Vehicle for creativity

Martin Smith’s hobby, designing cars, is a real busman’s holiday – he’s executive director of design at Vauxhall & Opel. Trish Lorenz gets to meet this driven man

Martin Smith looks like a stereotypical Englishman. When we meet he is wearing a tweed jacket and gives the impression he would be most comfortable sitting in a deep leather chair, smoking a cigar. Instead he is perched on the edge of a fashionable sofa in his spacious, creatively outfitted office in General Motors’ Frankfurt-based design centre.

But the old adage that looks can be deceiving kicks in immediately he starts to talk about design at Vauxhall. The commitment, the drive and the singular focus he employs are more reminiscent of an evangelical American preacher than a quintessentially English gentleman.

Smith was promoted to executive director of design at Vauxhall & Opel last year. He oversees more than 200 staff, of which around 30 are creatives. His quest is to bring Vauxhall back to the ‘design-led’ position he claims it held in more halcyon days.

‘Vauxhall was a real design leader until it lost its way in the 1980s. Modern design reached a high point in the 1970s, but a focus on business rather than product the following decade means the brand isn’t a premium one at the moment. And although we’ll always be a volume producer we have premium aspirations,’ he maintains.

The car design team taps into the skills and knowledge of designers across the GM network, but doesn’t work with external groups. This is partly due to issues of confidentiality and also because the process of developing a car is a long-term one, taking up to five years from concept to the production line.

Design has been identified as a key requirement for regaining market share, as it’s vital to the purchase decision, he says. Smith suggests ’70 to 80 per cent of customers buy cars on the design’, claiming the vital decision – ‘do I like this car or not’ – is made within ten seconds and judged primarily on the exterior design. The decision to buy is made ‘within ten minutes’ and based on the interior look and feel, he claims.

Smith is creating a clear ‘family look’ for the brand through the development of what he calls a ‘form language’.

‘The trick is to create a uniquely identifiable language that is forward-looking, but not provocative or polarising. [It must have] characteristics of longevity and appeal over time, somewhat taxing to begin with, fresh but not necessarily fashionable,’ he says.

By way of example, he feels Renault’s latest Megane, with its protruding rear end, is a fashionable design rather than one with long-term appeal. Smith also stresses the importance of revolutionary design.

‘A design leader can’t be evolutionary,’ he asserts, citing BMW and VW as two marques that have evolved from leadership positions to relative mediocrity, because of a failure to gear up a level in their design.

The Vauxhall ‘form language’ that Smith is working to deliver includes ‘taut surfaces spanning well-defined lines’. In future its cars will feature a ‘strong shoulder line’, running along the side of the car to catch and reflect light and ‘a centre spine’, which Smith says was ‘typical of Vauxhall decades ago’.

Even headlights, now three dimensional, have become ‘defining elements in the structure of the car’. ‘They’re used as a jewel-like element of the design,’ he says. ‘Their prominent position on the corner of the car, front and rear, very much defines Vauxhall’s [new] look.’

Car interiors follow a similar style. A dominant centre console mirrors the strong line and centre creases of the exterior, and ‘info-tainment’ facilities are considered a vital component.

In the past, interior specifications at Vauxhall were handled by brand managers, but Smith has moved the process to within the design team’s remit and created a ‘clearly defined strategy’ for specification of interior colours, materials and trim.

Customers have been broken down into ‘well-defined groups’ – such as classic, trendy and sophisticated – and interiors created based on their preferences.

He has also introduced a ‘cross-car line studio’, which takes on a ‘design police’ role, helping the company ‘improve quality and save money’. ‘Everything that has a family look is defined by this group,’ explains Smith.

He takes me on a guided tour of the design studio – incorporating the trim and colour studio and a technology centre, where, wearing virtual-reality goggles, I can experiment with new colours and models on virtual vehicles that move and rotate around me.

We finish in a warehouse where, with the expectancy and restrained excitement of a new father, Smith unveils the latest Astra – the culmination of a five-year development project and one of the first vehicles to fully embody the design language he has created.

It’s always a worry when people show you their baby – sometimes the best I can manage is a polite, noncommittal noise. But the Astra, with its sleekly defined lines, cluster of three headlights and definite wheel lip, takes less than the regulation ten seconds to convince me that I would like to sit in it and possibly drive it away.

It is released in Britain next May, at which point you’ll be able to judge for yourself if Smith’s ‘family form language’ has moved Vauxhall’s design credentials forward.

It’s obvious that car design is more than just a job to Smith. His wife is also a vehicle designer and, on the list of hobbies that his PR manager helpfully supplies, car design is listed above skiing as a favourite pastime.

With a CV that includes designing for Porsche and creating the original Audi Quattro, it will be interesting to see if his focus and pedigree can reposition perceptions of Vauxhall as the design brand of tomorrow.

Martin Smith’s CV

Liverpool University, BSc degree in Engineering Royal College of Art, Master of Design

1973-1977 Designer, Porsche AG

1977-1997 Head of interior design, Audi

1997 Joins GM Europe as vehicle line design director

2002 Promoted to executive director of design, Vauxhall & Opel, GM Europe

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