Selling Sizzle

Patrick J. Kiger's last story for the magazine was about wretched excess in Southern California. He is the co-author, with Martin J. Smith, of "Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America" (HarperResource, March 2004).

Two years ago, newly installed General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz wanted an innovative two-seater sports car to dazzle visitors to the Detroit Auto Show. Lutz is not easily pleased; in a speech, he had derided some of GM's previous prototypes as "a whole family of angry kitchen appliances, demented toasters, furious bread machines and vengeful trash compactors." It was a particularly evocative way of saying that GM's cars were too dull. In a jaded postmodern marketplace where technological wonders were too common to be interesting, the hapless vehicles lacked what has become an absolutely essential quality, even for the humble kitchen gadgets to which Lutz had so unflatteringly compared them: Style.

Fortunately, across the country at GM's advanced design studio in North Hollywood, designer Franz Von Holzhausen already had a drawing. Von Holzhausen, in his mid-30s, has a soft-spoken manner that belies the iconoclastic, mind-stretching notions that emerge on his sketchpad. He was part of an automotive think-tank that GM had assembled in a converted bakery building just off Cahuenga Boulevard to shake up its staid styling. Von Holzhausen and his compadres found creative stimulation in Southern California's car-centric lifestyle and polyglot pop culture, from Venice's offbeat milieu to the outlandish custom street rods. One of their initial efforts had been the Chevrolet Borrego, a concept vehicle that was equal parts pickup truck, sports car and SUV, calculated to appeal to twentysomething consumers who liked both outdoor sports and fashion accessories to be Xtreme. One of the vehicle's most striking features was a pattern of squiggly lines, reportedly inspired by a map of Anza-Borrego State Park in San Diego County, that was painted in bright colors on the doors and rear and repeated on the grille.

To satisfy Lutz's yen for a similarly distinctive concept sports car, Von Holzhausen proposed a radical streamlining--or perhaps a dismantling--of the Pontiac look. His sports car retained the brand's signature twin grille but little else. Instead, the Solstice had a sleek, sweeping, low-slung silhouette, like some primordial sea creature. "There was some grumbling when we discarded all of the [Pontiac] styling cues, but we wanted to clean up the image," the designer explains. The Solstice had what Von Holzhausen describes as a "youth market feeling"--the sort of flamboyantly eye-catching style that might be found on one of the elegant French-made toasters marketed by Target. The discount store chain, like Ikea, Gap and other mass-market retailers, has discovered that when all else is equal, styling matters.

Skeptical? Look around you on the freeway. New cars are shape-shifting, morphing, sometimes startling. The computer-assisted design technologies that made possible the elegant fever dreams of Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry also have reduced the lead time and the financial risk of automotive design, freeing car makers to experiment. Concept cars once doomed to a life only on paper are actually being built and sold. The result is that today, perhaps more than ever in automotive history, the sizzle is more important than the steak.

"People don't care about horsepower and things like that anymore," says Ken Okuyama, a former designer for GM, Porsche and the Italian design firm Pininfarina who now heads the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "Basically, what they care about is using the car to enjoy their lives, where they can go in it with their friends, what sort of statement it makes about them. That's what design is about these days. You're not just building something to go on top of the chassis you get from the engineers. You've got to work with the design from the start, package the components, make the interior and exterior blend together, bring it all together to create a personality."

In today's brutally competitive car market, automobiles have become the equivalent of toasters--albeit, toasters with five-figure price tags. Consumers can choose from a numbing array of makes and models where price, gadgetry and other substantive differences have blurred and it's tough to tell one car from another, let alone decide which one to buy. Pleasant, symmetrical, unthreatening functionality doesn't cut it anymore, so Von Holzhausen and other car industry design virtuosos--many of whom are based in Southern California--must transform a quasi-commodity into a fashion statement. They're under pressure to come up with cars whose looks are not just distinctive, but edgy to the point of being startling. And with the car industry attempting to hitch a ride on the pop culture Zeitgeist, they've got to create those dream machines faster than ever.

Today's automotive artists are armed with high-powered tools that enable them to accomplish in weeks what once took months or years. They can use new materials, including plastics that can be molded into more daring shapes than sheet metal, advances in painting technology that can create a dazzling variety of hues and finishes, and new types of textiles for the interiors. They can ponder mind-numbing quantities of market research and, if they wish, consult exotic sources of wisdom (such as the Jungian theorist who has advised car makers on how to tap into the primitive parts of consumers' brains by crafting SUVs to resemble the physiques of powerful jungle beasts).

At the same time, though, they have to contend with corporate group-think and an industry still uneasy about risk--a rational inhibition, considering that the products cost billions of dollars to develop, and a bad guess or miscalculation can mean financial carnage. And they have to accept the possibility that those throngs of would-be car buyers descending on showrooms in Tallahassee and Des Moines will be repulsed rather than enthralled.

Style, of course, always has been an important tool for selling vehicles. In the late 19th century, even before the automobile was invented, American horse-buggy makers tantalized customers with side-view sketches of in-vogue European designs. The most legendary car designer of the 20th century, a native Angeleno named Harley Earl, got his start building chic customized limousines for silent film stars in Hollywood before General Motors recruited him to oversee the creation of several generations of panache-laden cars, including the tail-finned 1948 Cadillac. In the 1950s, to attract female customers, Chrysler experimented with the Dodge La Femme, a car adorned with "heather rose" upholstery and a gold nameplate--with a matching umbrella, purse and cape thrown in as accessories. In the 1970s, Detroit produced overblown silhouettes such as the 19-foot-long Oldsmobile Toronado and stubby Ford Pintos in Day-Glo hues that were no less outrageous than platform shoes and flyaway leisure suit lapels. In the 1980s, Euro-styled cars harmonized with the exacting tastes of suspender-clad yuppies.

But today, style is even more crucial. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, a designer's job was relatively simple," Okuyama says. "You had cars, sedans, minivans, pickups--very basic types." Today, to zoom in on discrete segments of the car-buying public, auto makers produce an almost befuddling number of brands, makes and hybrid types of vehicles. Manufactured to increasing precision by robots, they're jammed with sophisticated technology. And seemingly very different cars often include many of the same components. The strategy of building different cars from common platforms, which GM originated in the 1930s, has become so endemic that Nissan, for example, manufactures a sports car, three sedans and a wagon all sharing the same basic mechanical parts and engineering.

"Basically, these days, they're all good cars," says Chuck Pelly, founder of BMW's Designworks/USA studio in Newbury Park, Calif., who now runs his own design firm in Woodland Hills. "Performance is a common denominator. That's why the design has become so important."

Beyond that, today's car buyers, inundated with visual stimulation by cable TV and the Internet, have vastly different sensibilities. Gen-X and Gen-Y--the consumers who grew up from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s--have a "passion for design," according to Wes Brown, a partner in Nextrend, a Thousand Oaks-based trend forecasting firm. "It's almost an awakening of the average consumer, who suddenly is conscious of how everything is made, who wants some level of style and flair, even in basic products like toothbrushes," he says. The redesigned Volkswagen Beetle, created in the mid-1990s--not in Germany but at VW's Simi Valley design studio--is a prime example. "I think the single most important event in design in the past 10 years was the reintroduction of the Beetle," says Mark Dziersk, a prominent Chicago-based industrial designer. "Even if it isn't selling as well as it did originally, it totally revitalized the Volkswagen brand, bringing in consumers who ended up buying Golfs. The look really captivated people. I have friends who bought one for their daughter, and the only reason she parks it in the driveway is that she can't fit it in her room."

But as marketing experts note, consumers' fascination with style and design presents auto makers with daunting problems. "Fashion is very fickle," Brown says. "What's very cool may be totally out a year later. That's very scary for the car makers, because they're used to taking several years to turn around a new design, and changing the look of a vehicle is an expensive proposition. A minor styling touch-up of a car is probably going to cost $250 million, and a major overhaul at least twice that. And by the time you get done with all that, you don't know if it is going to sell any better than before."

For that reason, Brown explains, auto makers can't simply catch a ride on stylistic trends as they ripple through the pop culture, the way that, say, clothing manufacturers started churning out retro-styled sports jerseys the second that they noticed rappers wearing them. Instead, they have to figure out how to start the trends that influence everyone else. That's even more difficult, because it requires designers to get deep into the mind of the consumer and connect with the mysterious process by which the size, shape and color of a car are translated into feelings.

For designers, Southern California is a great place to conduct such explorations. "Cars don't rust here like they do other places, so every day when you drive to work, it's like being in a museum of automotive history," says Tom Matano, who headed the design department at Mazda until retiring last year. "You've got three generations of Camaros and Honda Civics out there, so you can think about the evolution of design trends." A designer can study the great cars of the recent past for inspiration--and, Matano notes with a laugh, "the eyesores, too. So if you design one of those, you're going to have to look at it forever and ask yourself, 'Did I do that?' "

The big three U.S. auto makers, as well as foreign-based car makers such as Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW and Mazda, all have studios in Southern California. Some ascribe the region's prominence as an automobile design center to how the nuances of a car body stand out more dramatically in sunshine, or to the locals' propensity for spotting and embracing the next hot trend. Some of that, of course, may be wishful thinking. Tom Moulson, a former Ford market research executive and now a Newport Beach-based consultant, thinks "all that stuff is perpetuated by the designers who want to live here instead of Detroit."

Okuyama, who has worked in both places, thinks working on the West Coast provides a better perspective than Detroit, where a designer is likely to be surrounded by industry employees driving American-made company cars. "It really affects your thinking," he says. "You start to forget the sort of everyday experience that ordinary people have with their cars--washing them in their driveways, and so on."

One example of that distortion, Okuyama suggests, is the critically panned Pontiac Aztek, a visual cacophony of sharp, bulky angles with side cladding in contrasting colors. When it debuted as a concept car in 1999, the sport vehicle's designer compared its look to the tautness of Clint Eastwood's musculature, a metaphor that was nearly as behind the curve as the car's painful attempt at evoking Gen-Y cool. "The proportions are all off--it's a compact [body] on a huge platform. All the details, all the edges, are very crude. That's a Michigan car," Okuyama says. "I can't imagine driving that car every day for four years, going to a wedding or funeral in it." Consumers apparently agree; a J.D. Power study in 2002 found that more than half the car shoppers who looked at Azteks decided against them because of the styling, compared to only 3% who rejected the VW Beetle because of its looks.

Whatever regional differences exist are probably becoming increasingly moot--at GM, for example, designers at sites in California, Michigan, Germany and Australia are linked via computer so that they can collaborate on projects.

No matter where designers are based, what really rocked their world was the advance of technological design tools. In the late 1920s, Harley Earl came up with the big innovation of using clay, rather than plaster or wood, to transfer paper sketches to a three-dimensional form. That method remained pretty much unchanged for the next half-century. To make matters more cumbersome, different parts of the car-creating operation worked separately; the designers would hand their stylistic vision over to the engineers, who'd then try to figure out how to get the mechanical parts and wiring to fit inside and work properly. As a result, designing a car was a process akin to creating a medieval cathedral. In his days at GM, Okuyama recalls working on a team that completed a major redesign of the Chevrolet Camaro, only to discover in the end that the engine no longer fit. "That was two years of work, gone," he says.

Today there's no longer time to putter. Companies strive to develop cars from concept to showroom in 24 months or less. And that amount of time might seem languorous to Von Holzhausen and his fellow designers in the GM North Hollywood studio, who work exclusively on the concept, or experimental, cars upon which future production models ultimately may be based. When they got the assignment to create the Solstice, they had just 15 weeks to produce a working car, in collaboration with GM designers and engineers in Michigan. They succeeded, partly because GM has spent close to $2 billion on breakthrough software in recent years, and its design studios are equipped with the caliber of gadgetry that Hollywood uses to create special-effects blockbusters. (No wonder that these days, the company's design ranks include not just graduates of automotive design and fine arts schools, but also former video game and film industry alums.)

Designers wearing special eyeglasses can create 3-D mock-ups of cars on screen, and then tinker endlessly with details and color, even plugging in mechanical components to check their fit. They can put animated versions of passengers and drivers behind the wheel, to see whether real consumers will be sufficiently comfortable. Better yet, they can even get inside or walk around a virtual model of the car. Meanwhile, technical information can be beamed to engineers in Detroit each day, so that powerful computers can crunch the numbers at night and then be used to adjust the design. Designers still use Earl's old standby, modeling clay--but if they choose, they can guide the milling process electronically.

They also have the advantage of being able to use materials that didn't exist a few years ago. Plastic car components, for example, have been around for decades--that infamous lemon of the mid-1980s, the Pontiac Fiero, featured plastic body panels--but the latest generation of cars is increasingly sophisticated. One recent innovation: Parts created by injecting plastic into a mold lined with a special colored plastic film, which gives them a sleek finish resembling multiple layers of paint on metal. "Not only do you save time in the manufacturing process, but you're also able to come up with different appearances," says Jim Kolb, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council. "A designer could give it a metallic paint finish, or even put polka dots on it." At the high end, Porsche recently unveiled the Carrera GT, with a chassis fashioned entirely from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, as strong as steel but 60% lighter. (At $500,000 apiece, it may be a while before you see one in a traffic jam on the 405.)

Technological advances make it possible to use color in new and daring ways as well. New paints allow designers to decorate their work in exotic polychromatic hues such as "martini grey"; for 2004, Ford is offering a Mustang Cobra with a paint job, developed by Du Pont, that shifts colors, from green to blue to purple to black, as the viewing angle changes. The Solstice prototype was outfitted with a windshield of Vanceva glass, which has a plastic inner layer that can be tinted yellow, green, orange and other colors to complement the color of a car's body.

Designers still have to figure out how to use all this technology to best effect, which means getting inside the mind of the potential car buyer. Starting in the late 1980s, car companies became intrigued--or perhaps obsessed--with consumer research, trying to predict what stylistic brainstorm would become the next Ford Taurus or Dodge Ram truck, and maybe even reshape a flawed design into a winner. They set up "car clinics" around the country, in which consumers were paid to look over full-size mock-ups of future cars and offer their reactions. (Later, companies switched to showing digital pictures of car shapes and sections.) Ford even designed two vehicles in its 2004 line to suit fictional middle-aged consumers, Kathy and Lewis, for whom its researchers and product developers had imagined vivid life stories. (She's a working mom who likes to mountain bike; he's a dad and a professional who likes the quality feel of imitation wood.)

But consumer studies can easily lead car makers to misleading conclusions because most consumers tend to be automotive followers, not fashionistas. "The only way to please most of the test audience is to show them a car that looks just like the one they bought two years ago," says former Ford market research executive Tom Moulson. "They're not going to like something that's odd and different until early adopters buy it and give it visibility and show them that it's OK. Then that becomes the fashion. Arnold Schwarzenegger gets a Hummer, and quickly it becomes acceptable instead of strange, and everybody wants one. So if they all like it today, it's not right for tomorrow. The reaction you really want is tension and polarity."

The trick is to be able to tell whether they hate that edgy new design because it's brilliantly innovative, or because it's a genuinely hideous miscalculation. It's not easy, and researchers are much better at weeding out the likely flops than they are at spotting the winners. "Great style doesn't come out of market research," says Jim Hosshek, a consultant for AutoPacific, a Santa Ana-based car industry research firm. "It comes from great design."

Designers deftly use symbolic language in their creations. "You can use the lines of the car to convey tension, like the way the muscles in your arm pop out when you grip something, [in a way] that creates the feeling of high performance," says former BMW design executive Pelly. If the desired audience is drawn to bigness and power, a designer can make an SUV seem particularly massive by putting flat rather than curved surfaces on the doors, and flare the metal around the wheel well to accentuate the tires. As an experiment, Pelly and his team once created a car design in which the driver could see his or her reflection from every angle while walking around the car. "The hood was shaped so that if a woman looked down into it, she looked thinner," he says. "There's so much you can do with shapes, and how they make you feel."

Designers also rely upon the artist's intuitive ability to see subtle patterns that others miss. When former Mazda design chief Matano tried to tailor vehicles for the U.S. market, for example, he had the inspiration of focusing not on the front, but the rear. "Japanese designers concentrate on the front, because in Japan, it's the custom to back into parking spaces and garages," says Matano, who is now the director of industrial design at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. "Also, they're a lot more inclined to be pedestrians, because it's too crowded to drive everywhere. So they see the front of cars all the time. In America, in contrast, when you get in your car, you see the rear first. And when you're driving, you spend most of the time staring at the rear of the car in front of you." The result was the Mazda Miata's gracefully rounded and detailed tail lamps, and a distinctive raised curve along the trunk.

Von Holzhausen seems to think with less calculation. The man who helped craft both the exterior and interior of the Solstice talks simply of persuading consumers to embrace his vision of style. "The biggest two purchases a person makes are a house and a car," he says. "That's always in the back of your mind. You'd like to have the rest of the world take something that you do, and have it as a part of their lives."

He may soon have that chance with the Solstice, which garnered rave reviews after its appearance on the car show circuit in 2002. This summer, word was circulating in the industry press that GM was looking for a plant where it eventually could put the car into production.

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A Century of Automotive Style

1900s--Many early cars are still based on horse-carriage designs, but auto bodies with longer, curved rear sections become popular after King Leopold II of Belgium has one built to accommodate his sizable posterior. The difficulty of fashioning such shapes from wood ultimately leads car makers to switch to sheet metal (though some continue to experiment with bodies made of papier-mache, plywood and even leather). Henry Ford unveils the Model T, highly practical but possibly the least stylish car ever created. The car's creator notes that buyers can get a Model T in any color they want "so long as it's black"--which the manufacturer preferred in part because black varnish dried fastest.

1910s--Fashionable motorists of means begin purchasing a Rolls-Royce chassis and then outfitting it with a custom-made body from a designer such as New York-based Brewster & Co., which offers thousands of different shades of paint so each customer's car can be distinctive.

1920s--Touring cars (large open vehicles with convertible fabric tops) gradually are supplanted in popularity by cars with closed cabs, such as the 1922 Essex. Du Pont develops Duco, a revolutionary liquid celluloid paint that can be sprayed on cars rather than applied with a brush. Californian Harley Earl founds General Motors' Art & Color Studio and pioneers the use of clay models. Earl's first masterpiece is the 1927 LaSalle, whose light, elegant European look revolutionizes American car styling.

1930s--The hottest trend is "streamlining," which both reduces wind resistance and looks rakishly modern. The technologically innovative 1934 Chrysler Airflow sports a curvilinear body designed with the help of a wind tunnel, but the auto-buying public doesn't care for the shape of its chrome nose and bug-eyed headlights. Henry Ford's far more aesthetically savvy son, Edsel, oversees creation of the Lincoln Zephyr, the first car with a horizontal grille. The even more radically futuristic style of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion prototype fits the Buck Rogers-Flash Gordon spirit of the age, but three-wheeled designs fail to catch on.

1940s--When car production resumes after World War II, the 1948 Cadillac, whose flamboyant tail fins were inspired by the P-38 fighter plane, emerges as a symbol of postwar America's consumer culture.

1950s--The Ford Thunderbird coupe becomes an American icon, but the company's Edsel, which sports an oval grille that some critics liken to a toilet seat, becomes possibly the biggest fiasco in automotive history. The cute insect-like silhouette and iconoclastic simplicity of the Volkswagen Beetle transcend its pre-World War II origins as the Nazi "people's car," and persuade Americans to like compact imports.

1960s--The TV series "Route 66" glamorizes the Corvette coupe. (Despite being unemployed, the pseudo-bohemian characters somehow managed to acquire a new 'Vette in each of the show's four seasons, thanks to Chevrolet's eagerness to get some primo product placement.) Then-Ford Wunderkind Lee Iacocca guesses that Americans will swoon over an inexpensive sports car with a back seat and introduces the Ford Mustang. By the mid-1960s, "muscle cars" such as the Dodge Charger sport hypertrophied bodies to match their massive engines. Meanwhile, California "kustomizers" such as George Barris chop and reshape Detroit's products and apply multiple layers of candy-colored lacquer to refashion them into what journalist Tom Wolfe dubs "American Baroque." One of Barris' masterpieces, the Batmobile, becomes a TV icon.

1970s--Even in an era that spawns astonishingly, breathtakingly hideous cars, American Motors Corp.'s Pacer--reportedly sketched by an executive on an airline sickness bag--stands out as one of the worst automotive designs ever created. The length of a compact car but as wide as a Cadillac, the Pacer features windows so big they can't be completely rolled down.

1980s--The successful 1986 Ford Taurus, based on the Merkur Scorpio that the company produced for the German market, makes rounded Euro-styling the vogue in Detroit. John Z. DeLorean, the former GM design guru turned independent car maker, produces the DMC-12, whose trademark is its startlingly angular stainless-steel body. The car flops commercially, but is immortalized as the time-travel vehicle in the 1985 film "Back to the Future."

1990s--Bulked, chrome-laden sport-utility vehicles cater to that fin de siecle craving to ride high above the freeways, serenely powerful in one's solipsistic isolation. The boxy Ford Bronco surges in popularity after murder suspect O.J. Simpson provides free publicity during a nationally televised police pursuit.

2000s--In the scary postmodern world, it's alluring to fantasize about living in a future as wonderful as car designers of the 1930s and 1940s imagined it might be. No wonder the "retro" styling of vehicles such as Chrysler's PT Cruiser is a hit. Expect to see a slew of cars that evoke Detroit classics.

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