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."

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.

Designers work closely with their bosses. The bosses expect presentations every week when they visit the designers' cubicles, which are decorated in dorm-room clutter.

Designers draw hundreds of sketches before any car is produced. And that's not counting the dozens that never make it off the drawing board.

In the beginning, managers may lay out some parameters: "We need a new midsize family car," for example. Every week, managers make suggestions and pick the designs they like best.

The most important part of the job, Nesbitt says, is communication. "At every level, what I'm doing is communicating my idea," he says. "I'm communicating the idea on paper; then I communicate it in 3-D."

The biggest challenge is constantly developing fresh, new ideas. Designing cars today isn't just about curving a fender or drawing a grill. Designers define the very purpose of a vehicle.

Nesbitt's boss, Freeman Thomas, calls car designers "cultural architects" - a title Nesbitt tried unsuccessfully to have printed on his business cards.

The SUV (sports utility vehicle) became popular when ordinary cars were too small to do all the things that buyers expected of them. (Buyers also wanted to break out of the minivan mold.) The SUV was designed to provide carlike comfort with trucklike utility.

Now the Internet is changing the way people shop and work. Car buyers may not need so much space, and cars may change again.

To stay current with such social trends, designers read a lot. They also visit art museums and other museums with current shows. They go to movies. Nesbitt says he goes to Limp Bizkit concerts and "watches a lot of MTV." It's all part of the job, he jokes.

Do you dream about becoming a car designer? Don't worry if you can't draw a straight line, Nesbitt says. "Straight lines can be really boring!"

You don't have to be a "gearhead," either. You do need a basic understanding of car mechanics, but "I think you can actually be inhibited if you know too much," Nesbitt says.

When it comes to being hired, aspiring car designers should remember that car companies are looking for "the next big idea," Nesbitt says. He spent this summer running a design studio for student interns. "We want people with an idea how to make things better," he says. The minivan was one such big idea. The SUV was another. Chrysler hopes the Cruiser is a third. Today, carmakers are looking for a successful small car.

Wannabe car designers should also know that Detroit's big car companies hire mainly from two colleges: Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.

When Nesbitt was 12, he wrote a research paper on car designers and found out about that. Since his dad lived in Los Angeles, he went to visit Art Center in Pasadena. That's when he learned how expensive it was going to be to go there, "and how much I was actually going to have to finance - which I'm still doing." He's still paying off his college bills.

But at least he can afford a new car. As a DaimlerChrysler employee, he can lease new cars at a discount. He has to keep careful track of any problems with the car, though. He also has to turn in the car after 12 to 18 months.

Meanwhile, his mom is on a waiting list to buy a PT Cruiser. She may have to wait 16 months, the car is so popular. "She's No. 289, or something like that," Nesbitt says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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