Cherry's legacy: Hits, misses and a battle with bureaucracy
Design vet weathered a period of corporate compromises, retired on a high note
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
That star-crossed crossover came out during Cherry's reign as vice president of GM's global design — and brought to GM a cacophony of ridicule not heard since Ford's Edsel disaster of the late 1950s. But Cherry also was the father of the elegant Cadillac Sixteen, one of the concept cars that helped revive the brand.
The current Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky and a trio of successful crossovers, the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook, also took shape when Cherry led GM's design team.
How the Aztek and the Sixteen arose from the same man illustrates the corporate obstacles that Cherry faced during his 12 years as GM's top designer. Following in the footsteps of such legends as Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, Cherry faced problems his predecessors never did.
In the 1990s, many of Cherry's designs were altered by corporate teams led by financial, marketing and manufacturing executives who didn't value the importance of good design. And Cherry was saddled with the time-consuming task of making GM global designers work together as one team.
Cherry's fortunes improved dramatically in 2001 when Bob Lutz was hired to oversee product development. Lutz gave Cherry and his team the political clout needed to create better designs.
Birth of the Aztek
Cherry, soft-spoken and now 71, with a bright smile that still shows a trace of youth, is not the kind of guy who's going to toot his horn about the vehicles in his career that were hits.
He's content to let his body of work speak for itself. His resume includes his years running GM design in Europe, where his designs for the Opel Corsa, Vectra and Calibra are highly regarded.
After returning to the United States, Cherry and his global team created 45 concept cars from 1998-2004. You get the feeling he's immensely proud of everything he did, Aztek included.
After good reviews of the 1999 Aztek concept, GM, to save money, decided to build the crossover on a minivan platform. That move ruined the looks of the show vehicle and eliminated several of the innovative features, such as the side door that opened upward, like a camper.
"From the concept to the production vehicle, there were a number of compromises made (to cut costs) that affected the vehicle visually, but not functionally," Cherry said in an interview. "And so the vehicle came into the market a very functional vehicle. But it is what I would refer to as proportionally challenged."
But an Aztek couldn't happen now, he believes. Cherry says the arrival of Lutz and his emphasis on design, combined with a new reporting structure that gave design a seat on GM's product strategy board, will prevent future Azteks.
"Wayne was hopelessly trapped by the system that (GM) put into place," says former GM designer Robert Cumberford, now design editor at Automobile magazine. "His reputation was trashed because of crap like Aztek. That wasn't fair, but that was the system."
Rebirth of Cadillac
Stewart Reed, chairman of the Transportation Design program at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, says that viewed as a whole, Cherry's portfolio ranks as one of the best in GM's history. "The cars he was responsible for in Europe were really great. And that equipped him very well to have a global view of design when he returned to North America." Reed also cites Cherry's new design language for Cadillac that debuted on the CTS as a major success.
If Cherry had to pick just one car he would want historians to associate with his name, it would be one that wasn't built: the Cadillac Sixteen.
In 2003, when GM was in dire need of good publicity and had to demonstrate that the company still was a leader in technology and design, the Cadillac Sixteen concept debuted at the Detroit auto show.
The 16-cylinder sedan — long and slender, and looking classically elegant and futuristic at the same time — blew the doors off every car in the show that year. Its acceptance confirmed Cadillac's bold new design language that helped revive the luxury brand. The Sixteen also set the stage for Cherry to retire from GM on a high note.
"I think we did the Sixteen just at the right time," says Cherry. "It said, 'OK, here's where Cadillac could go.' And who's to say it won't influence some more expensive Cadillacs along the way?"