A design transformation is occurring at General Motors. Perhaps driven by the success of fresh products in the Cadillac lineup as well as the Pontiac Solstice, GM is moving with fresh, forward-looking designs, including what could have been a retro car, but is anything but: the ’06 Camaro concept. We talk with Ed Welburn, GM vice president, Global Design, for insights on what he and his staff are up to and how they’re doing it...
ON GOING BEYOND THE FIRST GENERATION VEHICLE AND STRETCHING TO GET TO THE CAMARO CONCEPT.
“From the very beginning of the project, I said to the guys—and they got tired of hearing it from me—‘The car has got to get its inspiration from that first-gen Camaro, not the second gen or the third, but the first, but it has to be a very new vehicle. We don’t want go the route the others have; we have to move this vehicle further.’ There were versions during the development that were close to the first-generation car—wonderful-looking designs, but I wanted more reach. I wanted it to have a newer form vocabulary, the proportions needed to be a bit fresher, there needed to be a bit more gesture in the design.”
“They landed on the basic design very quickly. But it almost looked like someone took an existing car and enhanced it. I wanted them to make my own, personal ’69 Camaro look old. In fact, it was around during the development.”
Comment: Notice the importance of the physical object in terms of showing what the designers needed to move beyond.
CREATING A CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT TO GET IT RIGHT.
“We had a competition between two teams. Every time we have a competition, the bar just raises higher. The work that comes out of that is great. Each team worked separately. Then we brought them together on the design patio, brought the comparison cars out, reviewed them, then went back.”
Comment: Competition and iteration. Key for moving beyond initial solutions to problems.
WHAT HE TOLD THEM.
“Dial in more reach. Get more reach. You guys have the spirit of Camaro. Get more reach in it. I knew when we didn’t have it.”
Comment: How many managers are like Welburn as regards encouraging them to go further?
ON DECIDING ON THE CAR THAT WAS INTRODUCED AS THE CAMARO CONCEPT.
“It was maybe the most difficult decision I’ve had to make since I’ve been vice president of Design. Two wonderful cars were sitting there. I know we picked the right one. The reaction has been great. The other one was very good, as well. It may have been a little closer to the original. The one we picked had more reach.”
Comment: Notice the consistency of promoting reach. Presumably this will find its way into future vehicles as well.
Say the car gets the green light for production. Will it look like the concept or a vanilla, or watered-down, version? “I don’t like vanilla. You won’t see vanilla. Vanilla is for cappuccinos, that’s it.
“There was a lot of thought put into the development of this concept. We knew, I knew, it was going to get a good reaction. We certainly wouldn’t want to get that good reaction and then disappoint people with a vehicle that didn’t measure up. What we would do for production—if we were going to do a production car—would be very much like you see.”
Comment: While concept cars often have little similarity to what gets manufactured. Welburn says that they paid attention to engineering and manufacturing issues when developing the model. He stated: “The absolute best vehicles are the ones where design and engineering work in collaboration as true partners.”
WHEN AN ICON BECOMES A STATEMENT.
“It’s a lot more than that car. It’s a statement about General Motors and General Motors Design. Yes it is the Camaro, and people love the Camaro, and to nail it with that design is a big deal. But it does say something about the company, the company that put the faith in me and my team to develop this vehicle, to give us the approval to go ahead. If you miss, if you disappointed people, if you brought those classic, iconic Camaros driving through here* and the new concept comes out and isn’t as good . . . There is some risk. You’ve got to take risks.” [*Camaro club owners drove their vehicles in Cobo Center prior to the unveiling of the concept.]
Comment: Welburn is conscious of the importance of the Camaro in terms of positioning GM. At a time when there is a need for desirable cars in the market, the design staff plays a key role in helping fulfill that desire.