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Harley Earl had been influenced by fighter planes of the 1930s and ‘40s, which explain the portholes that are a Buick design cue, shown here on the side of the LaCrosse concept car.

Note the organic shapes of the Bengal, which is characteristic of the fundamental Buick design approach since the 1938 Y-Job.

Making It Good At Buick: A Talk with Designer David Lyon

Dave Lyon is a self-professed car-nut who is charged with designing the cars of tomorrow for Buick. While some people might equate “Buick” with tired luxomobiles, given the concepts like the Bengal that Lyon had a hand in, they may be writing a new history at the brand thanks to Lyon and his colleagues.

What’s Next.
Dave Lyon is a chief designer at Buick. That’s a chief designer because there are actually several within the organization, with others being attached to production programs. Lyon’s job is different: “I’m looking after all of the brands in an advanced way. I’m thinking about the next Rendezvous or next Regal or a vehicle we don’t have yet.” Or, said more simply: “I throw ideas out there. That’s what I do.”

Committed.
Lyon came to Detroit at age 17 to study automotive design at the College for Creative Studies (CCS). “When I was growing up, I was a car nut. Most people grow out of it. I guess I never did.”

Something to think about regarding commitment: Lyon recalls that in his class, there were 60 freshmen. When he was graduated in 1990, there were just 14 people remaining.

Everything Olds Is New—For Now.
Following CCS, Lyon went to GM. He spent the early part of his career—and, so far, the biggest part—at Oldsmobile. “When I started at Oldsmobile, they were still doing whitewall tires, wire wheels, padded tops, red velour interiors—the whole bit. It is kind of interesting to see the changeover. It was Design that did that. The Aurora, Intrigue, Alero—these were very contemporary cars. Very beautiful cars. Apparently not enough people thought so. I’m proud of what we did at Oldsmobile. It was a big turnaround.”

Speaking of the forthcoming elimination of Olds: “It’s a real heartbreaker for me.”

He did some advanced work at Cadillac’s studio. He’s been with Buick for three years.

Tools of the Trade.
Everyone in the auto industry talks about “digital” and “math” as though there is some sort of magic in the terms, as though they are the end-all and be-all of automotive design, development, engineering, and production. Well, maybe. “I’m not going to say we never touch clay or it’s all done virtually, because I wouldn’t believe anyone who told you that.” Yes, Lyon and his colleagues are using the computer. But they are also using some of the tangible tools of the designer’s trade, like clay. “We might start with a scale model in clay, digitize it, and work on it in the computer. We go back and forth between computer and model.” He points out that there’s something to be said for “seeing a full size model spinning around in the studio” versus seeing something on a computer screen. But he admits, “We’re in the process of training our eyes to pick things up so we don’t have to cut as many clays.”

They are also training themselves to become more proficient in using computer-based tools prior to the point of doing clays: “Sketching has moved into the computer, too. It’s a little difficult to pick up at first. We have sketch tablets with light pencils. We’re drawing on the tablet, but have to look up at the screen to see what we’ve drawn. It’s a little bit like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.” But there is an advantage to being able to pull off that feat of coordination: the Edit/Undo capability. “If you’re drawing with markers, pencil or chalk and put a line down and you don’t like it, you’re starting a new sketch.”

There are other benefits he cites. For example, there is the ability to create sketches that look photo realistic or very painterly. There is the ability to create more iterations of a design faster. There is the ability to communicate with engineering not only more quickly, but with more complete information.

But he points out something important to keep in mind: “The computer doesn’t come up with ideas or make things beautiful—that’s still the person.” The designer.

Influences.
Lyon looks at more than cars. He looks at different aspects of product—whether it is computers, chairs, clothes, whatever—and of graphic design. He admits that not everything translates to cars. But there is still interest.

He provides an example of something that does have specific translation, something that makes a difference in what is being created in the Buick studio: furniture. Consider creating a bench seat, something that he admits many people “equate with an over-60-year-old owner.” The designers obtain an array of furniture catalogs, catalogs showing the latest in couch and sofa design. They look at the shapes, forms, and materials. Then, they “do a bench seat so beautiful and designed so well that someone in their 30s or 40s will order it because it looks good.”

OK. He’s a car guy. He’s influenced by cars. He says he became a car designer because he was struck by a car that was exhibited at the Geneva Auto Show in 1966: the Lamborghini Miura. He calls it the “most beautiful car, ever.”

He thinks that the split-window Corvettes are great. He used to own a ’66 Toranado, which he maintains is “one of the coolest American cars, ever.”

Nowadays, things aren’t quite as exhilarating. “It’s hard to get excited about Civics and stuff like that.”

Back to the Future.
History plays a role in Lyon’s sensibilities. “Next year we’ll be a 100-year-old company,” he notes. And one of the effects is that as he and his colleagues work on the next vehicle they are aware of history.

“We’re not just designing the next mid-sized car,” Lyon observes. “We understand that every car we do is going to end up in a Buick history book. You’d better make it worthy.” No one wants to be responsible for a car that’s eminently forgettable.

There is another aspect of history as it relates to design, and that’s heritage. Cues and shapes that have, through time, become characteristic of certain vehicles. Touches that provide identification of the brand. At Buick, there are several. Portholes. Cross-car taillights. Elliptical-shaped front grilles with vertical bars. “Our job in the studio is to find different ways to do these things.”

But there is a fine line to tread when dealing with history: “You’ve got to be careful how you embrace it: You don’t want to be backwards-looking.”

Back to the Future—Again.
One of the most famous concept cars of the 20th century was a Buick. The 1938 Y-Job that came out of Harley Earl’s studio was all about flowing shapes and forms. (Forms that still relate to the objectives at Buick today: Lyon, when talking about the continued relevance to modeling in clay at the studio, points out, “the sculptural, organic forms we’re doing like to be worked by hand.” Which also explains why computers haven’t totally taken over in the studio.) Plenty of designs that are recently on the road (e.g., the New Beetle; the PT Cruiser) or shown at shows (e.g., the Forty-Nine) hearken back to earlier designs of earlier vehicles.

Lyon makes a few points about retro designs. He says that when they do clinics, the retro cars often evoke an “I’ve already had one of those!” from the older crowd and an “I’ve never had anything like that!” from the younger set.

He says that as they work with their heritage, “We’ve been careful not to do a shamelessly retro car—we don’t want to put something on the stand that would look more appropriate at Autorama than at the Detroit Auto Show.”

Asked whether he thinks that Harley Earl was looking back to the heritage of automotive transportation when he created the Y-Job, Lyon quips, “From all I can tell, he was trying to make it look like the Martians had landed. If you look at what else was on the road in 1938”—and it should be noted that the Y-Job was actually a car that Earl drove for some 10 years—“the Y-Job was a spaceship.”

Forward to the Future.
As the engineering community brings out new powertrains, there is the possibility for new designs. Lyon points out that the traditional layout of bumper-engine-steering wheel-chair may not apply in the future. He says that the question that designers may be asking themselves is where to put the people in the car?

Speaking of Time.
Lyon is 32 years old. Which might strike some people as being rather, well, incongruous vis-à-vis the brand he works for. The primary demographic of Buick isn’t found there.

But Lyon points out something that more people in the industry ought to take into account: “I’m not designing cars for old people. I’m designing cars that anyone can love.”

Let’s face it: there’s very little besides chronology that separates a 60-year-old car lover from a 30-year-old car lover. Great designs are timeless.