Toyota FT1: How Calty emerged as the West Coast design pioneer

How Calty emerged as the West Coast design pioneer

Calty's studio team poses with the FT-1 -- the culmination of every designer's dream job.
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Aside from being an indicator of Toyota's current design aesthetic, the FT-1 concept shows how far Calty Design Research has come in its 40 years of existence.

Before Toyota started designing vehicles in California, there was no such thing as "West Coast car design."

For nearly 25 years, through the early 1970s, the Art Center College of Design in nearby 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.

But when Toyota opened a design studio in 1973 in a leased warehouse adjacent to the Los Angeles airport, a new era of design was born.

Because Japanese automakers still weren't entirely welcome in America, secrecy at the studio was tight. The first designers didn't even have business cards, said Calty spokeswoman Joo Lee. "We couldn't tell people what we did. If a traveling salesman came in and wanted to know what Calty was, the receptionist was trained to say, 'We make Caltys,'" Lee said. "And if the guy was really persistent, the receptionist would just keep saying, 'You know, the Calty. Haven't you seen them around?'"

A hit with Celica

To get the creative juices flowing at its fledgling studio, Toyota headquarters handed design responsibility for the 1978 model year Celica sports coupe. The flashy result was a smash hit that changed many Americans' perception of Japanese cars as tinny econoboxes.

Calty moved its operations in 1978 to Newport Beach, in an area that was mostly ranch land. After the city grew around it, the studio is today nestled into a quiet residential enclave. Further hiding Calty's presence is the hulking Liberty Baptist Church and parking lot that blocks any view of the studio from the street.

The 85,000-square-foot studio's architecture is hardly Orange County sterile. Using several influences -- from Bauhaus to Frank Lloyd Wright to California Atomic Ranch -- the rectilinear lines of the building are attractive without screaming its presence. The front entrance bears an intriguing resemblance to the portal seen at most Toyota dealerships.

Inside the studio, narrow hallways are lined with numerous doors into windowless offices and conference rooms that reveal nothing about what is done inside -- until one door accidentally left ajar reveals the rear corner of a prototype clay model.

Studious silence

Even though several designers are often working together in one room, there is an aura of studious silence throughout the studio.

The display room of the studio is a high-ceilinged, echo-drenched arena the size of a basketball court, suitable for displaying a half-dozen cars at once. That room connects to a private outdoor display area so concepts can be wheeled easily between indoor and outdoor settings.

The turning point for the studio was the creation of the 1991 Lexus SC 400 coupe, called the Soarer in Japan, which paved the way for Calty to become a more frequent contributor to the designs of production vehicles.

At the same time, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s advanced product strategy group began using Calty as its in-house prototype studio, to create concepts specifically for the American market.

In this new era, Calty has escorted wacky concepts all the way to final production design, such as the FJ Cruiser and 2008 Scion xB.

A sign of Calty's acceptance within the larger Toyota design construct was the automaker's willingness to let the studio create the FT-1 sports car with little oversight from Japan.

Said Calty President Kevin Hunter, one of the studio's original hires from Art Center: "That we can do a car at this level … it took a long time to develop this skill."

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter


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