STROLLING down the corridors of the General Motors Design Center, Charles M. Jordan pauses to point out a dummy fiberglass model of a luxury car of the future. The front windshield folds over and into the roof, and the tint of the windshield can be altered electronically to shade passengers from the sun. ``You can have it transparent or you can dial it down to opaque,'' explains Mr. Jordan, vice-president of design for GM. ``We have also designed it so there is a visor that you can put where you want.'' The design does away with the big rail where the roof meets the top of the windshield on today's cars. It is in laboratories such as this one that the automakers' race for aerodynamics is run. The challenge: Design a vehicle that's efficient, unencumbered - but not boring.
Auto executives are going out of their way to say that style has not gone out of style. Ford's chief design executive, Jack Telnack, talks about ``flair.'' Mr. Telnack says Ford is now doing face lifts on the Taurus and Sable as well as derivative models: ``They're all aero, yet you won't have any trouble telling them apart.''
Ford chairman Donald E. Petersen describes the rounded shape of the Taurus and Sable as ``the look of cars to come.'' Yet it's the super-aero Probe V, an operational ``concept car,'' that really provides a peek far into the future of auto design at Ford. Among its 21st-century features, the Probe has sliding doors and digital displays above the dash.
GM's Jordan vows the new designs will be elegant and distinctive - a sore point with GM after much criticism of its ``look-alike'' cars.
``See that Indy Corvette over there,'' says Jordan, pointing to a painting across from his desk.
``There's not a straight line on that car. It's a combined effort of the designer and the sculptor to do a graceful car - one that's not flat and not fat. You look at it and it's got some music. That's where design is going.''
Nearby, a two-passenger car is about as long as the wheelbase of today's Cadillac. Recalling the bug-eyed MG Sprite of the 1950s, this back-to-basics car has a roadster top, small engine, and simple panels. While it has all the practical stuff of a modern-day automobile, it would be priced low, and be easy to service and fun to drive.
``I call it a huggable car,'' Jordan says, smiling.
Wider, lower exterior designs are on the way at GM, he says, and so are softer, more integrated surfaces inside the car.
``We've also got to have an aero-efficient body design that looks great,'' Jordan says. ``It's easy to do an ugly aero car. What separates the men from the boys is to do an efficient aerodynamic body shape that looks wonderful and will sell.''
But as the aero trend matures, it's ``the undersurface of the car where we really haven't done all our work,'' Jordan observes.
Chrysler design vice-president Thomas Gale agrees, saying: ``I can get the coefficient of drag [a measure of air resistance] down a lot more, but that would involve doing something to the whole underbody of the car, taking care of the suspension pieces, muffler, fuel tank, and all of the bits and pieces that are under the car.''
``Design follows technology,'' Mr. Gale continues, and technology is on a roll. Electronics, new materials, new tools, new ideas - all suggest some stunning changes in the way cars are conceived and built.
Will the so-called space frame, which allows rapid and less costly design changes, pioneered by the Pontiac Fiero, have any significance in the near future? The space frame is a metal frame, especially protected against rust, on which a car's ``skin,'' in the case of the Fiero a plastic skin, can be bolted.
GM has pulled back from its program to use space-frame technology in the replacement cars for the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.
As for Ford, Telnack says, ``We can't see any strong advantages to this type of design or to plastics, either.''
It appears that the cost of the GM program was simply getting out of control.
Evolution of the global auto industry and the flood of imports to the US have totally revised the ground rules for designing and building cars. What have Detroit automakers learned from the Japanese?
``We're learning how to do things quicker,'' says Jordan.
Chrysler's Gale adds: ``In order to survive we have to move closer to the market and get new cars on the road a lot faster.''
In other words, an automobile designer can't sit in his studio and try to outguess what's going to happen six years from now.
``We have to get our response time closer to three years,'' says Gale. The industry now is working on cars for the early 1990s.