SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Frank Saucedo is not afraid to say that General Motors is a styling underdog.
A couple of decades of conservative design have forfeited GM's styling leadership, he believes. As the new director of GM's soon-to-be-reopened California styling studio, Saucedo intends to change that.
'Our goal is to help GM see a new way with new types of vehicles and architectures,' he says.
The studio will reopen this spring with about 30 designers, illustrators and clay sculptors. Most of the talent will be recruited in Southern California, says Wayne Cherry, GM's vice president of design.
'We want to tap into the local skill sets, such as the entertainment and computer-animation industries,' Cherry says. 'You can't find those anywhere else but here.'
Cherry also says GM closed its old studio, in 1996, to concentrate on implementing its APEX system. It stands for Advanced Portfolio Exploration, a multistep process GM uses to spawn computer-generated 3-D concept vehicles.
NO STRANGER TO GM
Saucedo, 38, is no stranger to GM. He is a native of nearby Alhambra and a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He worked in GM's Newbury Park studio north of Los Angeles until its 1996 closing. He also worked in GM's European design studio in Russelsheim, Germany, where he put his fingerprints in the styling of the now-defunct Opel Tigra sports coupe.
During his last stint with GM in California, Saucedo says he had little hope of having an impact. The California studio's designs were rarely used, and its ideas often ignored. Saucedo's alternative design for the new Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup never made it off the paper.
From GM, he went to Volkswagen's Simi Valley, Calif., studio as chief designer. There he worked under Freeman Thomas (who is now at DaimlerChrysler), J Mays (who is now design chief at Ford Motor Co.), and VW design czar Hartmut Warkuss. The men share much of the credit for forging a new image for Volkswagen as a design leader.
The three years at Volkswagen apparently were life-changing for Saucedo. He often quotes his mentors there, such as Thomas: 'The last hand on a car should be a human being's, making it sing.'
Thomas persuaded Saucedo to buy a vintage Porsche 356. In addition to the Porsche, Saucedo's garage houses various Volkswagen group products. The Audi A6 he currently drives is a 'simple, pure statement with great proportions.' The Audi TT is 'the kind of risk GM is going to have to take.'
Saucedo acknowledges that taking such a risk may require GM to make its design culture more European. In Europe, he says, the companies set their design theme early in the program, then polish it until it's ready for production. The Porsche Boxster and Volkswagen Beetle were done that way. In North America, automakers study and debate various design themes until they eventually choose one, which is what more or less gets built.
No process is clearly better - Saucedo includes the current Chevrolet Corvette in his list of favorite cars - but the European process tends to produce more pure styling statements, he says.
This time Saucedo expects his tenure with GM to be different.
For one thing, the company has publicly stated a goal to make half of its future products innovative. Saucedo's studio is charged with developing some of the new vehicle architectures that will make it a reality. 'My goal is to be presenting a (concept) vehicle internally within a year,' he says.
For another, the location is new. Instead of an anonymous office building in a sleepy suburb, GM's new studio is in a remodeled bakery in hip North Hollywood. The building dates to 1947 and is being restored in the art deco style of the period.
'Think Raymond Loewy's train,' Saucedo says, recalling the famous designer's 1935 bullet-shaped locomotive. 'That says it all.'