Detriot - General Motors design chief Wayne Cherry still believes the eyes are what sells.
This old dealer saw means that no buyer's guide or invoice cheat sheet will compensate for dull or repetitive styling.
GM's past sins are well documented, Cherry thinks, especially when it came to making a Chevrolet look different from a Pontiac and a Buick distinguishable from a Cadillac.
His mission: Make sure that never happens again.
'Somewhere along the way we lost that connection to the customer by changing the styling in a way that diluted the brands,' he said. 'Today we're learning how much differentiation is appropriate to express our various brand identities.'
GM has compiled about 200 brand concepts, or ideas for distinguishing each brand stylistically, some of which will be tried in production. And Cherry has presided over an overhaul of GM's design center to ensure that these concepts translate well into the sheet metal.
Some of the concept vehicles to be unmasked at the 1999 North American International Auto Show are early glimpses of the first vehicles to bear the results. They include the Cadillac Evoq, a V-8 roadster rumored to be under serious consideration for production, and the Pontiac Aztek, which foreshadows the division's forthcoming sport wagon.
The concepts came out of the GM technical center in Warren, Mich., where a new design studio is taking shape to manage brand differentiation.
The Corporate Brand Character Center will have computer workstations arranged in clusters for impromptu team conferences and wall-sized virtual reality screens for examining full-scale computer images in three-dimensional renderings.
The center is really there to translate into fenders and instrument panels the information contained in small anterooms adjacent to each division's studio.
These rooms house abstract statues called speedforms, meant to convey essential styling characteristics out of each brand's past. The Cadillac speedform has sharp creases and swept winglets resembling tailfins. The Oldsmobile speedform has squared haunches and a blocky, grille-less nose.
The rooms also contain wall-sized posters of potential customers and their lifestyles, carpets and fabrics of varying colors and textures, and showcases filled with the kind of consumer products with which GM wants to align its brands. They include everything from yellow and purple bicycle helmets to miniature brushed-aluminum CD players.
Along with the speedforms, the showcases are placed by the front door to remind designers every day of their brand's styling goals.
The Pontiac studio looks like an outdoor equipment convention, crammed with in-line skates, snowmobiles and hiking gear. Many of the bright colors and handy features of these products can be found on the Aztek, the inside of which resembles an expensive backpack with polished aluminum details and numerous storage pockets.
'We're looking at other industries for inspiration,' says Pontiac chief designer Tom Peters. 'The equipment here are very serious pieces of gear, and that's how we want our customers to view the car.'
Cherry admits trendy products such as snowboards are no benchmark on which to base billion-dollar design investments, but they are signs that GM is opening up to new thinking.
'We're going to start taking some risks. We have enough models in our portfolio that we can do it safely.'