Some of that new sheet metal on display at the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows was shaped by an often-neglected force: the instinct of the designer.
In an effort to inspire breakthrough designs - primarily on niche vehicles - Big 3 auto chiefs are giving their designers more freedom to trust their hunches.
That's not to say that clinics, where marketers and designers tap consumers for ideas, are being ignored. But clinics increasingly are taking a back seat to something much less methodical: the designer's gut feeling for what the customer wants.
On one level, the changes reflect Detroit's realization that hot design can give vehicles a priceless glow in a fiercely competitive market. But they also show that companies are more willing to take risks to make their products stand out.
At the Chrysler group, for instance, executives blessed the Crossfire without formal consumer research. The production version of the Chrysler brand flagship was shown in Los Angeles last week (see Page 8).
At Ford Motor Co., designers in the company's Living Legends studio have been given freer reign to follow their hearts. The studio is responsible for the Ford Thunderbird, Ford Mustang and vehicles derived from the company's heritage, such as the Ford Forty-Nine concept car.
And at General Motors, the vice chairman for product development, Robert Lutz, is trying to unlock the creativity of his design staff. One Lutz tenet making the rounds: Clinics are famous for looking in the rearview mirror, but designers have to look forward.