Automakers around the world keep their eyes on California

Not surprisingly, the success of the Art Center College of Design has paralleled the growth of California as a ''state on wheels'' - especially foreign wheels. Half of all the cars sold in the state are imports, a figure that greatly troubles Detroit.

The rest of the world, understandably, keeps a close watch on the tastes of California's millions of autophiles. Recognizing the importance of the state's car market and its effect on what the nation drives, both domestic and Japanese automakers maintain West Coast design complexes.

The Europeans also keep a close eye on California. One of the directors of West Germany's automaking company, BMW, recently spent a few days at Art Center.

BMW is planning to do something far more dramatic in design as it seeks to produce cars that are more competitive, all the while maintaining the conservative character of the company.

''That's a tough nut to crack,'' asserts Keith Teter, head of the school's industrial-design department.

''We do our automotive projects one at a time,'' he explains. Last term, for example, a team worked on the super-aerodynamic Probe V car for Ford.

''We were given a specific windshield slant, specific drive-train and engine position, et cetera, and the students were to face up to some of the problems of packaging the people in this highly aerodynamic form,'' explains Donald Kubly, president and director of the school.

Clearly, carmakers are eager to have all the help they can get in designing for the 1990s and beyond. And the Art Center's program gives enthusiastic students an opportunity to take an actual manufacturing problem, break it apart, and come up with a solution that makes sense from both design and economic points of view.

Meanwhile, on the nearby car-crowded freeways and streets, Californians are busily putting design ideas to the test.

Whether it's the generation of new ideas at Art Center or the gargantuan local market for the finished product, the state's impact on the worldwide auto market is hard to overstate.

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