Home » Toyota’s Legendary ‘CALTY’ Design Studio Turns Fifty: How The First West Coast Satellite Studio Changed Car Design

Toyota’s Legendary ‘CALTY’ Design Studio Turns Fifty: How The First West Coast Satellite Studio Changed Car Design

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CALTY Design Research, Newport Beach

I turned fifty earlier this year, and dear reader let me tell you I have not been dealing with the irrevocable march of time very well. My optician told me I needed to join the reading glasses club, which I don’t want to be in because I’m president of the vain bastards club. I’m thinking about getting back on a motorbike when finances allow, and I already have a classic sports car. I just need a young goth supermodel partner and some guitar lessons to complete my male midlife crisis bingo card. Something else celebrating fifty orbits around the sun this year is Toyota’s CALTY satellite design studio in Newport Beach California. What is a satellite studio, and what in the designer double speaking hell is a CALTY?

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Bill Mitchell outside the GM Design Center. Screenshot via Rick Earl on Youtube

Traditionally OEMs always integrated their design studios as part of their main development and engineering campuses. GM’s Design Center is part of the massive Eero Saarinen designed Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, and was the last department to be completed before the facility opened in 1955. This stunning piece of mid-century modern architecture is still used, essentially in its original form to this day. As Edsel Ford began to pry the family business from his father’s ghoulish fingers, he knew Ford needed to follow GM’s lead and start giving their cars a considered visual appeal – but it wasn’t until Henry Ford II took over that all the elements of designing and productionizing a car came together. In 1953 a brand-new facility called the Styling Center was completed with the famous rotunda, a covered dome with a turntable used for viewing full size models. A couple of years ago Ford committed a heinous act of architectural vandalism by demolishing this historic facility in order to build a new, more flexible space suitable for designing ‘mobility solutions’, whatever the fuck they turn out to be.

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This is a brief overview of what you need to design cars. Somewhere for the sketch monkeys to sit with their headphones on, drawing. Multiple rows of rows of desks for “interior, exterior” and “color, materials and Finish” (CMF) teams, depending on how many designers you have. Each will have a reasonably fast desktop and a large Wacom graphics tablet.

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The CMF team will have a huge walk-in wardrobe full of samples, different fabrics, trim and paint swatches, and other junk they’ve accumulated because it’s interesting. Quite often this shit ends up strewn around the studio like toys in a toddler’s bedroom. The visualization, UI/UX, digital modelling, surfacing teams and studio engineers all need desks as well. Lots of them as they far outnumber the actual creative designers. Then you need a series of clay plates, calibrated metal floors where clay models are milled and sculpted. There will be a line of these so several designs can be ruined simultaneously.

As a design progresses through reviews and gateways, hard models representing a final design vision will need to be made. You need a fucktonne of industrial equipment to make these – additive manufacturing machines for detail parts, five axis mills for the main body, an upholstery shop, paint booths big enough for a car, and a large team of skilled modelers. Finally, you need somewhere to gaze and point at your models in broad daylight – at bare minimum a secure viewing garden outside the studio.

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Having the main studios close to the corporate epicenter is logistically convenient, but also stifling. It’s great for getting board approval to move forward with your ideas and making quick decisions. Not so great if you want the faceless suits in planning and marketing to leave you the fuck alone to get on with it. More than that, being stuck in the middle of a soulless concrete sprawl in nowheresville is not always conducive for inspiration. You need to experience the real world around you to get an understanding of what’s really going on. You need to be – to use a wanky phrase – plugged into a vibe. Hence the arrival of satellite studios.

In the past if OEMs wanted to get a wider variety of design proposals, or they were a bit stuck and didn’t like what was being created in-house, they might have gone to one of the great independent studios Europe, like Pininfarina or Bertone. Places like this would often rebody existing cars or create models on spec as a way of demonstrating their capabilities in the hope of winning future design work. Because they were not beholden to any corporate cultural dogma or institutional inertia, they were much more flexible and responsive in what they could do.

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As the car industry became increasingly global in the seventies OEMs liked the benefits of these independent idea factories but didn’t like paying for their services, which were expensive. Even back then a concept car cost multiple millions of dollars. One of the first was Ghia in Turin, which was purchased outright by Ford in 1971. Ghia’s ability to produce drivable concepts rapidly, impressed Lee Iacocca who unanimously approved their Bobcat proposal for the Mk1 Fiesta (built on the mechanicals of the recently released Fiat 127), although the final production design was eventually handed off to Ford of Europe’s German studio.

Because of impending clean air legislation and its place as a center of car culture, Toyota recognized the outsize influence California would have on car design in the future. The name CALTY comes from crowbarring together of CALifornia, Toyota and Yachioda Samgyo, a company that was part owner of the operation until 1999. Opened as a design research outpost in 1973, it was an extremely small outfit consisting of just a couple of dozen designers and modelers tucked away in a hidden corner of an industrial park.  California had taken to Japanese imports and Toyota figured out that to really understand the US market they needed to be where the automotive trend setters were. Not only that, but they were also in prime position to lure experienced talent away from gray Detroit to the vibrant, sunnier climes of LA.

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1982 MX-1 Concept
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1983 MX-2 Concept

One of the first was ex-GM designer David Stollery, who would be instrumental in getting the studio up and running and designing the first production car to emerge from CALTY, the second generation 1978 Celica. With the emergence of this car, CALTY went from a curiosity working in the shadows to being the birthplace of ideas for the wider Toyota design process. They were given the remit of exploring themes and ideas for cars for the American market, free from the corporate shackles of Japan.

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Moving to a larger, properly equipped premises at their present location of Newport Beach, CALTY would go on to build numerous concepts completely in-house, including the MX-1 and MX-2 halo sports cars, but their next production design was the 1990 Previa minivan. Since about 1995 CALTY has been responsible for the majority of American market Toyotas. CALTY was also instrumental in helping the original Lexus F1 research team with sketches and a fifth scale model to take back to Japan, for the car which would eventually become the first Lexus – the LS400. The FJ Cruiser, which was another CALTY project, went from concept to production almost unchanged, and since the Hilux/Tacoma split they’ve had sole responsibility for the USDM pickup.

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Toyota Previa Sketch
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Tacoma Side View Sketch

A second Lexus model, the SC400 was based on the JDM Toyota Soarer. CALTY famously came up with the Lexus SC400’s shape by filling balloons with water, covering them in plaster, photographing the forms and then sketching over the top. It sounds like typical designer bullshit, but it was revolutionary stuff for the time and is a completely valid process to explore new visual languages and themes. We still do similar things today – find an interesting shape, stretch it out, Photoshop some wheels on it and see what comes out.

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Lexus SC Form Study
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1991 SC400 Phase 2 Fiberglass Model

We often think of Toyota as being a bit staid and stuffy, so it might seem surprising they were the first OEM to set up a studio in California. But they were keen to expand their presence in the US market, and enshrined as one of the twelve pillars of the Toyota Production System is the phrase Genchi Genbutsu, – ‘get your boots on’. Or rather ‘go and see for yourself’. Go to the location where the problem exists and look at it with your own eyes to fully understand it. In the same manner that most OEMs have adopted the practices of the TPS, nearly every major manufacturer now has a studio in California. A side benefit is the proximity to Art Center College in Pasadena, one of the world’s leading car design schools, so they have direct access to best and brightest graduates before crushing their dreams in the corporate car design grindstone.

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FT-1 Concept and CALTY Staff

It’s not just California. As China became an increasingly important market over the last decade or so, OEMs dived right in to better localize existing designs for Chinese tastes. Most OEMs now have multiple studios around the world to contribute to the design process, each subtly influenced by where it’s located. Miata designer Tom Matano thinks the idea for that car could never have come from Japan, because designers there commute by train each day. Although the days of satellite studios being fully independent of the mothership may be long gone, they still play a critical role in offering alternate design proposals, and sharing out the sheer volume of design work that expanded model ranges require.

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Unless of course you’re General Motors. GM was another early pioneer of setting up a studio on the West Coast, opening its Advance Concept Center in 1984. In their time-honored tradition of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing they closed it in 1994. And then opened a brand-new California Design Center in North Hollywood six years later. Remember what I said about needing to design cars where you’re going to sell them? Since selling Vauxhall/Opel to Stellantis GM has no presence in Europe.

So why the hell are they setting up a new studio down the road from me in Leamington Spa?

Unless otherwise stated all images courtesy of Toyota

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Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
7 months ago

“I turned fifty earlier this year, and dear reader let me tell you I have not been dealing with the irrevocable march of time very well”

Congratulations. Now is the time to start taking better care of yourself. Shits going to happen, probably literally especially if you don’t take care of yourself, so make sure to get your annual checkups and make every effort to act on the advice your medical professionals give you. Things like hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney disease and so on may have no symptoms at all, you’ll have no idea of the danger until the damage is done. Such things happen even to folks who live an active lifestyle with good BMI. The earlier you catch a malady the easier you’ll be able to manage it.

“I’m president of the vain bastards club”

Give it time. Live long enough and you’ll give so few fucks you’ll DD a Pontiac.

Last edited 7 months ago by Cheap Bastard
Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
7 months ago

WOW, I did not immediately think “balloon” when I scrolled past the flesh-covered blob.

Torque
Torque
8 months ago

Thanks Adrian this was interesting.

I’ve always liked the Previa, I didn’t realize it was designed at CALTY;

Thinking what a radical sculpted departure from its predessor both exterior & at least the interior dash it does make sense.

It would be interesting to see a modern take on a Previa optimized for aero & ev!

Lotsofchops
Lotsofchops
8 months ago

The visualization, UI/UX, digital modelling, surfacing teams and studio engineers all need desks as well. Lots of them as they far outnumber the actual creative designers.

Adrian is out for blood today I see.
Another very interesting read, thank you. I’m also an engineer (not automotive) so the design side of things always fascinates me, since it’s so different from what I deal with.

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
8 months ago

Ford still has its Design Studio in Irvine, California. It’s next to what used to be the Ford Premier Automotive Group HQ building (which is now the Taco Bell HQ) right next to I-5.

Torque
Torque
8 months ago
Reply to  Widgetsltd

Ford PAG HQ now Taco Bell HQ building sounds super funny

I can’t help but think of Demolition Man

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
8 months ago

A trivial side note, down the road/up the hill from CALTY there used to be a Ford Aerospace R&D campus. It’s now swanky homes. I was a 20-something dude with a third-hand 911E when I got pulled over on MacArthur Blvd. at Ford Rd. for some excessive speed. Aw, c’mon man, it’s late and almost no traffic…”

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
8 months ago

Thank you Adrian for the great design article and even better (to me) the concept sketch of my Tacoma, in the same color no less. I was smitten as I scrolled past the Previa. I”m currently toying with the idea of swapping the body onto a WRX chassis since the Taco is very “crunchy” underneath. But the darn thing runs great with 289K miles, so why cut into it.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
8 months ago

When I was an engineering student I used to sketch cars all the time, but looking back they were always terrible and draped over whatever engineering thing I was currently obsessed with. And just features of existing cars I liked smashed together.

Anyway, if anyone wants to set up a similar remote studio in California but for powertrain designers to have wacky ideas in I’m only an eleven hour flight away.

Scoutdude
Scoutdude
8 months ago

I’m sorry but I see a mixture of Monza and Chevette styling cues in their first Celica.

Younork
Younork
8 months ago

I had forgotten how much a younger me loved that FT-1 concept. Now also seeing the new supra, it is really amazing how much FT-1 one they managed to push to production; both are, at least in my mind, particularly striking vehicles

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
8 months ago
Reply to  Younork

To me the current Supra is striking in a bad way.

Silent But Deadly
Silent But Deadly
8 months ago

Perhaps GM wants to bring European styling tastes to their Chinese Buick offering? Or perhaps adjust the flavours of Cadillac…

…no. You’re right. This seems like a silly idea for such a geographically constrained auto maker.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
7 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

“The have a studio in China. I can’t for the life of me figure out what they’re up to and it’s bugging me.”

For the same reason everybody else set up in China: Cheap exploitable labor.

“Why not set up in Europe where a) the talent pool is deeper”

I dunno, there are 448M in the EU vs. 1.4B in China. That’s a LOT more potential (and cheaper) talent.

“it’s inside the EU. So no visa hassles.”

Maybe I’m missing something. If the studio is in China and they’re hiring Chinese where’s the visa hassle?

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
7 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Ah. That makes more sense, thank you.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
7 months ago

{ Catera intensifies }

Let’s see them Caddies that zig!

Steve Balistreri
Steve Balistreri
8 months ago

Great article! If I hadn’t become an auto engineer I was going to go into design. I applied at CCS in Detroit but it was fiercely competitive and you didn’t know if you got into the auto program until your Junior year. At my engineering school you started your internship at an auto company your freshmen year so ended up going that route but the fascination never left. Back in the day when I had extra cash I’d get those Japanese auto design journals some bookstores sold. Seems like such a cool job. This was an interesting look at how these studios worked behind the scenes.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
8 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

As a student in mid-1980s Britain, it used to be the only place to go to find out what was happening in design studios in the US and Japan. News of the latest copy arriving in the faculty library (usually a few months after publication) would cause a mass migration there, followed by a scrum around whoever got their hands on it first.

DysLexus
DysLexus
8 months ago

Fascinating. I’ve always been interested in how cars are designed but never understood the process.

Anytime any new model comes out, we “armchair quarterbacks” are quick to criticize these as hideously ugly and vociferously wonder how it could ever be designed so poorly.

Car design must be an endeavor which nearly all of your initial attempts are repulsed with the slim chance that maybe one idea will break through and be seen as prized art.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
8 months ago

“I can see Russia from my front porch.”

And enjoy being “only” 50 dude. You have not really even stepped into the shit box yet…

Last edited 8 months ago by Col Lingus
Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
8 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

This 70+ guy agrees.

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