band of mice against the army of 900 designers in the company’s monolithic Detroit offices.

Influence Manifest

Despite their numbers, the studios have been influential. Nissan’s San Diego studio takes credit for the company’s hard-body pickup truck and the Pulsar NX, a vehicle with replaceable modular camper shells, hardtops and other parts. Mitsubishi’s shop worked on the Eclipse. Toyota styled its 1978 Celica here and Honda did likewise with its Civic three-door and Accord models.

Often, however, it is difficult to pin down precisely where new cars are created. Dozens of designers can work on any one project. Rivalries boil among each auto maker’s studios. Despite its early work on the Miata, Mazda’s Irvine shop did not have a clear path to its final design until it first competed with the Tokyo studio. Even in Irvine, Mark Jordan’s first sketch for the car--a low-slung body with a long, curving front and stubby hood--underwent extensive revision.

In September, 1984, the studio shipped a clay model of the car to Hiroshima. There it entered a design competition with two models from the Tokyo studio. All were striking facsimiles of real cars, with lustrous red paint over baked clay frames and interiors. The main battle was engaged over where the engine should be placed, with the Irvine staff fighting for a rear-engine design.

Jordan and company offered statistics showing that the greatest rise in American employment would come in Sun Belt states, led by California--the perfect market for convertible buyers.

Southland Model Wins

The Southern California version won, and the project moved out of the design studio and into the market research laboratory.

Few cars are launched into the American market without at least a token research foray in Southern California. J. D. Power market researcher Stephen C. Goodall estimates that 25% to 40% of all car clinics in the United States each year are held here--far surpassing other regions.

“There’s no other section of the country that has such a diverse population in such a concentrated area,” Goodall said. “You can find a microcosm of just about any group of drivers here.”

Southern California has been so thoroughly plowed by researchers that some test subjects have to be rejected as “poll-hardened,” quizzed repeatedly by other firms. So many showrooms have been booked simultaneously that polling groups sometimes collide.

The Japanese have developed their own methods, digging deep into the motives, tics and desires of American motorists.

“The important thing is to get inside people’s minds,” said Makato Tachikawa, Nissan’s director of product strategy. “Sometimes, they cannot say for themselves. So we are judges, carefully watching.”

Full-Time Pursuit

“Observational research,” as the Japanese call it, has become a full-time pursuit in Southern California. Nissan, like most Japanese auto firms, relies on the region for at least 60% of its U.S. research, Tachikawa estimated.

“California is most important to us,” he said. “We see them as setting the future for the rest of the country.”

Tachikawa sends out his research teams with orders to keep abreast of the subtlest changes in Southern California’s car culture. “Where do they live?” he orders his people to find out. “What are their tastes? What is in their refrigerator? What their hair style looks like, what kind of watch they have, how they watch TV--this tells us what kind of car we should make for them.”

The results have led to rounder exterior designs, ergonomically adjustable seats, even plastic cup holders--made standard in most new Toyotas after the firm’s researchers first noticed that Southern Californians stuck in highway traffic were always juggling coffee cups.

It was in Southern California that the Japanese learned about the peculiarly American taste in small trucks.

“In Japan a truck is simply a work horse to haul heavy loads,” said Nissan executive Gerald Hirshberg. “In California, it’s something else. Often the first set of wheels a kid can afford, it became a vehicle for self-expression, doctored, painted, modified, chopped and trimmed out. . . . The Japanese learned that in America the truck is used as a truck only 30% of the time.”

Powerful Expectations

But Nissan learned something else, Hirshberg said. “When we talked to people, we found they were absolutely certain they wanted their truck to be able to do anything a truck is supposed to do. It ought to be able to haul the house and all the furniture, even though 99% of time all it will carry is the groceries.”

No scrap of information is too insignificant. Nissan researchers quiz Orange County schoolteachers about the cars driven by their students’ parents. They camp at Big Bear to see how cars are used to haul mountain bicycles. They drive through UCLA’s parking lot to notice how students “use cars to make personal statements.”

One week, men from Nissan’s research lab can be found up on the Grapevine, wielding videotape cameras and electronic sensors to watch cars tow campers and rental cars up a steep grade. The next, like private investigators, they surreptitiously tail wealthy Mercedes drivers in Westwood, jotting down their every stop at boutiques and wine shops.

Even the region’s roads--from clotted highways to deserted, twisting mountain passes--are useful for research. In July and August, the highways to Death Valley are visited by huge trucks. There, in the blistering desert heat, mechanics unload experimental models soon to be in production. Disguised with scarred, old bodies, the cars roar off for brief, but crucial road tests.

Popular Test Runs

The San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Coast Highway are popular test runs. “You can’t go to a research presentation without hearing some guy talk about his tests,” said Leon Mandel, the publisher of Auto Week magazine. “It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal.”

The Miata won its seal here. After an important early track test in England, Mazda officials ordered the first prototype shipped to Los Angeles, then trucked up to Santa Barbara. There, in October, 1985, the car had its first open road test.

A top company official who drove the car branded the test a success. Bob Hall, who was on the scene, was not so sure. He had to plead with several reporters from an auto magazine, who happened to be eating at a nearby cafe when the Miata was unloaded, not to mention what they saw. And a Mazda engineer who started the car up was forced to aim it straight at a pesky photographer to keep him from snapping pictures of the still-secret model. The man dived into the bushes while the car sped off.

“If any photos or descriptions came out, the top guys would have killed it,” Hall said, explaining that premature circulation of a new design makes already skeptical auto executives recoil against a risky project like the Miata.

Automotive espionage is a constant worry. Design studios are protected from spies by mazes of doors and alarm systems. In a region where American and Japanese designers work within driving distance of each other, any precaution is worthwhile, car people say, as long as it leads to success.

Office doors at GM’s Advanced Concepts Center can only be opened by plastic card keys. At Honda, designers must pass through three separate locked security doors. Richard Hutting, who manages designs for Ford at his Concepts Center California, estimates that half his contract with the auto maker goes for “security measures.”

Spies were caught twice breaking onto the grounds at Nissan’s San Diego shop. Hirshberg said that two carloads of operatives from an American auto firm drove up to Nissan’s $5-million complex in late 1982 as it was being built. While one group stayed behind, the others ran into the building, carrying cameras. They were caught by the building’s architect.

Later, another group of spies, this time from a Japanese firm, were confronted as they took photographs from bushes outside the studio. Both cases were settled quietly. Hirshberg declined to identify the trespasser, citing “legal complications.”

Copters Hover Overhead

Helicopters bristling with cameras have hovered at times over the Nissan studio. Enraged one day by repeated flyovers by a television crew, Hirshberg strode outside and dropped his trousers in the spies’ direction. “At least I felt better,” he recalled.

A model of the Miata was protected in its final months before production by a giant shroud in the studio courtyard. Jordan, Hall and other Mazda designers wanted a viewing area, but feared photographs would leak to the press or rival companies. “When we wanted to use it, we’d have to tell everyone to clear the courtyard for the day,” Jordan said.

Spy photos did make the rounds, rival designers say, but by then, the car was too close to production.

In May, 1987, it was time to start lifting the shroud. More than 350 sports car drivers were invited to the Pasadena Center to react to the then-unnamed car in a research clinic. After a fiberglass model was wheeled into the auditorium, the drivers filed in. Hall and other Mazda officials peered from behind a one-way mirror as a moderator probed the drivers’ reactions.

“It was about the strongest response I’d ever seen for a car,” Hall recalled.

Quick Sales Response

The Miata made its debut on the market July 1. By late August, when Mark Jordan took his ride up the Golden State Freeway, about 5,800 Miatas had been sold. There were waiting lists, and reports that impatient consumers were offering as much as $35,000 for the $13,800 car.

At Mazda, plans were laid for producing Miata memorabilia and accessories as Jordan and others became confident they had created a California classic. The company started a Miata fan club--200 members joined at once--and rushed into print a Miata coffee table book.

As the Miata creators enjoyed their moment, other Southern California designers were hunched over drafting boards and convened behind one-way mirrors--pursuing their own vision of the automotive Holy Grail.

Some are further along than others. Earlier in September, the Art Center’s main hall in Pasadena displayed “California cars” sketched by 20 young contestants in a design competition sponsored by GM.

Manuel Wong, 26, cranked out 21 sketches for the contest. His sequential drawings tracked the progress of two muscular surfer boys as they drove to the beach in Wong’s surf buggy of the future--designed to accommodate boogie boards and equipped with a portable hair dryer.

The drawings provide a narrative. The first panel depicts Wong’s futuristic vehicle emerging one morning from a seaside garage. A caption reads: “The start of another beautiful day in California.” The boys cruise the beach, pick up a pair of car-crazy girls and make tracks back to their apartment, where one promises, “I make a mean pasta salad.”

Another conquest for the California car.