Sometimes, you've just got to get away from it all.
At least, that was the thinking behind Toyota's CALTY design research facility in southern California. Nestled in amongst eucalyptus trees and located beside a Baptist church, CALTY is, in the words of design research president Kevin Hunter, "a sleepy little design studio", originally meant to be a "stealth" operation.
Toyota was the first car company to set up this kind of satellite facility in California, when CALTY opened for business, in 1973. It is one of five such studios Toyota has worldwide, and works hand-in-glove with a similar facility, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Some stealth operation. CALTY, which stands, cleverly, for California Toyota, has either designed outright or had a major part in the development of models like the Solara Convertible, FJ Cruiser, Highlander, Scion xB, Avalon, and lately, the Venza, Sienna, Tundra, and new Avalon.
CALTY is also deeply involved in the Lexus LF-LC concept car, which is making the rounds at all the car shows, and is in the middle of putting together a NASCAR race car that will be campaigned in 2013. Security is ironclad at CALTY, and not only were cameras not allowed inside the facility, they had to be tagged and stored while journalists were given the tour.
"Sometimes, you have to get out of the corporate environment, which can be stifling," explains Kevin Hunter. "The main reason CALTY was founded was to be an American design operation, because it became obvious in the 1970s, that this was becoming the world's biggest market for Toyota."
One of the first models out of the gate at the Newport Beach facility was the 1978 Celica, and in the building there's a wall display showing various paint colours and fabric choices from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – from all manufacturers. Colours like "tropical rose," which was used by Ford in the 1950s, "grabber orange," a popular choice in the 1970s, and my personal favourite, "limegold moondust," which was used on various Lincoln models in 1975.
Designers often refer back to these combos for inspiration when laying out an interior or deciding on paint schemes, but Hunter laments the fact that, despite their best wishes, when it comes to final production choices, most cars seem to be either white or grey these days. "That's what people buy," he sighs.
With some 60 permanent employees, CALTY is assigned the task of either designing something from scratch or refining a product to make it more suitable for the market. "Sometimes, designers get handed a package by head office and we're told to 'make it beautiful,' " says Hunter, "or sometimes, we make a proposal ourselves and have it approved by the executive. That's when we start from scratch."
In the case of the latter scenario, the process starts with a stack of freehand drawings, which make the rounds among designers and is eventually made solid in the form of a clay model, followed by a full-size version and, after countless tweaks and adjustments, a prototype.
A lot happens along the way, of course, with endless meetings between the designers and other department heads – powertrain, suspension, engineering, marketing, and so on, and CAD-CAM and other computer technology is there every step of the way, but the process is essentially the same now as it was back in the 1950s.
"One of the things we have to keep in mind these days," adds Hunter, "is pedestrian impact. This is currently the biggest safety issue in automotive design and it directly affects styling."
In the case of Toyota, reinventing its image is also high on the list of priorities right now. By the company's own admission, it's been hit hard by three external forces: the faltering U.S. economy, its floor-mat/unintended acceleration imbroglio and the Japanese tsunami. As a result, it's fallen into a rut and needs a makeover in terms of public perception, according to Hunter.
"We need to be more interesting as a company," he says, likening the present Toyota to an automotive department store, with a broad choice of products, but no real snap in its lineup. "We need to give the company more of a boutique feel."
In other words, buyers can go to Toyota for a certain kind of product, or Lexus with something more upscale in mind, or Scion for something more youth-oriented.
Which leads us to the LF-LC concept car. This prototype, with its "spindle" front grille treatment, represents the new Lexus identity. If and when it goes into production, it will be a major "brand reinforcement" for the company, and traces of it can already be found on existing models – the new GS, for example.
Everything about this car is cutting-edge; from its high-performance hybrid drivetrain, to the outrageous styling, to its extensive use of electronics, to the "cocoon" interior layout. Interestingly, this latter part of the car was inspired, says the company, by a plant leaf, specifically, an aspidistra frond that was transformed into man-made material via computer technology and then applied to the interior. Toyota is being coy about the future of this model, but either way, it's definitely out of the box.
Which applies to the state of affairs at CALTY. "Sometimes, if you listen to everything everybody else says," Hunter says, "you won't come up with anything new."