When you step into Trevor Creed's office in Auburn Hills, Michigan, it is hard to ignore a huge, mural-sized photo of the Chrysler 300 Hemi C on his wall. It is a dramatic aerial photo of a convertible that looks as big as an aircraft carrier.
The Hemi - unveiled at the 1998 Detroit auto show - is about as American a car as anything the former Chrysler Corp. had ever done. As such, it offers an interesting message to outsiders: `The company that created this car is still around, and it's still American.'
The messenger - Trevor Creed - is an Englishman by birth. But that seems an irrelevant quibble about the new chief designer of DaimlerChrysler's American opeation. Creed worked alongside the legendary Tom Gale for the past 15 years, playing a central role in that company's remarkable resurgence.
Now the 55-year-old executive must demonstrate that Chrysler has not lost its identity. At a time when DaimlerChrysler is closing six assembly plants and eliminating 26,000 jobs, in North and South America, Creed has the difficult task of generating excitement over future products.
If the Detroit auto show in January is any indication, he has passed his first test. The Chrysler Crossfire sport coupe evoked comparisons with the Audi TT, while the Jeep Willys was an intriguing throwback to World War II-era Jeeps. Despite Chrysler's uncertain future, Creed appears determined to preserve the creative spark that Gale fostered. Here are edited excerpts of his wide-ranging interview with Editor David Sedgwick.
The Jeep Willys looks like a plausible replacement for the Wrangler. Will it go into production?
We'll keep Wrangler going as long as we can. The Wrangler has a following, an audience that says, `Don't ever change it.' I can see the Willys slotted into the bottom of the Jeep lineup. That's where I would love to see it - underneath the Wrangler and lower in price.
Given all of the cost-cutting, is there still room at Chrysler for a niche vehicle such as the Crossfire?
Yes. I'm not saying we'll do it. But Wolfgang (Bernhard) and Dieter (Zetsche) have said that we will not cut back on product. Everybody realizes that you don't make money on niche vehicles like the Viper or Prowler. But it would be the worst thing in the world to stop something like that. So we've got a new Viper. We are not going to renew the Prowler, because you can't do anything new with it. We are looking to put something in there, but I don't know what it will be.
What caught your eye at the Detroit auto show?
I really enjoyed the Volkswagen Microbus. I loved the design, the demonstrations and the display. I thought the Audi Steppenwolf was very interesting.
Chrysler has been successful with such retro vehicles as the Viper, Prowler and PT Cruiser. Is retro a passing fad, or will it endure?
It's something the industry will come back to again and again. We've discovered our roots and our heritage. I used to go to these classic car shows, and I would wander around, looking at the old cars with humongous wheels and fenders from the 1920s and 1930s, or stuff from the 1950s and 1960s. They were so expressive. They were so fantastic.
In the past decade, Chrysler prospered with the cab-forward car design. Can you keep working with that, or will it grow stale?
It has its place. It's tied pretty much to front-wheel drive. When you have rear-wheel drive, it's cab backwards, boys!
Aside from retro-look vehicles, what design trend comes next for DaimlerChrysler?
We know where we are going with our next generation of large cars. They will be different, with dramatic proportions, and you are going to swallow hard when you first see them. They'll make everything else look old-fashioned. For our next generation of small cars, we are looking at a wide variety of things. You've got to be ultra space efficient, so the closer you get people together, the better. And the taller the car can be, the better.
Your next-generation small car will be smaller than the PT Cruiser, right?
That's right. We need a fuel-efficient car with an engine smaller than two liters. We would need a lightweight platform with a continously variable transmission. We would look to Mitsubishi to share a platform. We would do the styling.
Now that DaimlerChrysler is cutting costs, have you eliminated jobs in your design studio?
We have a hiring freeze right now for designers. I have about 81 designers, with another 10 or 12 design vice presidents. But each year, I can hire three college graduates. That's how I can refresh the creativity at the bottom end of my studio.
In the past year or two, Chrysler has lost Tom Gale, former Pacifica studio chief Neil Walling, and John Herlitz, who ran advanced product design. Are we going to see further turnover among your other senior designers? Will David McKinnon (minivan studio chief), and Bob Janosko (advanced product design) stay?
These guys are stable. David McKinnon just got promoted, so he's not going anywhere. They want to stay another five years. In the meantime, I'm preparing to bring people up through the ranks.
Ford design chief J Mays recently hired two designers from Nike, the sports shoe maker. He's hired other designers who have done watches, bicycles and other non-automotive products. Is this a good idea? Would you do that?
I wouldn't do that. We are too small to do those kinds of whimsical things. Think of all the studios he has: one in Cologne, one in Essex, one in London, one on the West Coast, one in Australia and a big one in Dearborn. He has got plenty of room to screw around and hire people. Marc Newson (a Ford designer who formerly designed watches, bikes and other products) did that 021C car (a concept car displayed at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show). It was like a cartoon. It was a parody. We can't afford to do stuff like that.
DaimlerChrysler cut Tom Gale's job in half when he retired. They named you chief designer and put Richard Schaum in charge of product development. People like Gale and former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz used to defend controversial products. Who will be your advocate?
We don't have to worry about that. Chrysler made its reputation on design, thanks to Tom. Who is going to take that away? Do you think Richard Schaum is going to argue? Do you think Wolfgang Bernhard and Dieter Zetsche don't know that? They are a pleasure to work with.
The other day, we were wrapping up a product review. Dieter asked me if there was something else in the studio to look at. So I showed him a derivative of the PT Cruiser. We had 17-inch wheels on it, and he said, `Why not 18 inches?' Tom Gale used to say things like that. These guys are into product big-time. I've got two powerful allies in Wolfgang and Dieter.
How can these German executives develop the intuitive feel for American products that Bob Lutz and Tom Gale had?
That's where they are going to rely on me. I can do that.
Tom Gale says he is going to be a consultant and will work only with Chrysler. What's he going to do?
I think most of Tom's work will be in the aftermarket. Tom likes street rods. Tom also has agreed to do walk-throughs in our studios. He has said if there are any controversies, he will be a product advocate. He'll only look at the big stuff. If it's a big future product, we can talk to him about what direction we should go in. I welcome another voice.
There is a lot of talk about customizable interiors. Last year, for example, Lear Corp. demontrated a cockpit that can be altered in three or four different ways to suit customer tastes. Is that a coming trend?
I think it's overblown. We do something like that at Mercedes. We have a customer center in Sindelfingen where you can pick a custom exterior and a custom interior. It's very expensive, but they do it.
But all these people who talk about customizing interiors on the assembly line - I don't know how they are going to do it. People talk about how you can pick a car that's the color of your wife's eyes, or the color of your tie. I say, `Show me.'
When you seek design inspiration outside the auto industry, what do you look at? In a recent speech, you mentioned the Bauhaus architectural movement.
I'm intrigued by anything. I'll pore through mail-order catalogs. I've got lots of books on product design at home - art in general - paintings, sculpture or jewelry. I go into a bookstore and I'll come out with $50 worth of magazines about architecture, graphics, ceramics or what-have-you. I'll bring them into the office and circulate them through the department.
Do you have any hobbies?
I love cooking. That's my big thing. Mostly French and Italian, although I've delved into Indian, Japanese and Chinese from time to time. But I mostly love French cooking. I can't go past a bookstore without getting a cookbook or magazine.
I understand you are building a Cobra.
It's finished. It's an Everett Morrison replica kit with a genuine 427 engine. I had someone build it for me.
You are 55 years old. How long do you want to stay in the business?
As long as I can. As long as I don't `lose it.' I'm having too much fun right now, despite what you read.
E-mail Editor David Sedgwick at [email protected]