Panic Time at Chrysler – Closing the Pacifica Studio

Panic Time at Chrysler – Closing the Pacifica Studio
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With one week’s notice, Chrysler has informed employees at its Pacifica Design Center, located in Carlsbad, California, that the studio will be closed and its functions merged with those of the other Chrysler design center, in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Thus, Chrysler pulls the plug on the first California design studio opened by a major United States auto manufacturer. Currently, Audi and Volkswagen, Daimler, Toyota, Honda, Volvo, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, and Acura have design studios in California, as well as Ford and General Motors. The studio was opened in 1983 and employed twenty people.

The center has been the entity that created most of the advanced concept cars for Chrysler in past years, including the Dodge Hornet and Chrysler Portofino (pictured).

(more after the jump)

Some industry observers criticized the move, one saying that management at Chrysler was “cutting into the bone.” From the moment that Cerberus Financial selected Robert Nardelli to be the CEO at Chrysler, many have doubted his ability to run a successful auto manufacturer, viewing his past history as an unsuccessful cost-cutting CEO at Home Depot as a prescription for disaster in a company in which anticipating consumer taste is crucial to success.

The closing of the Pacifica Design Center may end up vindicating that opinion. Chrysler’s profits, when it made them, were always based on having a hit model, most recently the 300 sedan.

Unlike other car companies, for whom hit models were the frosting on the cake, for Chrysler the hit model was essential to staying in the black. Chrysler stalled in the early 1950’s, when its staid management fell behind consumer tastes for lower, more powerful and stylish automobiles. It caught up spectacularly in 1957, when it’s “Forward Look” models with their arcing tailfins and sleek, low-slung lines caught both General Motors and Ford napping. But, by the early ‘60’s, Chrysler was again behind everyone else, its management having truncated Italian look designs inspired by Ghia’s show cars into smaller models, in the mistaken belief that the public wanted all cars to be smaller. The company rescue itself by building big cars again, only to be caught completely out by the Jimmy Carter energy crisis.

It was the Portofino based cars that rescued Chrysler from that management mistake.

The Portofino was the basis on which Chrysler designed and built the Dodges, Chryslers, and Eagles of the late 1980’s, the cars that reversed the long hood, short deck look that had preceded them, that moved the wheels to the corners and introduced “theatre lighting,” where the lights gradually dimmed when a door was closed. They were hits, and put Chrysler ahead of everyone else, again.

Car companies have almost universally placed design centers in California because it is not only the largest United States car market, but it has always been the trend-setter in the car business. What sells in California will sell elsewhere in the United States.

Automotive designers are difficult people to understand, because they are not productive in the way that most people measure productivity. For most of us, you put in your time and you produce by the hour. The output is directly related to the expended time.

But, a car designer is paid for that moment of inspiration. That one fleeting second when the designer draws a single line – a line that is influenced by a lifetime of observing, feeling, and imagining.

For such artists, the milieu in which they operate is important, because it affects how they think, imagine, and create. It is no accident that most of the greatest paintings in the history of art were created by masters who all clustered in the same environment, influencing it and influenced by it.

Talk to any car salesman after a few drinks and that man or woman will start referring to the product he sells with one word:

“Units.”

That terminology reflects the environment in which the salesman operates, the basis of his pay, the core center of his or her life.

But, whether or not that salesman can meet his quota of “units” depends, the car world, on that very unique individual, that combination of artist, visionary, and engineer (for, after all, it must be practical, at least eventually, to build the design) called the designer.

And, in the last analysis, that requires artistic freedom.

When attending the Detroit Auto Show, I was privileged to have a chance to spend some time with the man who was responsible for designing the CTS Concept Coupe, perhaps the most beautiful car produced by a Detroit company in the luxury environment since the 1961 Lincoln Continental – John Manoogian II.

The car will be in showrooms next fall. (Regrettably, I’ve recently been told there is no convertible version in the wings, even though – a month or two ago – it was once considered a possibility. GM, it seems, is deploying its financial resources further into the future.) I have no doubt that they will sell, in the end, more “units” of the CTS Coupe than of the Sedan.

If that sales volume is an accurate prophesy, it will mean that, once again, a designer who had been given the freedom to create was someone who, in the end, created enormous profit for his employer.

You see, the command from above was to create a sedan. It was the studio that created the coupe, and – one day, when they new the brass would be walking by – left it where those executives could see it. The executives bought it, on the spot, unchanged.

That’s the way it is supposed to work. Designers with the vision to create and executives with the vision to appreciate the best that has been created.

No car company has ever succeeded without achieving that uncomfortable, sometimes tense, but always essential synthesis.

If there is one reason to believe that Chrysler cannot make it, it is that the closing of the Pacifica studio establishes that the management at Chrysler hasn’t a clue.

But, who can say they’re surprised.

What do you think?
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