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Designing Detroit: profiles of big three: these leaders in automotive design add zing to the cars we drive.

Automotive designers--rock stars in the design world. Car enthusiasts around the globe dream of scoring a coveted spot on the design teams of the Detroit Three.

It's a calling that requires conceptualizing, sketching, sculpting, digital modeling and engineering. It incorporates branding, exhibit design, graphic design, digital photography and animation. Automotive designers work with almost every material imaginable, from metal, wood and plastic to textiles and electronic interfaces.

Then, they let their creations loose on the open road.

Their work must function as an aesthetic but also function as a safe and reliable product that can be used every day and ultimately taken for granted. But it also has the potential to capture imagination, unlock adventure and embody the American Dream.

Here, the Detroiter profiles three men at the top of their game about their backgrounds, their design philosophies, their best road trips, and of course, their favorite cars.


Ralph V. Gilles, Chrysler Group

President and Chief Executive Officer, Dodge Car Brand; Senior Vice President-Product Design

Hometowns: New York City & Montreal

Current home: Leonard, Mich.

Favorite drive: Pacific Coast Highway; Tail of the Dragon; Saugatuck to Traverse City

Favorite car: Viper

Ralph Gilles went straight to the top to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an automotive designer. At age 14, he e-mailed sketches to Lee Iacocca.

That initial query garnered a response, and after moving to Detroit to attend College for Creative Studies, Gilles scored a job at Chrysler and worked his way up from there.

Today, he's ushering in a virtual rebirth of the Dodge brand. In the space of two months, starting in January, Dodge will introduce six all-new or significantly redesigned vehicles, including the anticipated Durango.

"We're taking the brand much younger, giving it a sportier image and higher quality execution both exterior and interior," he says. When it comes to his own work, Gilles is inspired by pop culture, anthropology, his travels to auto shows around the world, and most of all his own staff.

"They're an absolute gold mine of ideas," he says.

Gilles also is deeply influenced by fellow car enthusiasts. He loves to race Vipers as much for the thrill as the camaraderie with others who share his passion for the brand.

"It's really good to hang out with them and get feedback," he said.

J Mays, Ford Motor Company

Vice President, Design, and Chief Creative Officer

Hometown: Pauls Valley, Okla.

Current Home: London

Favorite drive: London to Land's End

Favorite car: Aston Martin DB-9

J Mays just can't shake "the bug."

In 1992, after stints at Audi and BMW, Mays worked as chief designer for Volkswagen of America, where he designed the new Beetle.

"No matter where I go or what work 1 do, people always ask me about that," Mays says. "It's a distant memory for me, but I'm glad people still like it."



Mays joined Ford Motor Company in 1997 as vice president of design, and his title has expanded from there. Although he lived in Detroit for years, and spends at least a week each month here, he's now based overseas and charged with bringing European styling to the Ford brand.

The biggest trend to hit America from across the pond, Mays says, is the small car, and Ford will introduce its new Fiesta and Focus models early this year.

Beyond that, Mays is mum about what he's working on. "I've got about 17 projects going and I can't tell you about any of them, but the best project I'm working on is always the next one,'' he says. "After 30 years in this business, I'm just as excited to get to work in the mornings as I was when I got out of school."

Edward T. Welburn, Jr, General Motors

Vice President, Global Design

Hometown: Philadelphia

Current home: Detroit

Favorite drive: Tuscany; The mountains on the westbound Pennsylvania Turnpike

Favorite car: '63 Corvette Stingray split-window coupe

No matter how high Ed Welburn rises in the ranks of automotive design, he still loves being hands-on in the studio. His staff of 1,500, though, will never see his work. Instead, he prefers to let their creativity take rein.


"I sketch in the privacy of my office," he said. "It helps me understand the challenges my teams are going through."

Welburn is based in Warren but oversees design studios in the U.S., Germany, England, Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India. "Virtual reality capabilities allow me to do that and get back home to dinner in the evening," he says.

Throughout his career, Welburn has won numerous awards and helped design and develop the revolutionary Volt. He also designed the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, his favorite modern car. Welburn insists the recent economic tumult at GM has had a positive effect on his team.

"We have 10 studios around the world. Every single one of those studios is running flat out," he says. "Frankly, I believe that they did some their absolute best work during those very dark days of bankruptcy. If anything it caused our team to work harder than ever before, and that energy has stayed with us."

Wensdy Von Buskirk is a Metro-Detroit freelance writer.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cross culture

How auto design inspires and reacts to other trends

Automotive designers draw from fashion, architecture, interior, electronic and product design to create cars that are aesthetic and cutting edge. But are other industries influenced by automobile design?

Since it takes between four and five years to bring a car to market, it's more difficult for vehicles to pioneer design trends, but it does happen. According to Sphere Trending, a Waterford-based company that monitors trends worldwide, the auto industry often gives rise to new paints and finishes. Sphere Trending makes trendspotting trips to 10 cities twice each year, and monitors 45 domestic and international trade shows for the latest and greatest finds, including the North American International Auto Show. Mandi Mankvitz, Social Media and Marketing Director for Sphere Trending, observed black finishes with a touch of deep color emerge in automotive design first.

"When a really hot new color comes out in a car you see it next in electronics. Black sapphire, black currant, black emerald, we're seeing that transition into other areas. It's a new alternative to black," she said.

Today's carmakers are designing with clean lines, efficiency and aerodynamics in mind. They're incorporating touch screens, social media and connectivity. And all designers agree small cars are making big inroads. Mankvitz says it's as much for lifestyle reasons as mileage efficiency.

"The economy has changed," Mankvitz said. "People are making different choices."

Overall, design is playing a larger role than ever differentiating one car from the next.

Even if auto design isn't as nimble in the short-term, there's no doubt looking back to eras like the '30s, '50s and '70s, that cars influence culture as a whole.

Ralph Gilles of Chrysler observes a defining shift as the new decade gets under way.

"A huge trend in the coming year will be to support your country instead of just buying an import," he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: Silver, Black in Race for World's Most Popular Car Color

Silver and black are in tight competition for the title of "world's most popular car color," according to DuPont. As the global automotive coatings leader, DuPont issued its 58th Global Automotive Color Popularity Report in December, which includes automotive color popularity information and regional trends from 11 leading automotive regions of the world. Each year, the DuPont report reflects data from established and emerging growth markets in the automotive industry; and in 2010, for the first time, includes trends from South Africa. DuPont's study is the original and most comprehensive report on global automotive color popularity and remains the first of its kind compiled on a global basis. Only two percentage points separate silver from black as the leading vehicle color globally, and black's popularity in key automotive markets outside of North America is substantial. White and gray are tied for third place, with gray's popularity increasing three percentage points from last year's survey. Red, the only non-neutral color in the top five, is increasing in popularity, taking the fifth spot on the global color popularity rankings. The top 10 global vehicle colors are as follows:
By Industry Percentage

Silver 26%
Black/Black Effect 24
White/White Pearl 16
Gray 16
Red 6
Blue 5
Brown/Beige 3
Green 2
Yellow/Gold 1
Others >1

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Von Buskirk, Wensdy
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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