Freeman Thomas is bombing down the express lane of the 405. As DaimlerChrysler's vice president of advanced product design strategy, you'd expect him to be driving a company car--a Chrysler sedan, say, or a Dodge pickup, or a Jeep Wrangler like the one he uses every day back home in Michigan. Instead, his once-a-month visit to the company's advanced design center in Carlsbad finds him in a generic rental car, and he's not happy about it. Not because the econobox is beneath him. Not because it makes horrible thrashing noises when he nails the accelerator. Not even because it reeks of air freshener. But because it's so, well, cheesy.
"It's not a bad car," he says. "It drives well. It's got decent power. The exterior's not offensive. But this interior . . . ." He looks exasperated. No, disappointed. He traces the top of the dashboard. "Look at this slope, like it's been melted by the sun. Look at all these different shapes! If they'd chosen one shape and repeated it, the interior would have looked a thousand times more disciplined. I don't mind that the sun visor doesn't have a clip. That's to save money. But all these different textures? That's not about cost. That's about somebody falling asleep at the wheel."
Two years ago, the high-energy, high-concept, high-profile Thomas was hired to change the direction of Chrysler's once-mighty design department and conceive a new generation of unconventional vehicles that would put the troubled company back in the black. Thomas, a Long Beach native and graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, was coming off a pair of stunning design triumphs. In 1994, he and J Mays--now the design chief at Ford--created the whimsical Concept One show car that morphed into Volkswagen's oh-so-cute, my-how-chic New Beetle. The next year, he almost single-handedly produced the slick Audi TT, embodying a cool, rational Bauhaus sensibility.
Thomas' fusion of sunny Southern California playfulness and austere European classicism has fueled a meteoric rise to industry celebrity. A little more than a decade ago, after a stint at Porsche, he was a self-employed designer making ends meet by teaching part time and contributing styling analyses to a fledgling car magazine. Today he's one of the world's hottest automotive designers at a time when designers have never enjoyed more prominence or influence. Now he hopes to use his position at Chrysler as a bully pulpit to promote a fresh approach to design that's as much about marketing and brand image as it is about styling.
"In other companies, designers are basically handed a package and told, 'Here. Put a pretty body on it,' " Thomas explains. "The way we do it, I'm responsible for creating the architecture. I work very closely with the advanced vehicle engineers. I work very closely with the production car studios. I work very closely with marketing. I work very closely with PR to come up with names and design the press packages, all the way down to the typography and the script for the videos. It all has to work together. At the end of the day, design is about communication."
Thomas oversees three advanced design studios, two in Michigan and the third in Carlsbad, creating products for the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. Although he still does some hands-on design work, he focuses mainly on the big picture. "He's an amazing ideas man," says Jeff Teague, who worked with him at the Volkswagen/Audi design studio in Simi Valley. "He loves playing ideas volleyball. But he's frustrating to play with because he always beats you. No matter how good your idea is, he always comes up with something better. He's a golden asset for Chrysler. He understands how to strengthen a brand by building on its heritage. I think he'll put new life into Jeep, for example, and make it an icon for generations to come."
Thomas is 44 years old, with a wife and a 10-year-old daughter, yet there's still something of the kid about him. Despite a few gray hairs, he has a pudgy face that gives him a vaguely cherubic quality. But his apparent youthfulness is more a function of his live-wire personality than his boyish looks. He's got pep, lots of it, and when he really gets going, he can be almost manic, the words flowing in such torrents that he occasionally stutters over them.
Nothing energizes Thomas more than cars. "Freeman's the most enthusiastic car guy I've ever met," says Dave Cole, another alum of the VW/Audi studio in Simi Valley. "He has gasoline for blood. He eats, drinks and sleeps cars. They're his life. I don't think I've ever met anybody who knows more about cars, who's more fanatical about them. His head is so full of information that he's a walking encyclopedia. When he gets started talking about cars, he just can't stop."