Related: Automotive Design
REMEMBER THIS TERM: NATIONAL IDENTITY DESIGN. After years of neo-Euro, Euro-aero, techno, retro, and what-have-you automotive design, vehicles that reflect their maker’s country of origin are back in style. Leading the NID pack in the U.S. is Chrysler. After setting the trend in the early 1990s with the “cab-forward” look, Chrysler discovered it had nowhere to go. “We told the designers to push the envelope as far as they could with the concept cars,” says Trevor Creed, senior vice president Design, Chrysler Group. “And we quickly realized that, in evolutionary terms, the logical end point [for cab-forward] was a Lamborghini four-door.” If Chrysler was to lead, the design mold would have to be broken.
Enter the 2000 Chronos, a large, luxurious, four-door sedan with a Viper V10 under the long hood. It was the first Chrysler concept vehicle to explore the new look. Chronos was rear-drive. Its backset cabin emphasized the hood. The driver and passengers sat down in the vehicle, protected by the high sides. It looked burly, not fat. “Unfortunately,” says Creed, “we didn’t have a rear-wheel-drive architecture on which to build anything like it.” When Daimler-Benz entered the picture in 1998, Chrysler overcame that hurdle almost overnight, though it had to convince its German counterpart to share its rear-drive treasure.
This discussion coincided with the growing need to establish a strong brand identity for Chrysler and Dodge, something neither had, but which hurt Chrysler more than it hurt Dodge. Says Creed: “We not only had to establish the Chrysler brand, we had to elevate it.” A flagship was needed, but it would have to sit above the more mainstream Dodge brand and below Mercedes. That balancing act helped Chrysler determine its direction. One thing Mercedes couldn’t be—didn’t want to be—was American.
This realization propelled an internal examination into what made designs “American,” and included a sketch of a chopped and channeled coupe that screamed “’49 Ford hot rod” and Rover’s 3-Liter sedan from the 1960s. “I was a budding young designer when the Rover came out,” says Creed, “and we all thought that car was American. It had chrome in the greenhouse, very thin pillars, and that unmistakable proportion between the glass and the body. It was very cool.” It also had presence, something missing from American cars since the 1980s, and from Chryslers for at least that long.
The 300 C Concept is the direct descendant of this examination process. The wheels are large and placed at each corner of the body. A strong shoulder line establishes the upper edge of the tall lower body, and the greenhouse is set back from the front wheels. A large egg-crate grille with strong hori-zontal bars is framed by four headlights. Thin chrome strips outline the greenhouse. “The 300 C is Chrysler’s flagship,” says Creed. And Dodge’s flagship, though mechanically identical to the Chrysler, is the wagon-like Magnum SRT 8. This delineation between the brands is a precursor of Chrysler’s coming emphasis on different architectures for each division, based on common mechanical bits.
EXPANDING THE ENVELOPE. Other recent designs smack of an earlier American era. Despite Creed’s insistence that the Crossfire and Airflite aren’t Art Deco, the cars exhibit characteristics that echo that era: Clean lines, a sense of speed and sportiness, and an optimistic spirit. The Airflite—for now just a concept—is built off the same LX platform as the 300 C and Magnum, but replaces the Hemi V8 with a V6, and the sedan roofline for the sweep of a sport coupe. And though the shoulder line may be less abrupt, the proportion between the greenhouse and body are similar. It, too, is American, but at an earlier stage in life.
“Wolfgang Bernhard [COO, Chrysler Group] came into the studio one day and said, ‘It’d be really interesting to take the Crossfire and blow it up larger,’” says Creed. And though the Crossfire’s tapering rear end wouldn’t have left enough room for either passengers or luggage, the look of the nose and “speed lines” on the hood easily made the transition. With its more youthful appearance—and the fact that the 300 C leaves little room for a second rear-drive flagship—the Airflite provides a glimpse into Chrysler’s thoughts regarding the next Sebring sedan. It also proves that the new American look—wheels as a stable base, not a focal point, and an athletic shoulder line and stance—isn’t limited to a rear-wheel-drive architecture. “The only real difference is that a front-drive car would have a longer front overhang and a shorter wheelbase,” explains Creed.
AMERICAN IN THE OUTSIDE, PRECISE ON THE INSIDE. The new breed from Chrysler will shed its American heritage in one area: interior fit and finish. Substandard tolerances will no longer be tolerated. “By accepting sloppiness, we have been paying for the precision seen in Japanese and European vehicles,” Creed remonstrates, “and that’s going to stop.” He tells of designs compromised because the supplier couldn’t guarantee the tolerances, despite delivering these levels of precision through their Japanese or European subsidiaries. For those suppliers who complain about the cost, Creed has a two-word answer—but we can’t use it here.
And while he says there are no uniquely American interior shapes, the materials used, and the way in which they are presented, will reflect the optimistic American spirit. Wood won’t disappear overnight—“We’ve persuaded the general public that it means ‘luxury,’” Creed says—but satin finishes, brushed materials, and chrome will return, supported by flat-woven materials and soft leathers in natural colors. It will be fascinating to see how the American public responds to this rediscovery of its national identity.