John Cafaro: Designing Chevys— for the World

Gary S. Vasilash

“The only car that mattered to me as a kid was the Corvette,” John Cafaro once said. He has designed Corvettes and other Chevys. And now, with nearly 40 years at GM, he is helping transform Chevys of all types, shapes, powertrains and sizes.

When the topic of discussion is the design of a compact crossover—the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox, to be specific—and the guy you’re talking with keeps making references to the Corvette and the Camaro, an eye roll or eight might seem to be appropriate.

Really. The quintessential American sports car. A quintessential American muscle car. And a crossover (admittedly designed by a team in Warren, Michigan, which is, of course, in America, but that’s not the point).

But when the guy you’re talking with is John Cafaro, executive director of Global Chevrolet Design, know that he has more than a little credibility when it comes to using Corvettes and Camaros as points of reference in his conversation.

Cafaro, who joined GM Design in 1977 after earning a degree from the Pratt Institute, was the chief designer of the Corvette and Camaro from 1986 to 1999. (He was in the Pontiac and Chevy studios until ’86, where he got to work on vehicles like the Pontiac Fiero GT.)

Following the Corvette and Camaro assignment, Cafaro had a series of positions—
  • Director of Design, Full-Size Truck Studio (1999-2008)
  • Director, GM Passenger Car Exterior Design (2008-2013)
  • Director of Design, Chevrolet Passenger Car & Small Crossover Exteriors (2012-2013)
  • Director of Design, Chevrolet Truck Exteriors (2013-2014)
  • Executive Director of Design, Chevrolet Passenger Car & Small Crossover Exteriors (2014-2015)
—before getting his current assignment, which gives him responsibility for the designs of all Chevy vehicles worldwide (thus the “global” in his title), as well as the design for exterior components and accessories.

Yes, with anyone else an eye roll might be appropriate. But not with Cafaro.

While there are plenty of vehicles that have amassed a multitude of accolades that he’s been involved with—like the Corvettes and the Camaros, but also exceedingly important, sales-wise for certain, vehicles like the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado—one of the cars that has certainly been a recent success from a design POV is the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, a car that went from being a somewhat anonymous vehicle for traveling salesmen or retired homemakers to something with style and presence.

Of that car, Cafaro says, “The Impala is the one that said we have confidence. We can do highly styled sedans again that are good.”

And that has led a seeming rejuvenation of the designs of Chevy. Certainly, there’s the Gen Six Camaro (model year 2016), but there are the 2016 Malibu, Volt and Cruze, and the forthcoming 2017 Bolt EV.

“That’s why a lot of designers like working with the Chevrolet brand,” Cafaro says. “You can experience all sorts of different exercises, from full-size pickups to a small global subcompact or a crossover. It really tests how good you are as a designer.”

While there are those like Cafaro among the ranks of Chevy Design who have had storied careers, Cafaro pays attention to young designers. For example, he cites Jaymer Starbody, who did the exterior design for the 2016 Malibu. “He came into the studio, 22 years old, right out of school, and struck gold. Now he’s 27 and working on Chevrolets in China.”

Given the breadth of the Chevy portfolio—Sparks and Sonics, Malibus and Impalas, Colorados and Silverados, Suburbans and Tahoes, Volts and Bolts—there is a whole lot of bandwidth. “There is a great opportunity for this young generation of Chevrolet designers coming up through the organization to have different experiences. It’s like senior thesis projects: they just put everything they have into it.”

Speaking to the subject of the design of the 2018 Equinox, Cafaro says the project came directly in the wake of the Malibu, which gave the Equinox team the opportunity to, he says, take “the Malibu passion and design execution into the crossover segment.”

He says that for the Equinox they used much of what they learned about tight, lean, sophisticated surfacing from the Malibu and applied it to the Equinox. He stresses, however, that this is not some sort of Malibu variant. Influenced, yes. Copied, no.

One of the challenges that the design team faced—and arguably it is a good challenge to have in some ways—is the fact that the Equinox has been successful in the market for Chevy (in terms of sales, second only to the Silverado pickup in the U.S.), which means that on the one hand they wanted to maintain the strength of the equity they had with it, while on the other there was the interest in advancing the design.

In addition to which, the Equinox is becoming a truly global vehicle for the brand, with as many as 115 different countries getting the crossover as production commences, so that range had to be kept in mind, as well.

Which brings us back to the Corvette. “We have our own Equinox design team,” Cafaro says, adding, “Sort of like the Corvette team. People are passionate about the Equinox and the team nailed it, inside and out.”

He points out that the design of crossovers can be tricky: “They are hard to do because of the proportion; the crossover proportion is like an SUV. You can’t really alter the overall silhouette. So what are you left with?

“You have to be creative in your surfacing. Creative in your aesthetic. And really good at interiors.”
He adds with a smile: “I laugh at the Corvette guys: ‘You get a package this high’”—he holds out his arm at about waist high (the height of a Corvette Coupe is 48.6 inches; it is 65.4 inches for the ’18 Equinox)—“’and 20 x 11-inch wheels. Anybody can do that.’”

Well, not anybody. Of course, Cafaro has earned the right to jest.

But seriously, an Equinox design team? Corvette is, well, Corvette, but Equinox?

Before the eye roll, Cafaro shuts it down with a “Yes.”