Top designers are as close as the auto industry comes to professional athletes who play for the highest bidder. This year, it's possible that a Japanese car will be styled by a Japanese designer in Japan. It's at least as likely that the car will be designed by a European working in a studio in California.
American J Mays worked his way through the ranks at Audi AG before being whisked away by Ford Motor Co. to be its vice president of design.
When Lincoln Mercury needed a new design chief, it went shopping in Great Britain and found Gerry McGovern at Rover. Freeman Thomas designed the Volkswagen New Beetle and Audi TT, then found a home as chief of concept development at DaimlerChrysler.
Automotive designers can be unconventional, egotistical, moody, difficult, even strange, or they can be strict in behavior. If there is a trait they share, it probably is an inclination to talk about the beauty, tradition and joy in automobiles. Almost invariably, successful designers love cars and their work.
Automotive designers are paid well, but it's probably not the sort of job you do for the money.
BEAUTY YOU USE
Dave Lyon, Buick's brand character design manager, thinks it's a great time to work in General Motors' studio at the Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.
Executives there are encouraging designers to take chances, and to Lyon's view, good design is all about taking chances.
Nothing drove that idea home as well as Lyon's five-month temporary assignment at the Bertone studio in Italy in 1996.
'At Bertone, we just picked the hottest sketch and went with it,' Lyon says. 'Their basic philosophy is that, if there's a big trend going on now and if you're drawing it, you're too late. It's not about failure. You either hit it and create something good, or you flop. There isn't much in between.
'In some ways it's a stretch to say that you can apply that thinking to Buick, but that's what we tried to do with LaCrosse. It was very much the opposite of what else there was in Detroit (at the North American International Auto Show), very contrary to what might be called hot right now.'
The key to Buick's LaCrosse concept is 'transformation.' Designed by Lyon, LaCrosse is a five-passenger sedan that transforms into a small pickup. With a voice command, the rear portion of its roof slides forward and exposes an open bed. And while LaCrosse may be modern in concept, its sweep-spear profile, vertical-bar grille and portholes clearly recall Buicks of the 1950s.
'At Buick, we want to be about comfort,' says Lyon. 'There are things we can do as designers that make that message clear. One look at a car can say as much as the best, most carefully crafted ad campaign. You can capture that comfort, that heritage, that Buick quality. The portholes, for example, might not work if this weren't a Buick.
'Everybody thinks a Jaguar is beautiful, but in certain respects you can't do a lot with it, except fall in love. LaCrosse is unique in that respect. It's beautiful and you can do something with it. This is our blueprint to make American-style luxury sedans relevant again. Not much has been done with the American luxury car lately.'
Growing up near Chicago, Lyon noticed that most cars built in the late 1970s didn't have the same emotional impact as those designed in previous decades, and he wondered why.
'When I was 12, I decided that paleontology was out, and car designing was in,' he says. 'In high school, my counselor kind of asked me, `Why do you want to be a designer? You'll never get to the top that way.' And I thought, `You don't get it. Designing cars is the top.' '
Lyon, 31, teaches at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, where he earned his design degree in 1990. To him, it's the logical place to spend time away from his studio.
'There are some wacky people in this business, but I'm probably not one of them,' he says. 'I get my thrills at work, so I'm a pretty boring guy outside of that. I'm not jumping out of airplanes.'
John Hull is tall and lean, with a goatee. He might be young - 27 - to craft Mitsubishi's big splash for the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but Hull jumped at the chance and created the SSE concept.
The SSE continues the geo-mechanical theme previewed by Mitsubishi's other recent concepts. It's intended to meld the comfort and driving dynamics of a sedan with the feeling of security often cited as a key component of the sport-utility's appeal. The SSE's cabin design, slab sides and blunt bumpers create a cocoon effect for those inside.
Like many in his generation, Hull is comfortable with computers. He has made a compact disc of music he composed and generated on his computer. He produced computer-generated animation that was used to introduce Mitsubishi's SSU sport-utility concept at the 1999 North American International Auto Show. Hull also understands the value of computers when it comes to designing cars. He has made computers his specialty in the craft.
'Computers shorten the process because they let you integrate everything you do completely,' he says. 'You have the dimensions of the package, the hard points, all the engineering constraints in the computer, and you can actually start building a 3-D car right over that, so you see any problems immediately.
'Even simple things are faster, like the hinges I designed for SSE. They allow the doors to open in a parallelogram arrangement. I've been told by older designers that there was a time when a whole group of people sat around drawing hinges like that.
'One of the challenges, and I think we'll see it in a lot of companies, is kind of a battle between the older generation of designers that doesn't use computers and the younger one that does.
'The older group definitely knows that the computer is the way to go, but it doesn't yet understand how to optimize it to see the whole design. There's a learning curve for the older people with computers almost as much as for the younger people learning the business.'
The trick, says Hull, is that the designer controls the computer, rather than the other way around. 'Otherwise, you get a design that looks like it was generated and modeled on a computer,' he says. 'It's still important to get the tactile feel of a real pencil on paper to get back toward real art.'
'Real art' is important to Hull's concept of design. That's why he attended the Pratt Institute in New York, which specializes in teaching the fine arts rather than automotive design. In his view, design should draw on diverse sources of inspiration. Hull finds it odd that two schools - the Center for Creative Studies and the Art Center College of Design, with campuses in Pasadena, California, and Vevey, Switzerland - produce the great majority of the world's automotive designers.
'Pratt made it more difficult for me to get a job,' he says. 'It taught me design, but it didn't teach me the intricacies that the automotive schools do - the drawing and the rendering.
'I had to spend two years after college developing those skills on my own, but I think it was worth it.
'Automotive design has always fascinated me. That's what I wanted to do and I figured I would get there one way or the other.'
The Lexus Sport Coupe was the star of the Tokyo Motor Show last fall. Gorgeous said some, with a European soul. Too much of a copy of other cars, said others.
The different viewpoints were probably as natural as differing tastes because few memorable automobiles fail to spark debate. Either way, the Lexus Coupe was a Japanese concept with immediate impact, previewing a production car that will follow in two years.
It might be coincidence that the man who created the Lexus Coupe is European. Sotiris Kovos was raised in Athens, the son of a municipal engineer, and earned a degree in sociology from Athens University. You hear the sociologist in Kovos as he describes his work, always focusing on the way people interact with objects and other people.
'Good designers are sensitive to translating the messages they get. I think we have quite similar images of what people want and need and do. The distinction is how we translate those images into a car. What comes out is something quite personal - a statement, just like a signature.'
Was it a compulsion to better understand how people behave, or to improve the products they use, that pushed Kovos to be become a designer? Not at all. It was the noise and dust of a world championship rally.
When Kovos was 14, a friend's father took him to the Acropolis Rally - one of the most demanding examples of the sport, during which drivers pound 450-horsepower sedans over rutted dirt trails through rugged Greek countryside, and spectators crowed inches from the race course.
'The beauty, the sounds, the color - it was all so impressive,' Kovos says. 'When we went home, I drew my first car. It was (rally driver) Michelle Mouton's black Audi Quattro. The passion I felt there didn't translate so much into driving. It translated into design.'
Now 34, Kovos left Greece after college and attended the Royal College of Art in England. He worked at Toyota's European Design Development (ED2) studio in Brussels when he designed the Lexus Coupe. Toyota's studios in Japan and Newport Beach, California, also created studies for the coupe. Kovos' design was chosen from the three.
While designing the coupe, Kovos and other Toyota designers spent time on France's Mediterranean coast, hoping to absorb the atmosphere of a place where the coupe's buyers are likely to spend time. It's probably not a coincidence that Toyota has since moved ED2 to the French Riviera, near Nice.
Kovos is pleased to be back in southern Europe. It's a great place to do what he likes best, and that doesn't mean lying on the beach or admiring the local scenery.
'To enjoy myself I drive a lot,' he says. 'I have a Lexus IS 200, and the roads along the sea and up into the mountains are very good. Sometimes I try to visualize a rally. It helps me relax quite a lot, and also to create.'
Henrik Fisker moved from his native Denmark to Switzerland for college. He was a member of the first graduating class at the Art Center's European campus in 1989 and has worked in BMW's studios since. Fisker is married with two children and a fondness for homes in quiet suburbs.
In other words, there's little about Fisker that's nonconformist. Except, perhaps, his need for speed.
'I think some designers want to give the impression, the look, that you have to be funky to design a good car,' he says. 'My weak point is that I like to drive too fast.
'We're all getting into this cocoon, overprotected. You can make all the games in the world where you are sitting in virtual reality, but you are never going to die. There's something about going around corners with screeching tires, and that little percentage of a chance that you could lose it, and you might die. I know it sounds horrible, but that's what really pumps the adrenaline. That's what keeps us so attached to cars.'
Conformist or not, Fisker can draw cars. He's responsible for the BMW Z8, and the Z8 is hot. The high-powered two-seat roadster inspires recollections of the 1950s yet moves both design and technology into the new millennium.
'I think it appeals because it's about driving, beauty and form,' Fisker says. 'These days, we're trying to put everything into the car and hook it up to the Internet. I don't want to hook up to the Internet when I'm driving.
'Is the car about the latest plastic materials that can be molded six different ways or how you can move the seat this way and that? Those things have a role, but they're not pure car enthusiasm. I think people recognize enthusiasm in the Z8.'
Fisker, 36, recently was named head of Designworks/USA, BMW's studio in Newbury Park, California.
'My wife doesn't like to hang out much with my colleagues because she thinks they are weird, and I think there's something to that,' he says. 'We're very egotistical people. But I think what we all have, what we all need, is the passion to do cars.'