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Drivers Studied for Future Trends : Southern California--It's the Auto Industry's Lab

Car Culture: How Automobiles Shaped Southern California. Second in a series

October 02, 1989|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

It was the start of another beautiful day in Southern California. With the sun up and the top down, Mark Jordan headed north for Monterey one morning last August in a snub-nosed, cherry-red Miata.

Jordan knew the car intimately. For six years, he had worked as a key member of a team of Mazda workers who designed the two-seater convertible, a sports car that only two months into production was already being heralded as a design classic.

Now, as he drove on the Golden State Freeway, Jordan began to notice other motorists pointing at him, some silently mouthing "Miata" from behind their windows. The double-takes represented a payoff for Jordan, a stamp of approval from the very consumers whose attitudes and desires inspired the Miata's creation--Southern Californians.

Southern California is the auto industry's laboratory. In its vast think tank, motorists are studied like cells under a microscope, and car designers leave a lasting imprint--not only on cars like the Miata, but on styling effects as profound as modular auto body parts that shed like snakeskins and as mundane as plastic cup holders.

The Miata was designed mainly in Irvine. Crucial market research was conducted in a Pasadena auditorium. Road tests were run from Orange County to Santa Barbara. All to produce what auto designers call the California car.

"If there's anything that fits the image of a California car, this is it," Jordan said. "We wanted it to give a feeling of freedom, you know, taking the top down, getting out on the back roads, opening the throttle and letting go."

In the last decade, American and Japanese auto makers have opened satellite design studios in anonymous industrial parks scattered from Thousand Oaks to San Diego. There are now 11 of them, employing a total of more than 60 auto designers who sketch, sculpt clay models of cars and tinker with computer mock-ups, hoping to find some untapped reserve of inspiration.

Similarly, American firms conduct more automotive market clinics and focus groups in Southern California than in any other section of the country. The Japanese bring their own peculiarly personal brand of research. Toting questionnaires and videotape cameras, they join motorists on shopping and camping trips, snoop after them as they drive, even move into their homes.

Last summer, Nissan dispatched Takashi Morimoto, a bespectacled intern from Tokyo headquarters, to a middle-class Costa Mesa neighborhood to unearth the "life style in a newly developed town" for a future car model.

There, Morimoto lived with an Orange County family, the Frenches, for a month and a half, observing, questioning and filling up pages of a notebook each night in his guest room. He accompanied the family on trips to shopping centers. He photographed their house from dozens of angles, then drove alone around the neighborhood, shooting every home on the block. This last activity was noticed a policeman, who pulled Morimoto over on suspicion of casing the homes for a robbery. Luckily, the Frenches were in that day.

The family found Morimoto to be a quiet guest, if somewhat curious. "He was very polite and all," said 18-year-old Sheryl French. "He did follow us everywhere, though. Even when we worked in the garage, he would be there."

Operatives like Morimoto come lured by the region's image as a hotbed of inspiration. "This is the place where trends start," said John Schinella, head designer at General Motors' Advanced Concept Center in Thousand Oaks. "We're here to pick up on them before someone else does."

Said George Peterson, an automotive research consultant who has worked with American and Japanese firms: "They have to play here. Since just about everyone is designing and doing research in Southern California, anyone who doesn't is going to have a hard time competing."

Whether or not inspiration can be cultivated like a suntan, it is essential to good design, car people say. And good design is a strong selling tool. A "smiley" feeling from a car's grill or a gentle contour to a roof, they insist, can be a subtle incentive to a buyer.

"You don't see too many people out polishing their refrigerators," said Ronald C. Hill, chairman of the Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena campus that trains many of the auto industry's most accomplished stylists.

For students and veteran designers alike, Southern California's inspiration comes in part from its inexhaustible variety of automobiles. When Mark Jordan came to Pasadena in 1974 as an Art Center student, he found the expected mix of Japanese compacts, American family cars and European luxury sedans. He was awed by the daily parade of "eyeball cars"--Lamborghinis, Citroens, Ferraris, obscure European models and flawless antiques dating back to the 1920s.

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