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If you want to know about the past, present and future of car design there is no better place than ArtCenter College of Design’s annual Car Classic in Pasadena, California. This year’s theme was ‘One of a Kind Vehicles That Stand Alone’.

2,000 car fanatics of all kinds come to the event not only to gawk at some of the most beautiful and exciting cars ever made but also to discuss car design with designers, learn from each other and inspire the designers of the future.

Tom Peters on The Corvette C8

Tom Peters, 2019 GM Inductee to the Corvette Hall of Fame and ArtCenter graduate, talked about how the design of the Corvette has developed over time. He joined General Motors in 1982. The two new Corvette 2020 mid-engine C8’s were on display and sparkled as he did against the golden landscape.

“I remember the day when the chief engineer for the Corvette program came in and said ‘Now, it’s time to transition to a mid-engine platform,’” says Peters. They finally realized the limit of the maximum performance they could drive from the front-engine rear-wheel-drive platform.


“The C8 has to respect its heritage. We paid attention to history and distilled the elements that are timeless in a fresh way – race cars feed into it – it’s the attitude. Somehow it all comes together as Corvette–the form and sculpture is the brand and it still has to have the hungry hunt predator in it,” says Peters.

“This is the one [new Corvette] that you not only want to do a concept but turn that into a real car that people will decide to spend their hard-earned money on,” says Peters.

“In the course of my career, these cars are more than just machines, they are actually part of people’s lifestyle – I venture to say even family members,” mused Peters.

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© ArtCenter College of Design/Juan Posada

The Evolution of Cars & ArtCenter

The Car Classic functions as a reunion for transportation design, with at least 25 alumni judges representing 14 different automotive studios, says Steward Reed, chair of the Transportation Design Department. ArtCenter professors contributed to the new book ‘The Face of Change – Portraits of Automotive Evolution’ that was introduced by author John Nikas.

“It’s important to see the evolution of the automobile and understand it and how that works. You can’t ignore history,” says Dave Marek, Acura executive creative director and instructor at ArtCenter. He noted that car designers, like architects, have to look at what worked in the past to create new designs in the future.

The most relevant issues are shifting. It comes back to designing delightful products for people that are less machine-centric and more human-centric, suggested Reed.

“Cars are transcendent, they transcend your transportation obligations, they enable us to be more fully ourselves and ArtCenter certainly helps us with that,” says Leslie Kendal, historian at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

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© ArtCenter College of Design/Juan Posada

Chip Foose – ‘Overhaulin’ Designs of The Past

Chip Foose is the host of the show ‘Overhaulin’. He knew from the time he was a child that he wanted to design cars. He watched his father design cars at Project Design. At the age of seven, he met Alex Tremulis who designed the Tucker and Duesenberg. He showed him how to draw an ellipse and he introduced Foose to ArtCenter.

Foose was working at a design studio before he attended ArtCenter. For his senior project at ArtCenter in 1990, he made a fibreglass model that he later built into the Hemisfear in 2006 – both were on display. 


While Foose was at ArtCenter, Chrysler asked students to create a niche market vehicle. When asked why he created the hot rod-like design, Foose responded, “I’m catering to customers that exist with hot rods and muscle cars who are trying to put modern technology into them so that they can enjoy them on a daily basis. Why not draw from the past a great form and evolve it into something new and modern today?”

Chrysler loved Foose’s design so much it was the inspiration for the Plymouth Prowler.

“It’s the opportunities that give us the future and the only limitation is the designer’s imagination. If we can inspire them that’s what it’s all about,” says Foose. The Aluminca designed by Larry Erickson that was built by Hot Rods by Boyd inspired Foose in 1990.

“When you draw from the past, you are tugging on the heartstrings of future customers,” says Foose. His advice to students is simple, be passionate, driven and love what you do.

Foose is now working on a season ten of ‘Overhaulin’ for MotorTrend. Previously, he had as much as $120,000 for each car overhaul. This season his budget is $40,000.

“We’re not going to be doing the older cars that we have to fix the rust and restore. Instead we’re taking newer model and alteration not restorations. The first car we did was a 2002 Ford Lightning pick up.”


The Shape of Things

There’s a spirit of a family at ArtCenter. Bonds are formed there for many years to come. For example, Richard Kim, In Charge of Design at Canoo and Nick Gronenthal In Charge of Design Projects at Canoo met while attending ArtCenter. They lived down the hall from each other in the artist loft community in downtown LA, The Brewery. They often talked about design.

“I was here the first year of the Car Classic – there were about ten cars. It was really cool, everyone was an enthusiast. It was word of mouth. It’s pretty awesome to see it becoming a real event now – a good mix of eccentric cars and cool stuff. It’s really a design show,” says Gronenthal.


Kim says that a car of the past that is now a car of the future on display at the event is the Mirafiori Factory Shuttle Car, a bright green shuttle that has a somewhat similar shape and functionality to the Canoo.

“It’s got a cute face. It represents the future – it’s about a smarter way to get from point A-to-B. One of the highlights of the show,” says Kim.


Canoo’s canoo was on display. Kim describes his concept this way, “Our approach is more about functionality and the smartest way to get where you are going.”

Canoo is a subscription car with a month-to-month use case. It will be launching city by city, because canoo is meant for the city. It will be offered on the West Coast first and then other cities.

“We took a different approach. Utility and functionality are really important. The canoo has a huge space. We call it the California Twist. It is a comfortable space where you can hang out and enjoy,” says Kim.


From The Stratos to Autonomous

If Canoo represents the next kind of car for the city, what will be coming next from the design geniuses that teach at or attend ArtCenter?

“I always enjoy the show – for the kind of diversity of cars. It’s important. Not only does it bring car enthusiasts, but it also brings a lot of our students are here. For many of the students, it’s the first time they see all these cars in flesh, not as pictures,” says Marek Djordjevic, Serbian automobile designer best known for the Rolls-Royce Phantom VII luxury car and instructor at ArtCenter.

“There is a great variety of cars. It is not a huge show but it manages to do what Pebble Beach does. When I come here and see a car I’ve never seen.” 


Djordjevic comments that the star of the show is the Stratos [Phillip Sarofim’s 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero].

He calls the Stratos the most influential piece of automotive sculpture that to this day inspires designers in a futuristic modern way. He says that for something from 1969 that is pretty incredible. 

Djordjevic says the biggest shift in design that will change the most is something that would change vehicle packaging parameters and layout of occupants. The technology mega-trend that will definitely revolutionise vehicle design will be the advent of autonomous vehicles. 

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