California’s auto design centers earn nickname “Detroit West”

By Gary Gentile The Associated Press
Monday December 31, 2001

LOS ANGELES – Cars may be born in Detroit, but more and more these days they are conceived in California. 

Increasingly, models manufactured in the United States, Japan, Sweden, Germany and elsewhere are springing from drawing boards under the golden California sun. The proliferation has earned the state the nickname “Detroit West.” 

Ford, General Motors, BMW, Toyota, Honda, Daimler Chrysler, Porsche and other car companies all have major design centers here. 

They have spawned cars including the Toyota Celica and several Volvo and BMW models. New concepts, such as the Chevy Borrego car/truck introduced at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, came from design teams working in the state. 

Auto makers cite various reasons for maintaining design centers in Southern California, ranging from the quality of the light to inspiration drawn from California’s car culture to the state’s importance as a major auto market. 

In addition, many of the world’s top designers study at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, a major school for auto design. 

“The people in Southern California have always shown a tendency to accept new things, new ways of looking at things,” said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., an automotive marketing research and product consulting company. “A less risk averse consumer, great climate, a booming economy, great roads, access to talent — check all the boxes and this is a great place to be.” 

Frank Saucedo, director of design at General Motors’ Los Angeles Advanced Design Center, takes his staff to hot rod meets at the parking lot of the Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Toluca Lake to keep in touch with California’s rich car culture. He also visits furniture design centers in Los Angeles and soaks up new trends on the boardwalk in Santa Monica. 

“The environment the designers are working in every day is very important,” Saucedo said. “It’s going to feed into what people do. Designers absorb a certain amount daily from their environment and put it into their designs.” 

General Motors designers returned to California two years ago after leaving in 1996. Their new design center is located in an old bakery in an industrial-residential area of North Hollywood. Two turntables are being installed so designers can push cars outside to see how their work looks in natural light. 

“When the sun just goes down, you get a couple of hours of California pinks, reds and blues you can’t get anywhere else,” Saucedo said. “It’s just a great light to design by.” 

The Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center opened in Camarillo in 1986 and is responsible for radically altering the look of the Swedish car, rounding the traditionally boxy corners. 

The center designed all the current large Volvo cars on the market, as well as a car that will make its debut next month at the Detroit Auto Show. Other vehicles with California influence will appear at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens to the public later this week. 

BMW DesignworksUSA sits in a modern complex in an office park in Newbury Park, about 45 miles north of Los Angeles in Ventura County. Christopher Chapman, design director for the BMW Automotive Group, said the main contribution his design center makes is to give decision makers in Germany another way of thinking about car design. 

“Every company should have an outside viewpoint, something that’s going to give them a bigger, broader perspective,” Chapman said. “If you work at the mother ship, especially BMW, you can get really narrowly focused on what you’re doing. A lot of times there are holes that can be filled by satellite studios out there.” 

Chapman said it’s difficult to precisely trace the influence California has had on car design. 

“The mystery is best left a mystery,” he said. “You accept the idea that this is a great place. Be very grateful that it’s Dec. 18 and it’s 70 degrees outside and that’s the kind of stuff that can make people happy and do great work.” 

California continues to grow in importance as an auto design center. The Hyundai Group, which owns the Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp., recently broke ground on a new design center in Irvine. 

Earlier this year, Ford’s Premier Automotive Group opened its North American headquarters in Irvine. The complex includes a new design center for its Lincoln Mercury brands. 

Designers say they are most inspired by the diversity of the car market in California, the fact that Rolls Royces and Jaguars cruise side by side on freeway with 40-year-old Volkswagen Beetles and jacked-up pickup trucks. 

“You don’t hear ’why’ so much here,” Saucedo said. “You hear, ’why not? Let’s do that.”’