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GM styling boss points to trends

By Charles E. DoleAutomotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 1983

Is the ''aero'' shape in automobiles the wave of the future? And if so, how slippery will cars become? Specifically, what will the automobiles of tomorrow look like?

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Irvin W. Rybicki has been boss of the GM design staff for nearly six years, ever since August 1977, when he moved into the seat occupied by William L. Mitchell for 20 years. Before that, Harley J. Earl had directed the styling crew for 30 years.

Thus, in a half century the design of GM cars had been under the overall direction of two individuals. That will probably never happen again. In contrast to his predecessors, Mr. Rybicki cannot remain on the job longer than nine years because that's when he bumps up against the mandatory retirement age of 65.

Like Messrs. Mitchell and Earl before him, Mr. Rybicki wields enormous clout in the US auto industry because he heads up the world's largest design organization of nearly 1,300 persons. And while he may not have the visible flair of a Bill Mitchell, he nonetheless knows what he wants. And he has his own style and way of doing things.

Soon after he took over the job, for example, he shook up the GM design staff by consolidating all design functions under one person and all engineering activities under someone else. Up to then, the design operation was fragmented.

''We had more people in this building at the time Bill Mitchell left,'' Mr. Rybicki says. ''We've reduced the forces in other areas, but we haven't touched the creative arm of our business at all.

''We've dropped some clerks that weren't necessary and put in some graphic consoles in all our rooms, which speeds up the process and gives us more time for creativity. Too, we're making technological changes. We're looking at computer graphics, where we deal with color, so that we can see the vehicle in two dimensions on the screen in color.

''Hopefully that will save a lot of time in the rooms and give us more time for creativity.''

The following is an interview with the director of the world's largest automotive-design staff:

Can you hold on to good talent these days?

Longevity at the top is no longer a problem, because Irv Rybicki is not going to serve for 20 years. I'll serve about nine years, and then we'll have movement in the organization.

I think that's the proper way to handle this structure.

Our good people have stayed with us. True, we've lost a few people who prefer to work in some sun climate, but you're never going to hang onto those people. But there are good points and bad points about that.

Where you might lose a good man, it does give you the opportunity to infuse the organization with youth. And this is a young man's business.

How much freedom of expression do designers have these days?

In developing the theme or design concept, we are not influenced at all by the top people on the 14th floor of the GM Building.

We present what we believe to be correct for a given market and a given time frame. The three-dimensional model is shown to the car division or divisions involved, as well as our executive committee, and they're usually in accord with us. They may find some things that they don't like, and we'll make adjustments.

Once the theme is set, then we sit down and work with the manufacturing and cost people to be sure that we reach those targets as well.

It isn't just costs today. It's also how the vehicle will come together in the assembly plant.

Are the designers and engineers less harried by the government today?