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Back to the Future

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Inspired by the rich California car culture that gave birth to hot rods around the world, Frank Saucedo is driven to meld the new with the old.

And as director of General Motors' Advanced Design Studio in North Hollywood a state-of-the-art facility housing 30 designers, sculptors, analysts, and engineers dedicated to creating cars with an alternative and unique voice Mr. Saucedo is at the forefront of industry design.

The studio is one of just a handful of GM Advanced Design Studios in the world that compete against one another for projects as part of the automotive giant's efforts to promote ingenuity and innovation. "It's like having to run a small town," says Mr. Saucedo. "Sometimes you get pulled in a lot of directions. There are always deadlines, and you always have to keep the process moving. [But] my No. 1 focus is design."

What it all comes down to, says Mr. Saucedo, is letting the auto's design tell a story. The better the story, he says, the more consumers will want to buy it. And that effort to attract consumers is a fierce, high-stakes competition in the massive U.S. automotive industry. With nearly $1 trillion in new car and truck sales last year alone, according to Plunkett Research Ltd., a design that fails to capture consumers' attention and pocketbooks can mean millions in lost revenue for an automaker.

Such a nexis of influences leaves auto designers throughout the industry facing constant pressure to anticipate rapidly changing consumer tastes to produce innovative and popular new design concepts, while keeping manufacturing costs low and bringing new designs to market with growing speed.

That balancing act is one that has designers currently tapping into a trend that runs across many consumer industries these days: retroism. Mr. Saucedo calls it "future retroism" and says it is the design philosophy behind popular revamped classics such as the Volkswagen Beetle, the BMW Mini Cooper and the Ford Thunderbird. "These days, everybody is looking to make a statement in a modern way. These cars have a feeling that is retro but modern at the same time," Mr. Saucedo says.

The technique is clever, says Geoff Wardle, chairman of the transportation design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, known in the industry as the Harvard of automotive design. "The trend is based on cars that have a huge amount of charisma the first time around," says Mr. Wardle. "It's such a great-looking car that it appeals to car buyers that really like the original cars and to car buyers who never even saw the car when it was first around."

Mr. Saucedo made good use of that style in his most recent project, the new Chevrolet Super Sport Concept a four-door, rear-wheel drive, family sedan-slash-muscle car powered by a 430-horsepower small-block V8 engine. A throwback to the Chevrolet Super Sport line of the 1960s, the car boasts the sleek lines of a modern sports sedan and the power and performance of an old-school dragster. The design combination drew high praise from Motor Trend magazine in its review of the 2003 Detroit Auto Show.

Frank Saucedo

Other projects under way by Mr. Saucedo at the North Hollywood studio include the Chevrolet Borrego, a must-see transformer-like sport utility vehicle aimed at college grads and first-time car buyers, and the Pontiac Solstice, a sporty open-air, two-seat roadster that Motor Trend describes as "fun to drive, pleasant to live with, and cool to be seen in."

While Mr. Saucedo's concepts garner the attention of car enthusiasts, their range also highlights an adaptability that has characterized his career. A 20-year vehicle-design veteran, Mr. Saucedo joined General Motors fresh out of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1984. GM quickly shipped him to Germany to design for European subsidiary Adam Opel AG.

After returning to the States and making his way up to chief of design at GM's Advanced Concepts Center, he left the company for a brief stint as chief designer at Volkswagen's Southern California design center before rejoining GM in 2000 to head the newly opened North Hollywood studio.

All told, Mr. Saucedo has participated in designs for the Chevrolet CK Pickup, Corvette, Silverado, Borrego and Super Sport Concept; the Pontiac Solstice; the Opel Corsa, Astra, Tigra, and Omega; the Volkswagen Polo; and several movie-vehicle projects, including the Batmobile.

Chuck Pelly, a 40-year veteran of the design industry who founded BMW Group/Designworks USA and co-founded The Design Academy Inc., a design-consulting firm, credits Mr. Saucedo's success to a style that has allowed him to work for various automotive giants.

"Cars are pretty serious business," says Mr. Pelly. "It's a lot about making the image appropriate for the brand. His style is a mix of soft line, power, and strength. He's able to use complex curved forms very well, without letting the vehicle get fat or lose its tension. Frank is one of the blessed ones. He's an extremely good designer."

Chevy SS Concept Car

Mr. Saucedo says he finds design inspiration in everything from fine art and architecture to extreme sports and high-tech devices, but he maintains that his inherent car savvy comes from his background and youth growing up in Southern California's lush car culture.

"I grew up in a very automotive family," says Mr. Saucedo. "My dad worked a lot on cars, and I think Latinos are generally very artistic and expressive. Growing up in this area, you're surrounded by a culture that reveres the car - most people will forgo a meal to buy that set of wheels. Your car says a lot about who you are, and I grew up in that."

Mr. Saucedo is not alone in his reverence for Southern California's automotive way of life. Since 1973, 15 automobile companies have set up shop in the area, citing everything from the pleasant weather and extensive highways to the largest cross-section of automobile consumers in the nation. Automotive giants including Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, Porsche, and General Motors all design out of Southern California.

"They're here because, number one, there is an extremely high purchase of automobiles here, and there is a high purchasing power and awareness of cars," Mr. Pelly says. "There is the most [diverse] cross-section of vehicles, from trucks to sports cars, everything. Designers can get a very good feel for trends and new markets."

Mr. Pelly says designers based in California also benefit from local resources, including state-of-the-art 3D facilities and a pool of capable recruits from the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which has been spawning high-profile designers like Mr. Saucedo and Ford's J Mays for more than 50 years.

For Mr. Saucedo, who is known to move full-scale models outside the studio to see how they look under the California sun, opening the North Hollywood studio has meant more than mere inspiration and resources. It's been a homecoming to Southern California and to General Motors as well.

But while the cradle of automotive innovation has shifted from Detroit to California, he says, at the end of the day the validation for his designs still comes from the same place the consumer.

"Design is one of those things, when you put it out there: People actually love it or hate it," says Mr. Saucedo. "I'd rather have people hate something than say, 'Eh, it doesn't really mean that much to me.' When it hits and it works, it's validation that the work you did to get there was worth it."

See More of GM Designer Frank Saucedo's Concept Cars >>

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