Automotive designer Freeman Thomas saw a bit of himself in DaimlerChrysler.
He recognized the risk-taker in the German-American auto company.
So when top designers Tom Gale and John Herlitz came calling, he decided to listen.
'I very much believe in polarized design so that cars don't sort of fall into a gray zone,' Thomas said in an interview. 'I thought that's something that Chrysler was very successful at doing because they had designed cars for themselves. They were going against the grain. They were alternative thinkers. They were taking risks.'
So in July, Thomas, 41, jumped from Volkswagen AG where he was chief designer in VW's California studio, to DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich. He is vice president of advanced product design strategy, providing design direction for the Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep and Dodge brands.
Thomas was co-designer of the Concept 1, the precursor to Volkswagen's New Beetle, and was the key designer of Audi's flashy 2000 TT coupe. He has a TT model on his desk.
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Thomas said plenty of vehicles from the former Chrysler Corp. can be used as inspiration for a modern car or truck, much like the original Beetle inspired the Concept 1 at Volkswagen.
A concept of one such heritage vehicle will be unveiled in about a year, Thomas said. The Dodge Power Wagon concept truck, introduced in January at the Detroit auto show, is an example of a heritage-type product, he said.
'The Power Wagon is Americana,' Thomas said. 'It's an icon, and I feel that the taste and sensitivity in which that design was executed was an incredible balance between having respect for the heritage and history, but with a true vision for the future of that type of vehicle.' The concept is based on the rugged and simple 1946 Dodge Power Wagon.
Thomas said that a production model based on the Power Wagon concept truck is likely.
'We're not just going to let that fade away,' he said. 'That is a very powerful statement.'
Thomas said he is an 'alternative thinker,' but he fits in at DaimlerChrysler in other ways, too. Having previously worked for three German marques - Porsche, Volkswagen and Audi - Thomas speaks fluent German. He even lived in Stuttgart, Germany, DaimlerChrysler's other headquarters.
Thomas said he reached his goals at Porsche, Volkswagen and Audi - creating cars more German than the Germans could design. One of his strengths, he said, has been to create bridges between engineering, design and marketing.
Now he is defining the character of the Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep and Dodge brands.
'Part of my job, in strategizing the future product, is to define and polarize what the brands are about,' Thomas said. 'We're going to take all the brands and polarize, and look into what the strengths are going to be. I'm not afraid to make mistakes.'
Thomas will not have a direct hand in the design of Mercedes-Benz or Smart cars.
But the designers on both sides of the Atlantic must have respect for the two cultures, he said.
'I don't want a Chrysler to become a German product, and I don't want to see a Mercedes become an American product,' Thomas said. 'I want to see the cultural aspects of those companies become more focused, more polarized.'