Restoring the glory at GM: How long will it take?

The drama is building as General Motors prepares to fill the biggest job in automotive design.

Design chief Wayne Cherry is slated to retire in September. When Vice Chairman Robert Lutz picks Cherry’s successor, it will mark a critical step in Lutz’s effort to spark a product renaissance.

At a corporation that has had fewer design leaders than chairmen, the choice could set a course for GM products for the next decade, if not longer. That, coupled with the sheer scale of the job, means that rumors are flying as onlookers advance theories about who has the inside track. The fact that GM has said it could search outside the company for Cherry’s successor has only made the guessing game more intriguing.

But such speculation misses a key point.

The prospects for better design at GM hinge on Lutz’s efforts to hack away at the automaker’s cautious corporate culture, design sources say. Unless Lutz can win for design more power over product, they say, GM will wind up with more forgettable sedans and disasters like the Pontiac Aztek, no matter who takes the job.

GM officials, including Lutz, will say little about the design job or leading candidates.

But Lutz addressed design’s role in his memo of “strongly held beliefs,” saying that when designers face rigid corporate criteria, “the ship sailing toward that dreaded destination, ‘Lackluster,’ has already left the dock.”

A former GM design executive put it more tersely, saying, “A designer is only as good as his client.”

‘Hit with a thud’

GM’s cautious ways as a “client” have hurt its cars the most. Its hot-selling light trucks don’t need fixing, designers say.

Steve Pasteiner, a former GM designer, said GM cars all too often “hit the market with a thud.” He cited the Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo as models that drew a lukewarm response when launched.

“They’re very good cars, but people buy them as utensils, utilitarian items,” said Pasteiner, who owns Advanced Automotive Technologies in Rochester Hills, Mich., a design and prototype company. “I think you could gain market share by making them attractive and keeping them as good as they are.”

The underlying problem has been a power shift that subordinated design to engineering, finance and marketing during Cherry’s tenure, industry sources say.

In part, GM corporate powers reacted against the tradition of larger-than-life personalities in the top design post — Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell and Chuck Jordan. Operating at times with a grand disdain for buttoned-down corporate attitudes, they pushed GM to the forefront of automotive design.

For instance, Pasteiner says Mitchell “was just a miserable administrator.”

“He couldn’t have cared less about being an administrator,” he said. “He just went around and made sure the cars had the elegance and arrogance that was required.”

But Ken Kiyouki Okuyama, chairman of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., says that by the time Cherry took over in 1992, design had alienated other departments.

“What Wayne had to do was fix all the bridges that Chuck Jordan burned,” Okuyama said. “Design in Wayne’s era had to collaborate closely with marketing and engineering.”

But cooperation pulled design into the orbit of market research, said Okuyama, himself a former GM designer. GM’s tendency to heavily research concepts for new models, then put proposed designs through consumer clinics, leaves little room for creative inspiration.

“I was in the middle of that. I went through that,” he said. “I think that’s a total waste of time.”

The rise of brand management only added to the problem, in the opinion of several designers interviewed. A design manager at a competing automaker says GM lost its way when brand managers’ demographics, psychographics and marketing theories won out over a designer’s feel for a brand.

“They have to go out and find out what the brand is,” the manager said. “The reason they lost the brand is that these people don’t live and breathe the car. They study the heck out of styling until you can’t get there from here.”

Design’s problems came from other trends, such as the cost pressures that force automakers to share platforms, powertrains and other components. In his memo, Lutz noted the factors impinging on design. That has raised hopes among among designers interviewed that he will be able to restore some of design’s stature.

Peer-level status

The former Chrysler Corp.’s design resurgence — under Lutz — offers some hints for GM’s future. Imre Molnar, dean of academic affairs at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, says that when Chrysler revived its styling in the early 1990s, design was put “at a peer level” with marketing and engineering.

Chrysler flattened its structure largely because of financial pressure, Molnar said. But the result was to free design from operating in an engineering-dominated environment.

“The whole engineering head space is very linear: One has to prove a concept before it’s valid,” Molnar said. “The two sets of aptitudinal skills don’t mesh very well. Designers rub engineers the wrong way.”

Carl Olsen, a former director of style at Automobiles Citroen, says GM’s decision to replace Mitchell with Irv Rybickiin 1977, represented an earlier attempt to reign in design. True, concerns about fuel economy limited the creativity of designers everywhere during that era. But during Rybicki’s tenure, GM also emphasized ease of manufacture over design, further contributing to a world of look-alike cars.

Olsen says GM should tolerate a certain level of chutzpah in its design leader.

“They’ve historically been most successful when they’ve had very difficult personalities in charge of design,” said Olsen, professor emeritus of auto design at the College for Creative Studies. “Bill Mitchell (vice president of styling from 1958 to 1977) was the epitome of that.”

New attitude?

Olsen also says GM already is loosening its attitude toward design, judging by recent work. He believes Cherry is likely to end his tenure on a high note. Such vehicles as the Chevrolet SSR pickup, Cadillac Vizon concept sport wagon and Buick Bengal roadster are evidence of design freedom, he said.

“I think Wayne suffered enormously because of the client, as it were,” Olsen said. “I have enormous respect for Wayne as a designer. He’s very, very good. I think it’s only very recently that he’s been given his head.”

Even if it gives design more autonomy, GM faces other problems. The retired design head of a rival automaker says GM has a tremendous asset in its longtime models, but its efforts to incorporate traditional design cues in a fresh way can be awkward.

The current versions of the Impala and Monte Carlo failed in that regard, he said. In those cars, GM seemed to reaching too far for a unique look. “There’s different and ugly, and different and aesthetically good,” the executive said. On those cars, “I got the impression that someone was trying awfully hard to be different, but that’s not the whole equation.”

On the other hand, Pasteiner said, tending to the needs of GM’s many models can dilute designers’ work. GM tends to load vehicles onto its platforms, he said, in part to satisfy dealers clamoring for product parity with other divisions.

The result, Pasteiner said, is that “you’re dividing your talent four different ways because you have to do four different vehicles on the same platform. You never get the ultimate of anything — you get one-quarter of everything.”

Lutz’s impact

Designers were uniformly optimistic about Lutz’s impact. Okuyama said Lutz is one of the rare top auto executives with an instinctive feel for design; he mentioned Volkswagen AG Chairman Ferdinand Piech and Fiat S.p.A. CEO Paolo Cantarella as others.

The retired competing design executive recalled that “Bob will sketch a car right there in a meeting and tell you what he likes.” Olsen said that during development of the Chrysler 300M, Lutz pushed designers to adopt the distinctive rear that ultimately went on the car.

“Lutz kept coming in the studio and asking why they didn’t put that on the car,” Olsen said.

If Lutz can fight the corporate battles for design and institutionalize greater respect for design, Cherry’s successor will have a good chance to excel, design sources say.

But Olsen qualifies that by saying the job will remain the toughest in automotive design.

“It’s certainly the cream job in the world and certainly the most difficult job,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should underestimate the problems that Wayne Cherry has had to live through in recent years.”

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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