CULTURE SHOCK: GERMAN AUTO SCION BEGAN TOYOTA CAREER ON THE LINE

TOKYO, When Peter Hahn arrived in Japan a little over a year ago to take up duties as the first foreign designer ever hired by Toyota Motor Corp., he was assigned a dormitory bunk and a job on the line at the Takaoka plant.

Welcome to Toyota, gaijin. We make cars here.

The 31-year-old Hahn has since moved from assembly line to design studio, but he hasn't forgotten the lessons of that shock immersion into Toyota's culture.

What he learned, Hahn said in a recent interview, is that Toyota operates on a level of corporate intensity far beyond anything he had ever experienced.

'The speed with which they develop new cars is much, much faster here,' said Hahn, who joined Toyota from BMW AG's studio in Southern California.

'I'm amazed by it. From design start until rollout, they are capable of doing the whole thing in about two years.'

GERMAN HERITAGE

Hahn came to Toyota in October 1993, after spending two years at BMW/Designworks in Newbury Park, Calif.

He graduated from Art Center College of Design in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1991 after a two-year apprenticeship in industrial business at Mercedes-Benz AG and internships at Volkswagen design studios in Wolfsburg and Dusseldorf, Germany.

But his auto-industry background is far richer than his resume indicates.

His father, Carl Hahn, was chairman of Volkswagen AG from 1982 until 1992. His grandfather, also named Carl, was a senior executive of Auto Union GmbH, Audi AG's predecessor company, in the 1950s.

The young Hahn was born in Stamford, Conn., where his father was based while making VW a household word in America. But he grew up in Wolfsburg, the north German town that is both world headquarters and home to Volkswagen.

There, as part of Wolfsburg's First Family, the young Hahn was steeped in the lore of autos and in the ways of auto people such as Giorgetto Giugiaro, designer of the Golf I and a pal of his father.

He later had a front-row seat for the intense, often bruising drama that is Volkswagen design decision-making. Hahn's own design internship at VW, he admits, helped him decide to ply his trade elsewhere.

Hahn was brought in by Toyota to lend international perspective to the automaker's design direction, and he says he gives it to his bosses straight.

Like his opinion on Toyota's sedans: 'They all look alike.'

Or his take on Toyota's small cars: 'Kind of boring compared to cars in the middle class.'

In general, Hahn thinks Japanese automakers need to put more personality into their products, make them less 'static,' less 'uniform' - and more reflective of Japanese culture.

On the other hand, the young designer is wowed by the teamwork approach his Japanese cohorts bring to their work, and by their zeal.

STARTED ON THE LINE

As all new Toyota employees are obliged to do, Hahn put in three weeks on the assembly line at the Takaoka complex, building Corona subcompacts.

'The work was very tough compared to my experience at VW in the body shop,' he said. 'It's the speed of work. That's where they save the most money. Any worker in a German car company is far better off, I think.'

Today, at Toyota's advance studio in Tokyo (and ensconced in a more comfortable apartment in the city), Hahn's foreign perspective is much sought after.

'I'm an integrated member of the team, at least on paper,' he said. 'For them it's an experiment having me there as the first foreign employee in design. They ask my opinion about design because normally they wouldn't have the chance to ask someone like me.'

CARS NEED PERSONALITY

Hahn says Japanese stylists need to look inward and draw more from their own surroundings instead of being so relentlessly imitative.

'They have a lot of culture they haven't used,' he said.

'We always recognize Japanese cars, but we don't recognize them as being a Mitsubishi or a Mazda or whatever, and this is what we are working on, what we have to work on.'

Hahn said that's now changing, at least at Toyota.

'We are going to see cars in the future with more personality. Customers want to have something more interesting, especially in the small-car market,' he said.

Having grown up watching Golf I, II and III take shape, Hahn says he has developed a love of small cars.

'Most designers draw sports cars,' he said. 'But for me I like small cars, like Golf.'

In fact, Hahn tools around Tokyo in a Golf GTI.

He has a three-year contract with Toyota. After that, Hahn says, 'I'm open to everything.

'This wasn't my dream, coming to Japan,' he said.

'I could have had a nice time in Europe or America. But I think nowadays it is important to get this experience. It is something you can't buy.'

You can reach Richard Johnson at rjohnson@crain.com

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