By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
On a cold and rainy April afternoon, I am doing my best to tax the Hemi engine on the Chrysler 300C. Gas, downshift, brake, gas, brake. Virtually alone on the twisting Angeles Crest Highway, behind the wheel of a brand-new, fast-as-all-get-out American car, I feel like I’m in a television commercial. Or heaven. Or both. The best part, though, is that this car isn’t even out yet. I have been seeing and admiring concept and show models of the 300C for the past few years at auto shows and in magazines and now, today, I am driving one
I’m fortunate to have a job — which sometimes entails reviewing cars — that gets me this great weekend ride, but I’m certainly not the only one interested in it: Every time I pull into a parking lot, some car nut gives me a knowing look or bombards me with questions about the car. Even the average person in Southern California seems to know a hell of a lot about cars. Which is why much of the 300C was developed here. In the past few years, every major auto company that didn’t already have a studio here has opened one. Everyone, from Hyundai to Porsche, wants a piece of the California design pie.Foresee's maglev EV-powered Magnetic Levitation Vehicle
“We are here because it’s not just one industry in the region,” says Freeman Thomas, designer of both the Chrysler 300C and the Audi TT, and director of DaimlerChrysler’s Pacifica Advanced Product Design Center in Carlsbad. “It’s entertainment, it’s aerospace, it’s entrepreneurs. The region also has great weather. It all creates a fertile environment for design.”
Chuck Pelly, the auto-industry legend who in 1972 opened one of the first SoCal studios, says another factor is “the fact that the region has the largest cross-section of cars and the most visible owner input anywhere. Also, most designers would give up anything to work out here, so you have a better choice of talented designers.”
But isn’t Detroit — it’s nicknamed Motown for goodness’ sake — the automotive center of the U.S.?
“When we were setting up shop in the United States, we could have chosen between the Detroit area or Southern California,” says Dutch designer Cornelis Steenstra of Foresee Car Design in Canyon Lake. “That wasn’t a hard decision. Southern California not only features trendsetting influences from around the globe, but also over 20 outside studios from major OEs [original equipment manufacturers] around the globe, including the Big Three. And, when needed, one can travel to anywhere in the world within 10 to 20 hours from LAX.”
Most of the studios in Southern California also operate market-research departments alongside their cutting-edge design and engineering labs. It is in these underpublicized departments where most of the advanced design work in fact takes place. Taking cues from this market research, local aerospace technologies and the customized cars driven on the street today, the OEs lay out their plans for not only models 10 to 20 years in the future — and the glossy concept cars you see at all the auto shows — but also for next year’s decidedly less sexy grocery-getter.
Pelly says that the whole process has really advanced over the past 30 years, since he opened his studio, DesignworksUSA, which is now owned by BMW. “Everything is much more sophisticated with both consumers and designers. Customers now have more choices, and the younger age groups have a much bigger involvement with their cars. People now are very good judges of quality. The designers are also two generations ahead of where they were in the 1970s. Now, they are not so much pioneers as they are professionals.”
One only needs to compare the cars produced now to those produced in the 1970s to see that the future is not only here, in Southern California, it’s also well made.Foresee's Cars4Stars, a high-quality modern take on the Duesenberg
Art Center was the first school in the world to offer a degree in transportation design, beginning in the 1950s. Which is one reason why Art Center is the sui generis design school in the world, the other reason simply being the level of talent that has graduated from its intensive eight-semester course. Blue-chip alumni include Ford’s J Mays and BMW’s Chris Bangle and Adrian van Hooydonk, respectively responsible for the new Beetle and Thunderbird; BMW’s new 5 and 7 series, and the Z4; and several upcoming BMWs.
BMW DesignworksUSA, Newbury Park
Chief Designer: Adrian van Hooydonk
Originally founded in 1972 by famed designer Charles Pelly, DesignworksUSA has been wholly owned by BMW since 1995 and is headed now by Adrian van Hooydonk, an Art Center grad. BMW’s Z4, X5 and X3 models all originated here, but what separates this studio from the rest of the pack is its design work for outside companies: DesignworksUSA has consulted on such disparate projects as earthmoving equipment for John Deere and Source ski goggles for Scott USA.
DaimlerChrysler’s Pacifica Advanced Design Center, Carlsbad
Chief Designer: Freeman Thomas
The Chrysler Corporation was the first American OE to open a West Coast design facility, in 1983. Today, Pacifica operates within the larger company structure of Chrysler and Dodge, working on both production and concept cars. Formally chief designer of Audi and Volkswagen, Thomas brings a European sensibility to what was a staid domestic brand. Models originating here include the Chrysler Prowler, Dodge Sling Shot and Jeep Treo, as well as, of course, the aforementioned Chrysler 300C. Pacifica also teams with the design studios of sister companies Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi up the 405.
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