Creation of Calty launched new era of California car design
Photo credit: 1968 photo
For nearly 25 years, through the early 1970s, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena had churned out several generations of car designers, but their only destinations were Detroit, Japan or Europe. Some designers went freelance and got into the California hot rod scene, but no manufacturer had a design presence on the West Coast.
In a bold stroke, Toyota opened a design studio in 1973 in a leased warehouse adjacent to the Los Angeles airport. And a new era of design was born.
It was an Art Center teacher, Strother MacMinn, who helped Toyota envision and create the California studio. MacMinn, who died in 1998, has been referred to as the honorary father of Calty Design Research Inc. — and, as such, the father of the West Coast automotive design scene.
MacMinn had nurtured a long relationship with Toyota. Soon after Toyota started selling cars in the United States, it began sending designers from Nagoya to the Art Center for instruction. In 1964, MacMinn went to Japan to give Toyota designers hands-on training, recalls Hiroaki Ohba, who was part of MacMinn's Nagoya class and became the top Japanese executive at Calty from 1987 to 1992.
"Mr. MacMinn advised Toyota that its designers needed to live in the U.S., to understand American sensitivities and values firsthand, if Toyota wanted to expand in the United States," Ohba says.
Photo credit: Early 1990's photo
A TEAM EFFORT
Calty's early days were modest.
"It was one building, with maybe six designers and 25 total people," says Dave Hackett, who joined Calty's El Segundo office in 1978 and became studio director in the 1990s.
"Ford had 300 modelers and 100 designers. At Calty, we had to know more about the package and architecture of the cars because we only had a couple studio engineers," says Hackett, now 67 and a design consultant. "We could pick up a (sculpting) rake and the modelers didn't mind, whereas at Ford they had their own unionized clay modelers. Calty was more of a team effort."
Although Calty was created primarily to allow Toyota stylists to think conceptually, Toyota also gave it crucial production design work. Calty's first big project was the 1978 Celica sport coupe, which took Toyota design in a new direction and was a hit in the United States.
With the Celica's success, Toyota realized that Calty had outgrown its office-park setting. Calty moved south about 60 miles to tony Newport Beach, which at the time was mostly ranch land.
"I used to say that area was a live museum because you'd see lots of classic cars on the street every day," says Ohba, now senior managing director of supplier Hayashi Telempu Co.
"Newport Beach was the main venue for our creative training because we could observe how rich Americans live their lives, and we could observe their values. We also could see how cars would look against the vast background of the American landscape."
For most of its infancy, Calty's mission was to prompt creative thought back in hidebound Japan. By having a studio in California, Toyota could have it both ways. If the Calty concept was good, Japan executives could adopt it and praise themselves for having the foresight of having a California studio. If the design was too weird, they could just blame it on those wacky surfers in Newport Beach.
Even after the move south, Calty did not add much staff. Many Detroit designers did not want to leave the Midwest. Out of necessity, in 1982 Calty hired its first junior designers straight out of the Art Center: Kevin Hunter and Erwin Lui.
"The idea was to see how things worked out, to maybe keep just one of them," Hackett recalls.
Good thing Calty held on to both. Hunter is now the studio director; Lui has been the force behind several key Toyota vehicles, including the original Lexus SC 400 and Toyota Prius.
SEEING THE BIG PICTURE
Calty also provided vital communication to bridge the gap between Japanese and American design sensibilities.
"America is so large, so the American designers were good at making the big-picture, structural designs," Ohba says. "In contrast, the Japanese designers were good at having very close looks at materials, textures and very detailed fitting, and the accuracy of assembly. When these two sensitivities were combined, we could really make very good designs."
Another key difference was that Americans were better at explaining and presenting design concepts. Being more rooted in industrial design, the Japanese were not as well-suited to communicating their stylistic desires, Ohba says.
Hackett says Toyota also treated its designers with more respect than Detroit's automakers did.
"When I was with Ford, when the big guys like Iacocca would come through, they'd kick everybody out of the studio because they needed privacy," Hackett remembers. "But at Calty, the designers would always present the car to the Toyodas. They would ask questions about the car. That made us feel like we had some value."
Some of the studio bosses on assignment from Japan thrived in Calty's more open atmosphere. In the mid-1980s, Calty Vice President Katsushi Nosho created a secret splinter studio in the nearby artists' colony of Laguna Beach. There, a select few Calty designers and modelers learned about fine-art drawing and clay sculpture.
Although the idea was ridiculed at first, it led to the plaster-balloon experiments that created the shape of the stunning Lexus SC 400 coupe in 1991.
Recalls Ohba: "We placed wet plaster within a balloon, and shaped it around our arms, then stretched the balloons, and it looked somewhat like a car. Then we used the curve from that form to shape the car."
The SC 400, called the Soarer in Japan, paved the way for Calty to become a more frequent contributor to the designs of production vehicles. Soon afterward the studio was expanded from 28,000 to 83,000 square feet.
"Prior to the '90s, we were going to Japan once a year with an annual presentation. The information we were providing was mostly a mystery," Hunter says. "In the '90s we started working on a project basis, and there was more frequent communication on design parameters. There was a real acceleration of integrated activity with headquarters."
WORKING WITH THE SALES UNIT
At the same time, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. established its advanced product strategy group as an offshoot of the product planning department. The group used Calty as its in-house concept design studio, to create concepts specifically for the American market.
In this new era, Calty has taken ethereal concepts all the way to final production design, such as with the FJ Cruiser and 2008 Scion xB. Most of the time, Calty still has to compete against Toyota's Japanese and European studios. This can sometimes take a seemingly illogical turn — for example, when Japan and Europe penned competing ideas for the thoroughly American Tundra full-sized pickup.
Calty also has begun taking a more near-term approach to concept design, instead of creating flying cars for 2050, Hunter says.
"Lately our concept cars are very strategic, and we are maximizing our dollars spent pointing toward the future," he says. "We are working more with engineers on proportion and stance. We are not treating style just for style's sake, but getting the proportions right, and that deals with vehicle architecture," Hunter says.
Lui says Calty's changed mission in the 1990s removed the studio's sense of carte blanche.
"It's more specific now, not 'Go play in your sandbox,' " Lui says. "There are more conference calls, meetings and questions. We've become more focused, and that's a good thing. We have gained trust in (Japan's) eyes, and that hasn't always been an easy road."
Lui's route to Calty is a direct result of Japan's early trust in its California studio.
In 1978, Lui was a valet, parking cars for $1.65 an hour at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, waiting to hear back regarding his application to Art Center. He had no idea Calty even existed. One day a gleaming black Toyota Celica pulled up to the valet entrance, and Lui was smitten.
"I thought it was gorgeous, and I couldn't believe the interior," Lui says. "I had looked at Japanese cars as funny little things. That Celica pulled up, and it changed my perception of what Japanese cars could be."
Soon afterward Lui was accepted by the Art Center. MacMinn was his transportation design teacher, and the syllabus included showing the Celica's design process at Calty.
"I thought, 'This is where I want to work,'" Lui says.
Hackett says there never was any assurance that Calty would succeed.
"We were an experiment for Toyota. No one from Japan really was there. It was up to us if we were going to be successful or not," Hackett says. "There was an urgency to do well. We felt an obligation to take advantage of this opportunity."
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on