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Selling Sizzle

Horsepower Doesn't Move Cars Anymore. Style Does. And That Shift Tells the Story of an Automotive Revolution.

September 14, 2003|Patrick J. Kiger | Patrick J. Kiger's last story for the magazine was about wretched excess in Southern California. He is the co-author, with Martin J. Smith, of "Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America" (HarperResource, March 2004).

Two years ago, newly installed General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz wanted an innovative two-seater sports car to dazzle visitors to the Detroit Auto Show. Lutz is not easily pleased; in a speech, he had derided some of GM's previous prototypes as "a whole family of angry kitchen appliances, demented toasters, furious bread machines and vengeful trash compactors." It was a particularly evocative way of saying that GM's cars were too dull. In a jaded postmodern marketplace where technological wonders were too common to be interesting, the hapless vehicles lacked what has become an absolutely essential quality, even for the humble kitchen gadgets to which Lutz had so unflatteringly compared them: Style.

Fortunately, across the country at GM's advanced design studio in North Hollywood, designer Franz Von Holzhausen already had a drawing. Von Holzhausen, in his mid-30s, has a soft-spoken manner that belies the iconoclastic, mind-stretching notions that emerge on his sketchpad. He was part of an automotive think-tank that GM had assembled in a converted bakery building just off Cahuenga Boulevard to shake up its staid styling. Von Holzhausen and his compadres found creative stimulation in Southern California's car-centric lifestyle and polyglot pop culture, from Venice's offbeat milieu to the outlandish custom street rods. One of their initial efforts had been the Chevrolet Borrego, a concept vehicle that was equal parts pickup truck, sports car and SUV, calculated to appeal to twentysomething consumers who liked both outdoor sports and fashion accessories to be Xtreme. One of the vehicle's most striking features was a pattern of squiggly lines, reportedly inspired by a map of Anza-Borrego State Park in San Diego County, that was painted in bright colors on the doors and rear and repeated on the grille.

To satisfy Lutz's yen for a similarly distinctive concept sports car, Von Holzhausen proposed a radical streamlining--or perhaps a dismantling--of the Pontiac look. His sports car retained the brand's signature twin grille but little else. Instead, the Solstice had a sleek, sweeping, low-slung silhouette, like some primordial sea creature. "There was some grumbling when we discarded all of the [Pontiac] styling cues, but we wanted to clean up the image," the designer explains. The Solstice had what Von Holzhausen describes as a "youth market feeling"--the sort of flamboyantly eye-catching style that might be found on one of the elegant French-made toasters marketed by Target. The discount store chain, like Ikea, Gap and other mass-market retailers, has discovered that when all else is equal, styling matters.

Skeptical? Look around you on the freeway. New cars are shape-shifting, morphing, sometimes startling. The computer-assisted design technologies that made possible the elegant fever dreams of Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry also have reduced the lead time and the financial risk of automotive design, freeing car makers to experiment. Concept cars once doomed to a life only on paper are actually being built and sold. The result is that today, perhaps more than ever in automotive history, the sizzle is more important than the steak.

"People don't care about horsepower and things like that anymore," says Ken Okuyama, a former designer for GM, Porsche and the Italian design firm Pininfarina who now heads the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "Basically, what they care about is using the car to enjoy their lives, where they can go in it with their friends, what sort of statement it makes about them. That's what design is about these days. You're not just building something to go on top of the chassis you get from the engineers. You've got to work with the design from the start, package the components, make the interior and exterior blend together, bring it all together to create a personality."

In today's brutally competitive car market, automobiles have become the equivalent of toasters--albeit, toasters with five-figure price tags. Consumers can choose from a numbing array of makes and models where price, gadgetry and other substantive differences have blurred and it's tough to tell one car from another, let alone decide which one to buy. Pleasant, symmetrical, unthreatening functionality doesn't cut it anymore, so Von Holzhausen and other car industry design virtuosos--many of whom are based in Southern California--must transform a quasi-commodity into a fashion statement. They're under pressure to come up with cars whose looks are not just distinctive, but edgy to the point of being startling. And with the car industry attempting to hitch a ride on the pop culture Zeitgeist, they've got to create those dream machines faster than ever.

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