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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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