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Brian Nielander

The ME-412 is the first concept from the pen of Brian Nielander, who normally spends his days designing trucks back in Auburn Hills. How are supercars and trucks related? Both have “soul,” a commodity Nielander feels has been lacking for far too long.

Brian Nielander SOUL MAN

His name may not be familiar, but Brian Nielander is having a dramatic impact on the design of Chrysler's concept vehicles. Say the words "ME-412" and anyone with an interest in automobiles will instantly recognize the name of Chrysler's concept supercar. Say the name "Brian Nielander," however, and no one will bat an eye. Yet the ME-412 owes its looks to this man.

A 1998 graduate of Detroit's College for Creative Studies, Nielander went straight from school to Chrysler Design, where he had interned two years earlier. He designed the exterior mirrors on the Charger concept car, almost as if to prove that what insiders say about design at a large corporation is true: One day you're designing complete vehicles in school, the next you're designing door handles–or mirrors–at a big company. Thankfully, Nielander's career didn't stop with the trim pieces.

Next up came the interior for the 300C convertible concept, which lead to working in the exterior studio in charge of shaping the production 300 sedan. Then it was off to California for a stint at Chrysler's Pacifica studio before arriving back in Auburn Hills, MI, where Nielander joined the truck studio. "Moving around like that keeps you fresh," says Nielander, "and designers always like to move on to new things. Plus, I think it helps make a designer more well-rounded than he might be if he stayed in the same area throughout his career."

While at the truck studio, Nielander won the competition to design the ME-412. The ME-412 was a crash program, taking just 11 months to go from an idea to the stage in Detroit. "That project took 10 months of my life," says Nielander, "months that were spent working flat-out with the rest of the team to bring everything together." Unlike production programs, which have a longer timeframe, more people involved, and less direct accountability, Nielander worked hand-in-hand with engineers and aerodynamicists to shape the exterior, make room in the interior, and guarantee that the mechanical package didn't impinge on the occupants. "I doubt I'll ever have an opportunity like that again."

Once that program was complete, it was back to the truck studio to work on advanced designs for everything from SUVs to pickups. He says he likes the work, but the fact that he's won the competition to design one of Chrysler's 2005 concepts–again set for a Detroit introduction–makes one wonder if he isn't a little bit bored, or bursting with ideas. "Not really," he says, "I like the challenge." Despite his day job in the truck studio, word is the concept in question is once again a car, not a truck.

For Nielander, the world of automotive design started to make sense when he saw former Chrysler Design chief Tom Gale and the original Viper on the cover of Time magazine. "I'd always been good at art, I was creative, and cars appealed to me," he says. "When I saw that issue and read what Gale had to say about the process and the possibilities, I knew that's where I wanted to be. It all started to make sense." While at Pacifica, he worked under Freeman Thomas, head of Advanced Product Design at the California campus, and another major influence. "Freeman is super-creative," says Nielander in a tone approaching awe, "and he keeps you on your toes. You have to work hard to keep up with him, but it's worth it."

Nielander drives a black-on-black Dodge Magnum R/T, a car that he describes as having, "soul–something that's been missing from American cars and American design for a long, long time." It's an emotion that he believes can be transferred to Chrysler's mid-size and small cars without resorting to making miniaturized clones. "Each vehicle in an automaker's portfolio should have a look that reflects the package, the drivetrain, the soul of the company, and the national culture," he says. He scoffs at those who push ultimate flexibility and storage in each vehicle as the answer to customer needs, suggesting that this fixation substitutes function for creativity and homogenizes the real desires of each customer group into the same gray paste. "Not every vehicle needs three rows or lots of flexibility," Nielander states emphatically. "Those attributes need to match the personality of the car so that the customer wants to buy into the emotion it reflects." It's enough to make one stop and wonder what might be hiding just behind the doors of the DaimlerChrysler Design Center, and what Brian Nielander has in store for his audience at the 2005 Detroit auto show.