CARS OF THE FUTURE DESIGNED HERE TODAY : SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AUTO CULTURE`S DIVERSITY, TREND-SETTING STYLES DRIVE INDUSTRY.
If you want to know about flying, you talk to a pilot.
If you want to know about woodworking, you talk to a carpenter.
And if you want to know about cars, who better to talk to than the people who love cars best, Southern Californians?
That's why so many of the world's automakers - Ford, Volvo, BMW, Volkswagen - have set up centers for designing and generating ideas for new cars in places like Newbury Park, Valencia, Camarillo and Simi Valley.
``It's kind of a petri dish of the automobile cosmos. It's reduced down to a relatively small geographic area,'' said Ron Hill, who chairs the Art Center College of Design transportation design department in Pasadena, where many of the best auto designers are groomed. ``These people are not afraid of trying something new.''
Of the 14 auto design and concept centers in Southern California, four are in the areas surrounding the San Fernando Valley: Designworks/USA in Newbury Park works on BMWs; Audi of America designs Volkswagens in Simi Valley; Volvo designs are being brainstormed in Camarillo; and the 1998 Lincoln Town Car was designed by Ford employees in Valencia.
The industry's most established consulting firm, J.D. Power, is based in Agoura Hills, while the upstart Nextrend is just across the county line in Thousand Oaks.
And demonstrating the importance of Southern California in the auto market, Ford Motor Co. announced it is moving the headquarters and design center of its Lincoln-Mercury division to Irvine this year. Company executives said the move from Michigan will reflect the trend-setting culture that prevails in California.
``A primary reason why they're doing it, and this is why other manufacturers are putting their design houses out here, is that Southern California is basically a microcosm of the U.S.,'' said Chris Cedergren, an auto industry consultant who established Nextrend in Thousand Oaks.
A lot of major trends start in California because of the great diversity in ethnicity, income, age and viewpoints. Adding to the mix is a competitive business climate that places a premium on creativity.
``Here, things are happening. There is an atmosphere to test new things and to experience new things,'' said Ulla-Britt Frajdin Hellqvist, who took over a month ago as general manager for the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center in Camarillo.
For some four decades, California has been fertile ground for new concepts and designs.
Customized domestic cars were the rage in the 1950s. Then came the European invasion led by Volkswagen and BMW, followed by the Japanese compact craze and the enduring popularity of small pickups.
The advent of the minivan and now the sport-utility vehicle followed as the baby boomers became parents. Those wanting a little more fun on the road now are turning to the retro roadsters.
``The biggest thing now is women in sport-utility vehicles. Nobody dreamed of that,'' said Charles Pelly, who founded Designworks/USA and remains president of the Newbury Park company now owned by BMW. ``Another thing that's surprising is the disregard of gas mileage.''
Hot off the assembly line
The new generation of Volvos will reflect the California spirit when next year's models, designed by the Camarillo-based team, make their debut.
``If people say, Are you doing something new? we always say yes,'' said Frajdin Hellqvist, the Volvo general manager.
Rare is the claim that a new design came entirely from a single studio. The Volvo center in Camarillo has contributed to many elements of interior and exterior designs since Sylvia Voegele opened it in 1986.
``We had a heck of a lot of the cars we were working on that didn't make it, that didn't get to car shows, that didn't get produced,'' said Voegele, who recently retired and remains a consultant. ``Those are the only achievements that count.''
The first BMW project for Designworks/USA produced newly integrated seat belts for the BMW 850i coupe in 1985. The latest influence from the Designworks team is the 3 series, and the team is now competing with its German counterparts in Munich to develop the next generation of the 7 series.
When the Volkswagen Beetle recently changed with the times, work on the new design and features was done at the Audi of America Design Center in Simi Valley.
The design team gained international acclaim four years ago with the unveiling of the futuristic-looking Beetle. The first model goes on sale this spring, featuring front and side air bags and car alarms as standard equipment, along with optional air conditioning, heated side mirrors, a rear-window defroster, and outlets for phones and laptop computers.
The designers shaping the styles and concepts for vehicles that will be on the road four and five years away work in plain buildings in the midst of corporate office parks, with maybe a door sign noting their existence. Visitors must sign forms promising not to share or use any restricted information - though little if any is provided - and most rooms where designers work are off-limits.
At Designworks, even visitors from the manufacturer's home office in Munich aren't allowed into the styling studio where designers are working up the next century's models, said Robert Del'Ve, executive director for marketing.
``All that stuff can affect world car sales,'' he said.
There is good reason for working in top-secret areas behind concrete walls and dark-paned windows.
Auto manufacturers can dominate a niche for several years with a new design that the competition might not even have on the drawing board.
Only in the past three years, for instance, have BMW, Mercedes and Porsche come out with roadsters, following in the wake of the shapely Mazda Miata released in 1989. Another notable example was the two-year lead Chrysler owned in the minivan market after designing the first car-based, front-wheel-drive model that marked the emergence of easy-to-drive vans, said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
``The work that goes on inside these firms absolutely is secret,'' Cole said. ``But they like to socialize and interact. They kind of cluster in one area because they create a sort of community of interest.''
Anticipating trends is an expensive trial-and-error process. Many concepts never get beyond one-quarter-scale clay models or a computer graphic image, while others may do poorly at a car show and never go into production.
From sketches to sales, the industry average for a car to reach production is four to five years. Pressure on designers is even greater now with car companies constantly squeezing development time.
California's dependence on the automobile makes it more than just a critical market. Companies recognize that if a model sells here - with the number and variety of autos available to often-fickle car buyers - it will sell nearly anywhere.
``Here, you live with a car. And you live with a car very differently,'' said Frajdin Hellqvist of Volvo. ``I find that the California customers know their stuff. The car is a very natural part of life from the beginning.''
Some of the future features car buyers are asking for include navigation systems that link cars to satellites to determine best routes to destinations; smart passenger air bags with fail-safe devices; traction control; and so-called run-flat tires, said Chance Parker, product research director for J.D. Power and Associates.
``We live in a society today where people are frankly spoiled by technology, and today's customers expect far more than yesterday's customers,'' Parker explained.
When J.D. Power started its initial quality surveys in 1987 of car buyers after three months of ownership, there were 166 problems per 100 vehicles. The number is down to 81 problems per 100 vehicles, Parker said.
``At some point in time, most of the manufacturers are going to be relatively equal in terms of defects,'' Parker said. ``If that's true, then it's going to take something different to set your vehicles apart.
``There's been a renewed emphasis on styling lately. Companies are trying to make their cars stand out in terms of styling.''
Designers enjoy that challenge or they wouldn't be in the business.
``The designers just live cars, and so each one is a listening post. They need to be that way or they'll be out of a job,'' Pelly said. ``It all goes back to lifestyle.''
So influential is the California vision that Designworks opened an office in Munich this fall to boost technology and design exchange, and serve BMW and its other clients.
``You have to have your tentacles out there,'' said Carter, the Designworks executive vice president.
Yet California is never far away - the office features a 12-foot palm tree.
``The whole idea is to convey that it's the California spirit,'' Carter said. ``California more or less created the automobile culture in this country. I don't think the '50s will ever go away.''
1) Designworks/USA: Established 1972; 2201 Corporate Center Drive, Newbury Park; Owned by BMW.
2) Volvo Cars of North America Monitoring and Concept Center: Established 1986; 700 Via Alondra, Camarillo.
3) Audi of America Inc. Design Center: Established 1990; 82 Cochran St., Simi Valley.
4) Ford Concept Center California: Established 1984; 28258 Avenue Stanford, Valencia.
5) J.D. Power and Associates: Established 1968; 30401 Agoura Road, Agoura Hills.
6) Nextrend: Established 1997; 299 Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks.
3 Photos, Map
PHOTO (1--Color--Ran in Bulldog and Valley Editions only) Art Center College of Design student John Kim works on a BMW car project.
(2--Color--Ran in Bulldog and Valley Editions only) Steve Eastwood considers his design amid sketches of cars while working on a BMW plan at the Art College of Design in Pasadena.
(3--Color--Ran in Conejo and Simi Editions only) Ray Carter and Charles Pelly of Designworks/USA in Newbury Park show off a signed BMW 328i that they are going to bury in a time capsule.
Hans Gutknecht / Daily News
MAP: (Color) CAR CULTURE (see text)
Traci Wooden / Daily News