A car is born
The designer of the PT Cruiser needed lots of sketches, models, and late nights. But first he needed a good idea.
Bryan Nesbitt always wanted to design cars. Growing up, he was "consumed" by cars, he says. "It was really my only interest."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now, six years after getting his first real job, the Chrysler PT Cruiser he designed is the hottest car rolling off showroom floors. (Yes, Mr. Nesbitt has one. His first new car is a customized black Cruiser with oversize wheels and tires and an airfoil on the roof.)
Nesbitt loves the way car design combines art and engineering, he says - and he loves the fact that the result is something you can drive down the road. But "the best part is when my dad calls and says, 'Hey, can you believe this? I just saw it!' " His father is referring to articles about Bryan and the Cruiser. "It's a little surreal," Bryan says. The car has gotten a lot of attention.
Nesbitt also enjoys the variety in his work. "You get to wear a lot of hats," he says. Designers decide how the car will look. But to do that, they have to think about who will buy the car. What are their wants and dreams? How will the car be advertised? How might everything have changed by the time the car is finally a reality? After all, it can take up to five years to put a new design on the road.
The beginning of a car-design project is the most fun, Nesbitt says. He calls it "ideating."
"Everybody does whatever they want to do," he says. As a designer, you can draw "whatever you think's going to look good on the road, versus what you can buy today."
Nesbitt says he loves all types of cars - "trucks, and everything. Well ... I could do without a minivan."
Midway through the process, flat sketches become three-dimensional designs on expensive industrial computers. That step takes the most experience to learn, Nesbitt says.
The three-dimensional computer models are then turned into actual models. Milling machines take small blocks of wood or styrofoam and chisel out car models a few inches long. The day a design is milled is called "Christmas Day" by designers.
"Sometimes, it's Christmas Day," Nesbitt says, and "you mill it out, and you're like 'That's not what I saw. That is not what I wanted to do.' Then you have to try it again." Later, a full-size clay model may be constructed by specially trained workers. Colored foil is applied to the clay to make it look like a real car. Clay models take weeks to produce. So do fiberglass or steel prototypes.
Once the design team is satisfied, and managers have decided to produce the vehicle, lots of other workers get involved: engineers, manufacturing executives, and parts buyers, to name a few. They look over the car. This is when designers have to start compromising.
"The most frustrating thing," Nesbitt says, "is when you're knee-deep in a project, and you find out you can't do this thing that you really wanted to do." Perhaps it's impossible to manufacture that way. Or maybe it won't meet safety or performance goals.
On the Cruiser, for example, it was difficult to keep the headlights so close to the tires inside the fender. It was also tough to keep the windshield upright and old-fashioned-looking without ruining the aerodynamics and gas mileage.
Early in the process, though, "you never really think about these things," Nesbitt says, "because you don't want to inhibit yourself."
Early in the process, designers also work regular 8-to-5 business hours. But toward the end, they work many nights and weekends to finish on time. "It's the artist's way," Nesbitt says.