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Adding sizzle to sedate cars

Forget the sexy supercars. Today's top designers are working on rejuvenating big automakers' tired mass-market lines.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Until last February, Frank Stephenson was living a car designer's dream. After designing BMW's Mini Cooper in 2001, he had landed a cushy job with the Fiat Group shaping its Ferraris and Maseratis. He wasn't under pressure to keep the sticker price low or water down his designs to give them mass-market appeal. He simply designed for speed and beauty — "a playground," as he called it, for an elite designer.

So it's not surprising that when he was offered the job heading up design for the company's Fiat division, his first response was to ask why he was being punished. Never mind champagne or visions of a spacious office.

As it turned out, what looked to be a lemon of a job was actually a plum. And not just for Stephenson. These days, a cadre of big industry names are part of a new frontier in car design. Their task doesn't involve making pricey cars bigger, sleeker, or more luxurious. Instead, their mission is to use design to revive tired old brands. What these jobs lack in sexiness, they make up in clout. Designers who accept the challenge are being given autonomy and, increasingly, the CEO's ear.

Rolling refrigerators
Consider Nissan's Shiro Nakamura. Since being hired by hard-charging CEO Carlos Ghosn in 1999, Nakamura has revamped the design strategy of all Nissan's lines, releasing 28 concept cars and 29 production models, including the successful Nissan 350Z and Infiniti FX. "They're not producing me-too cars that blend in," says Dan Gorrell, vice-president for consulting firm Strategic Vision, which studies the auto industry.

That's in sharp contrast to the past few decades, when the roads were cluttered with boxy lookalikes, save for a racing stripe here or a rear spoiler there. BMW Director of Group Design Chris Bangle refers to it as "the Refrigerator Epoch" of car design.

Stephenson, Nakamura, and Bangle have taken the design road less traveled. And for that — along with past triumphs — they were honored at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, one of the world's largest schools for car designers (see the slide show of these designers and their auto creations). The school, which turns 75 this year, held its annual Car Classic exhibition on July 17 (see the slide show of the Classic winners).

New freedom
The night before the show, the three addressed students and donors, sharing the ups and downs of their careers and pinpointing where the design opportunities lie. They agree it's not in designing niche "supercars" for the wealthy, but in navigating the big auto makers and revitalizing many of their flailing, mass-market brands.

They say these critical design jobs come with a surprising amount of creative freedom. Sure, Nakamura has had a few frustrations getting the business side of the house to sign off on some designs — like the almost cartoonish Nissan Cube — but these instances have been rare. Only a handful of execs have veto power, and Nakamura clearly has Ghosn's ear. "He never asks me to change [anything]," Nakamura says.

Nakamura is also the first designer to help shape Nissan's overall brand strategy and sit in on conference calls with investors. Since 1999, Nissan's revenues have risen 30 percent in what's considered one of the auto industry's most impressive turnarounds.

Motown makeover
That's not to say these jobs are always easy. Stephenson says changing Fiat's ways has been like "turning an oil tanker." You really have to work to sell Fiats, he says, unlike Ferraris, which "are sold before they're drawn." Still, he draws a distinction between now and his first frustrating job at Ford Motor, where designs were routinely watered down to appeal to the masses. "I think companies have realized this [strong design] is what's required," Strategic Vision's Gorrell says.

Design fever may be catching on in Detroit, too: General Motors Vice-Chairman Robert Lutz was hired in 2001 to spruce up GM's style. The auto world will see if the move paid off when his designs hit showrooms this fall.

This is all welcome news for budding car designers. At a time when the industry is under pressure to cut costs, money is being spared for talented designers who can break out of the mold. But it also requires a new type of designer — one with business savvy.

Luxury lines
"[Students] need to learn skill sets so they're able to be more conversant, negotiate better, be involved in business or planning," says Stewart Reed, chair of the Art Center's transportation-design program, which helps roughly 60 percent of its 30 auto design graduates find jobs in the industry each year. "It's the only way you can do an inspired design and carry it through to completion, and it's harder with huge teams."

Not all of the Art Center's students dream of designing the next Fiat — particularly those who look up to an old-school industry rock star like Gordon Murray. He cut his teeth designing race cars in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, he crafted a car that makes auto enthusiasts pant: The McLaren F1 Supercar. Jay Leno, who came to the Art Center's event because Murray was speaking, said driving the F1 was like making love to an aerobics instructor.

Trouble is, only those with bank accounts like Leno's could afford it. Only 64 were made, and they carried a price tag of more than $1 million each. The wiper blade alone costs $1,500 to replace.

Murray had a brief foray into the corporate world when McLaren partnered with Mercedes to develop the Mercedes SLP McLaren (Mercedes' parent company, DaimlerChrysler, owns 40 percent of McLaren.) That was enough, he says. "I won't even get into the arguments and stand-up fights," he told the audience. "I decided there and then I don't want to work that way again." He quit and started his own company, working again on very high-end, limited-edition cars with uncompromising design.

But disappointing as it may be for the likes of Leno, designers like Murray are a dying breed. Even Murray noted his career has been pretty unique, saying he might not be the ideal person to advise students entering today's corporate-dominated design world. The next generation's design stars will be the ones who can hold their own both at the drawing board and in the board room.