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The Capital of Car Design

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 College of Design, Pasadena

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.

Foresee Car Design, Canyon Lake

Chief Designer: Cornelis G. Steenstra

Having worked as a designer for Volvo, Mazda and Mercedes-Benz, Dutchman Cornelis Steenstra opened Foresee Car Design as a consultation company that works with all the major OEs, covering everything from initial sketches to final renderings. Foresee and other consultants provide valuable second opinions on in-house designs as well as new technologies to improve the design process, all without having to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process.

GM 5350 Industrial Concepts, North Hollywood

Chief Designer: Frank Saucedo

A major player in the industry and GM’s heart and soul in Southern California, 5350 pushes Detroit into radically different styles and concepts, to the benefit of both design and motor freaks alike. GM chairman Bob Lutz’s baby, the 2005 Pontiac Solstice, and the Chevy Borrego concept were born at this recently relaunched studio.

Honda Research and Development, Torrance

Chief Designer: David Marek

Honda now produces 80 percent of its vehicles in the USA or Canada, and in order to capture the zeitgeist of North American automobile design, a large portion of those vehicles are designed at Honda’s R&D lab in Torrance. Such perennial best-sellers as the Civic and Accord coupes and more upscale models such as the Acura CL TL and MDX were all products of this large studio. Futures in the works: the Honda SUT show car.

Nissan Design America, San Diego

President: Tom Semple

Like Honda, Nissan builds many of its vehicles in the USA, at plants in Smyrna, Tennessee; Canton, Mississippi; and here in San Diego. Founded in 1979, Nissan Design America (NDA) started off the ’80s with a line of best-selling pickup trucks. Since then, the Altima, Sentra and Quest as well as the Titan and the Armada Pathfinder have all been designed here. NDA employs more than 20 designers.

Performance West Group, Bonsall

Executive Vice President: Lawrence H. Weiner

Performance West Group is one of the many Southland companies that work on designing and constructing after-market show cars for the major OEs, meaning they trick out base production models with accouterments. Think Extreme Makeover. Occasionally, these show cars are turned into limited-edition vehicles, such as the 2004 Dodge Ram “Rumble Bee.” Other Performance West models include the 2004 Ford F-150 “Big Sky” and the 2003 Chrysler Pacifica Royal.

Porsche engineering Services Styling Studio,

Huntington Beach Director and Chief Designer: Roland Heller The Porsche studio is a fairly new player in the Southern California game, having opened in 1999. Like BMW’s DesignworksUSA, the studio blends a traditional Teutonic edge with California finesse as both an in-house corporate-style incubator and a consultant for other large transportation and industrial-design companies.

SO-CAL Speed Shop, Pomona

SO-CAL Speed Shop has been making some of the most awesome hot rods, belly-tankers and streamliners around since 1946. In more recent years, it moved into partnering with the OEs to provide custom show versions of production and concept models. Their Jimmy Shine Ford F-150 was a hit at this year’s SEMA show, and Chevrolet is now producing the retro-futuristic roadster pickup model the SSR, which SO- CAL helped engineer.

GM’S Frank Saucedo designed So-Cal Speed Shop’s Ecotex Lakester, based on So-Cal's original 1952 Belly Tank Lakester. It will race at the Goodwood Festival

Toyota’s Calty Design Research, Newport Beach

Opened in 1973, CALTY (for California Toyota) was one of the first big studios in Southern California. It functions as an incubator of forward-thinking industrial and automotive design for both Toyota and Lexus. Calty’s Irwin Lui designed the most talked-about new car model in 20 years, the first-generation Toyota Prius. Look for more hybrid models and concepts from Calty in the near future, such as the FJ-Cruiser concept vehicle below.

VW/Audi Design Center California, Simi Valley

Chief Designer: Derek Jenkins

Starting with the original 1994 J Mays–designed Concept 1, which became the New Beetle, Audi and VW have taken their design ethos in the last few years to another inspired level. Here, Derek Jenkins has designed a whole slew of interesting concepts, from the soon-to-be-slated Microbus to the off-road madness of the Dune and Concept T. Next year, the studio will move to more cosmopolitan digs in Santa Monica.