The American automobile industry is in dire straits, with liabilities in many areas far greater than its heavily mortgaged assets. There are numerous reasons for this sad state of affairs, but central is that Detroit has been building less desirable vehicles than those made by foreign manufacturers. Cutting health costs, renegotiating labor contracts, selling off profitable finance divisions, or buying bits in China won't fix the situation, however important all those efforts may be. Detroit will stop its decline only when it resumes making cars that people really want.
To do that, both design and engineering must not just reach parity with the best of Europe and Asia, they must surpass them. And it's not impossible. The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu certainly looks better than the '08 Toyota Camry, although we don't know yet whether it will be as reliable and durable as America's best-selling car.
Crises are nothing new in the car business. But with recession an imminent possibility, people wonder about the very survival of Ford, Chrysler, and even General Motors. Having lived through a recession when I started my automotive design career, I thought it would be instructive to discuss the future with young designers whose position today is similar to what mine was a half-century ago. So, I spoke with some young design graduates working in their first automotive design jobs for American car companies (as I was in 1957), to compare their comments with my memories.
I began with a pair from GM, Robert Jablonski, 26, and Min Young Kang (Kang was coy about her age, citing feminine privilege). Both graduated from the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit two years ago and completed their first design together - the Hummer HX concept, which was unveiled at the Detroit show in January.
Kang, a South Korea native who was somewhat shy and reticent, says she was honored to participate in the design of the Hummer HX and that she thinks GM is the only car company with a truly cosmopolitan portfolio of products worldwide. But standing next to the Hummer he helped create, Jablonski opened up about his passion for design.
"The interior must fulfill what the exciting exterior promises," Jablonski says, noting that there is still a small stigma attached to interior design. Jablonski, who always had a penchant for drawing, couldn't decide if he wanted to be a fine arts painter or an art teacher, the only paths that seemed open to him. Luckily, a teacher in Rochester, Michigan, encouraged him to look at CCS, and as soon as he saw some of the transportation students' work at the school, he was hooked. "If it jumps out at me, I go for it," he says. "School was tough, but it was a lot easier than working at GM. Professional work is more restrictive, but the creative atmosphere is ten times greater."
The Hummer HX is the result of teamwork, something Kang and Jablonski - and their classmate David Rojas, a native of Peru - seem to take for granted. It's a sharp contrast to the lone-wolf individuality that was encouraged in the days of GM design chiefs Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. Back then, the only whole-vehicle design control was from the top; designers might not even be allowed to see the front end of a car for which they were sketching rears. Bosses did the integration by selecting disparate elements, and each designer jealously sought to impose his (there were no female designers) ideas.
Teamwork is in at Ford, too. I talked with three young women who worked together on the Lincoln MKT concept vehicle: Amy Kim, 26, and Joann Jung, 31, both from South Korea and both educated at the Art Center College of Design in California; and Jennifer Hewlett, 27, from Detroit. The latter two have been at Ford for five years, but Kim, an exterior and interior designer, has just two years' experience. Originally aspiring to be a painter, Kim thought the automotive work she saw in art school was glamorous, even if it took a lot of effort and teamwork. She chose automotive design because she liked "being able to make cool sketches" - not to mention her father was "into motorcycles," so she grew up around machines. "You can tell a story through a car, giving birth to a real personality," Kim says.