- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

Nearly every major carmaker in the world has a design studio in Southern California, including Ford, Volvo, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Audi/VW, Lexus and Mitsubishi.
These studios have been responsible for innovative creations such as the Mazda Miata, the VW Beetle, the Audi TT and, most recently, the BMW X5 sport action (utility) vehicle.
Robert Del'Ve, of BMW's DesignWorks/USA in Newbury Park, about 30 miles north of Los Angeles, says the quality of the light is one reason the area has so many design studios. DesignWorks did the early sketches and development of the BMW X5.
"Light is warmer in Southern California than, say, Munich," Mr. Del'Ve said. Munich is BMW's hometown.
Mr. Del'Ve means that the light in Southern California tends to be visually "warmer" more golden than in northern climes such as Detroit, where the light is more blue. "We can see things here that people in other areas have more difficulty seeing the highlights across the hood, wheel lips, the trunk and the body side," Mr. Del'Ve said. "Light here is friendlier to skin tones, colors and textures."
Of course, there is comparable light at similar latitudes around the world, on a line from Los Angeles to Charlotte, N.C., then across the Atlantic through the Azores, northern Africa, Beirut, Tehran, Afghanistan, Tibet and southern China. But none of those have Southern California's unique melange of strong economy, popular culture and fine design schools, said Mr. Del'Ve, who originally trained as an architect.
In fact, DesignWorks' designers come from all over the world, but about 40 percent are from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design just down the road. Also represented are the Royal College of Art in London, the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, the Santa Barbara and Irvine campuses of the University of California, and a number of universities in Europe.
Plus, Southern California is a trendy place with a distinct "car culture." Southern Californians commute long distances and spend an inordinate amount of time in their vehicles, thanks to a very extensive freeway system and minimal public transportation. Put these factors all together and you get 18 car-design studios within two hours of each other.
How do these studios design a car, we asked. Which comes first the drivetrain, chassis and undercarriage, or the exterior?
At BMW, designers are provided a "package" around which they must wrap a body. The challenge is to create a thing of beauty that meets the engineers' needs and customer expectations. In this day and age, surely that must be done by computer, right?
"No," Mr. Del'Ve said, "not at first." It starts with pen, paper and freehand drawing. Once the designer likes the look of the car he has drawn, he will scan it into a computer and convert the two-dimensional drawing into three-dimensional views.
When the designer is satisfied with the basic drawing, it is hung up on a board with vellum paper over it. The designer then applies strips of thick and thin black tape on the see-through vellum to further refine the shape the car, making sure that the design meets the coefficient of drag (wind resistance) the engineers have specified. This is then scanned back into the computer.
From there, a rough scale model of plywood covered with shaped Styrofoam is constructed. The model is packed with warm clay, and a milling machine run by a computer emulates the car's dimensions taken from the vellum. The machine passes back and forth, slowly milling down the clay to prepare it for final shaping by hand.
What looks good on the computer may look terrible in clay, so the designer and a clay modeler work together to re-create (or improve) the original design. "You can end up completely redoing parts of the car," Mr. Del'Ve said.
When everyone is happy with the scale model, giant arms called "point-takers" measure every facet, and the new dimensions are fed into the computer. The computer then fills in all the points measured by the point-takers, creating the smooth surface detail.
Finally, a full-sized model follows, using the same process as with the scale model, supported by the steel box frame to handle the weight and allow wheels to be put on. The human touch is vital, since what looks good at scale may not be good full-sized.
This process, from first concept drawing to finished clay model, can go as quickly as three months. Because clay remains malleable forever, and because a DesignWorks clay model left on a Los Angeles tarmac once actually melted, the studios now turn the clay models into fiberglass models that hold up better during shipping.
BMW's new designs are flown to Germany, where they must compete with cars designed by designers in Munich, and perhaps with a car or two from an independent studio specially contracted for the project. The mock-ups are assembled at a secret location such as a hangar rented for the occasion, so members of BMW's board of directors can view each model with plenty of space around it. The competition is intense. For the recent 7-Series contest, DesignWorks created four separate cars, none of which won.
Do designers slash their wrists when their "baby" loses?
"It's all part of making a great design happen," said Mr. Del'Ve, who concedes that some engineers have a hard time seeing one of their models rejected.
Do they ever combine two designs, one from Munich and one from somewhere else? Mr. Del'Ve shakes his head. "It makes a really bad-looking car," he said, citing the products of one American automaker (an automaker that is identified by two initials) as proof.
Do they conduct focus groups to find out what sort of car customers want, then design it?
Not until the designers have designed a car they would want, Mr. Del'Ve said.
Perhaps that's what makes BMW one of the world's great auto manufacturers.


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