kilometer magazine

celebrating european cars and motorcycles


km : Persona


10 August 2010

Saab’s young new designer loves to talk. He sat down with us at the recent 9-5 launch event and talk he did, spilling his passion for the business all over the table. We asked him about his influences, his goals, and since he’s a New Yorker, about when he’s going to get Seinfeld back into a Saab convertible. Afterward, he drove off in a Maserati GranTurismo that he penned. We want to be him.

km- Have you always wanted to be a car designer? What inspired you early on?

JC- I’ve been drawing cars since I was five years old, literally. I was destined to be a car designer, it wasn’t even really an option for me. It won’t come as a surprise to people following my career, but Ferraris, Maseratis, racing cars, those inspired me.

km- Do you have a certain era you especially love?

JC- Yeah, I’d say what I usually refer to as the Italian renaissance, which occurring in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You have everything from the Ferrari 250 short-wheelbase to the Dino, to the racing cars. The P4, the Maserati 450S and the Birdcage. That’s really the core. And really, all of those cars were aeronautically inspired. There was really a direct transfer of what was going on in airplane design and trying to transfer that to car design. I’ve always been a big fan also of aerospace, airplane design, and racing cars so to me it’s all one world.

km- Victor Muller speaks about Saab’s design heritage. As you arrive here, are you on the same page?

JC- Yeah, I love it as well. I’ve had a great opportunity to work with a lot of iconic brands and I think it’s a special homework assignment for the designer. You want to look back and understand the essence of the brand, then interpret it in your own way to move the brand forward. It’s always a great challenge to look at this remarkable history starting with the Ur Concept to the 92 to the 96 to the 98 and etcetera, into the 900. You have such distinctive cars here; you can see the evolution of the species.

I’m happy that the 9-5 is starting to get back to that, especially given the constraints and the state the company was in [under General Motors], not being able to pave our own way. Now we can finally do that as an independent company. It’s exciting being able to walk into the Saab museum and say, ‘here’s our story and no one can stop us from telling it.’ That’s great. We don’t have to worry about platform sharing or body panel sharing or badge engineering or any of these things that were really detrimental to the alternative nature — the quirkiness — that Saab has always had. Saabs have no desire to cater to everyone. They’re not a ‘me too’ car; they’re about something very distinctive and to be given this assignment is really a great honor for me.

km- So not having to work with existing platforms, that gives you more freedom as a designer?

JC- It does because when you’re working on one platform for multiple cars, which I’ve done in the past, you always run into compromises because one design studio works with one brand and wants the overhangs to be a certain way and maybe you just win the battle with the rear overhangs. What you end up with, as we say in Italy, ‘You get neither fish nor meat.’ It is neither of the two. With Saab, we need to do something distinctively Saab and we need to say, ‘we need to have the wheel here’ or ‘we need to have the greenhouse this way’ without anyone else saying that will screw up their design. It means investment on our part, and working overtime because obviously if we want to change things we have to do it fast.

km- Do you have any favorite cues from Saab design history?

JC- I do, but I can’t really get into it because I don’t want to give away what we’re going to do. But I will say this — people who have seen what I’ve done know my philosophy. I’m very aerospace driven and I want to — certainly above all — bring back some of the romance, which if you look at older Saabs is definitely there. Even in the 900 or the front wings of the 98, or the rally history. There’s excitement there, which seems contrary to how Scandinavian cultures are generally portrayed.

Volvo was always famous for making boxes, safe boxes that work really well, and then they took another path to bring some emotion into the design and they’ve done a great job of it. However, that being said, that [emotional type of design] is almost more owned by Saab than not, and Saab really hasn’t taken that route yet. There was a bit of that in show cars and that’s great, but now we need to do it in the production cars that people can buy, see, touch, try out. The 9-5 is an amazing car and it says that this is a distinctive and special car company again and it’s an exciting thing.

km- Victor Muller has also talked about the teardrop shape coming back with a new 9-2. Are you on the same page?

JC- Absolutely. All you need to look at is about three or four of the cars I’ve done and you’ll know I like that shape. Inverted wings, teardrops, fuselage cockpits, that’s kind of my trademark so it’s not for sheer coincidence that I ended up here.

km- Can you talk about the next 9-3?

JC- Sure. Style-wise the car is fixed. I came in at the very first stage of the car where various teams were working on proposals. Victor and Jan-Ake Jonnson approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a counter-proposal to which end I actually did an entire lineup of cars for them just to illustrate what I felt we could do and where the brand could go. They were really taken by that, and that became the car [the 9-3] and that’s where the relationship started. It’s going to be a bit of proactive entrepreneurial effort on our part to say, ‘this is how the car should be,’ and you know, it fell right in the right slot. It’s bold and distinctive and I always want to create something that is more provocative than not.

I really loathe boring car design and as a designer, you should want to create a push-pull effect. I would hate indifference; I don’t want to hear about indifference, like someone saying, ‘Yeah it’s nice, it’s okay.’ I’d rather have someone say they hate it and another say they love it because that means I did my job. I want to put forth a clear vision, and if you have a vision, you’re not vanilla. There’s a flavor. Well, vanilla’s actually a very sophisticated flavor but that’s a semantics argument. You want to put forth something that is not for everybody and Saab, above all, is not for everybody. That’s okay. Saab has no illusion of trying to sell a million cars a year and it’s not our business plan. We need to make our products as good as we can make them so really saavy buyers take notice again like they did 15 or 20 years ago when Saab was extremely successful.

So the 9-2 is an interesting project as well because it gives us the ability to finally have an ingress product and go back to our roots of creating a car that is inherently Saab — a small premium car. Secondly, we need to be able to grow and grow with our clients. That’s really important because if we get a young professional into a 9-3 and then they turn around seven years later and they’re no longer living with a boyfriend or girlfriend and they’re married, have a kid or two and say, “You know, we actually need something bigger.” We have the 9-4x coming out and the 9-5; we have these options now.

We actually want to get — before that young professional — that younger guy or girl who is starting out and can get into this small car with all the Saab values. So it’s going to be sporty, safe, and have great utility, because that’s something Saabs have always had.

You know, today you’re seeing everyone chasing these elusive niche markets. BMW has the 5 GT, Audi has its Sportbacks. Part of this craze was certainly started with the Mercedes CLS, which was a very sexy, coupe-like sedan. But it didn’t have utility; it was just sexy. They were just selling sex appeal and they proved once again — what a shocker! — that sex sells, and I don’t understand why this gets lost on marketers and car companies. At the end of the day no matter how safe a car is or how much utility a car has or how green it should be, it still has to be sexy. Fisker, —Henrik has come up, and look what he’s done. Tesla too, instead of making electric cars that look like lump — which is what we’ve experienced for ten years, where every electric car looks like a lump, a pill — why not have it be beautiful? Why not? Why do we have to reinvent the wheel in that segment in that sense?

The standards of beauty haven’t changed since Roman-Greco times when modern beauty was really established. That’s a few thousand years, and we haven’t evolved that much. It’s intriguing to try to put sex appeal now back into Saab, but I think it’s something we’re going to do and part of the reason I was brought here.

km- Some might say the products you’ve worked on aren’t of the same minimalist approach that works for Saab. Do you think there’s a tension between your Italian sports car past and Saab’s future?

JC- No I don’t think so because my design philosophy is honesty toward the object. Something has to be honest to what it is, and what I really don’t like about a lot of modern design is that people try to force things onto a car — a character, a personality, a style — that doesn’t suit the car. When you’re doing a 900-horsepower supercar, there’s a reason why it looks the way it does, just as when you’re doing a Saab there’s a reason it looks the way it does. Or there should be.

I loathe this idea that 100-hp city cars have more aggressive faces than 400-hp sports cars. What is that? It doesn’t make any sense and we’ve lost, I don’t know what, it’s just a big caricature, and there needs to be more appropriateness and honesty in the approach to the object. I think the viewer responds to that because while they might not fully understand the cohesiveness of an object, they can sense it and they get it.

They talk about the golden rule; when you look at the Parthenon you know it’s right and you don’t know why it’s right. Scholars will tell you it’s not really rectangular it’s actually bowed because the human eye tricks it, and the Greeks knew to do that, which is pretty amazing. Car design is no different because if you look at things I’ve worked on like the [Maserati] Birdcage which is actually minimalist [compared] to things like the [Bertone] Mantide, which is very complex, but that’s the challenge. I wanted to do something complex but totally function-driven. That’s a supercar with a 0.29 drag coefficient, and there are no [other] supercars with 0.29 drag, not even close. So there are different assignments for every car, and with Saab we of course want a very minimalist design, and we want something with a strong volume, a particular proportion, some quirkiness and something a bit askew or different that makes people take notice.

km- With the Spyker connection, do you hope do get involved in design over there?

JC- I’m not yet, and I don’t know if I will be. I know Spyker is doing very well and it’s kind of an island unto itself. I’d love to — that goes without saying — and let’s say it’s definitely in my wheelhouse to do a sports car such as that. Who knows, maybe it’ll just be a one-off for a client or maybe Victor will ask me to pen something. Either way, I’m game. Of course.

km- Do you have any toys?

JC- I do, I have a Maserati Gran Turismo S.

km- What about older stuff?

JC- I love them, but I don’t current have any older cars. I’d love to when I have more time to spend with them, because older cars are less about actually owning them and more about the experience because they’re so different. You really need to keep up on them; it’s like having race cars, which I’ve had before. If you can’t stay after them and actually use them, it’s just a crime. It’s a tragedy, and if you’re really in love with it you’d prefer to sell it and put it in the hands of someone who can actually use it. I just sold one of my cars because it was sitting in Italy not being used and it’s a travesty. It breaks your heart because it’s a race horse and it’s supposed to be out there being used. An older car is the same way, and as much as I know and respect old collectionists, that’s been a big perk of the job.

It breaks my heart seeing cars sitting in museums. I don’t think they should, and they shouldn’t be restored beyond recognition. They should be used and have a life and, I mean, everyone has a different take. They’re art and some people are afraid to use and ruin art. The car has a soul, and if you let it sit there being pampered and brushed with a diaper it’s not really fulfilling its life purpose, and that’s sad.

km- When you look at Saab’s competition, do you have one car that you think is really well done?

JC- Well, our sights are firmly set on Audi and they’ve done an amazing job. BMW has done a great job too, and I have a BMW. I love them, they’re great cars. It’s not quite the same marketplace because they are primarily rear-wheel drive; they’re going for a sportier buyer that’s willing to sacrifice some space and utility for that sportiness.

That’s not the Saab buyer; they want a bit of it all — the sport, the utility, the safety — and Audi has really done a good job of taking that space. That was Saab’s space, especially here in the States and here in the Northeast. This was Saab’s number one market in the world. In the world — period. Growing up here, I grew up in a Saab family and all the intelligent people, the doctors and lawyers and architects, they all had Saab 900s. The turbo Cabrio was the ‘it’ car, as was the SPG. Those were the cars to have.

Audi, at that time, was nowhere, and even beyond nowhere with the alleged unintended acceleration problem, much like Toyota now. So you had a situation where Audi had to completely rebuild its image and how did they do it? With great product. They spent what they needed to spend and created image cars like the TT, which again, making that sporty car shifts perspective. It doesn’t matter than the rest of the lineup had nothing to do with the TT at the time. It creates an image and brings cachet to the brand. Then they created the A5 and the R8, and again, these are cars that have no illusions of selling bucket loads, they just have to sell enough. The important part is that they’re out there extending the brand, creating a premium essence to the brand.

The A5 has done an amazing trick as a car that’s priced against the 3-series coupe, but yet it has the road presence of a Bentley Continental. It seems like a big, heavy-set car with a lot of power and a lot of allure. I love the 3-series coupe and it’s one of the most beautiful mass-production cars on the road for sure, and I’d personally prefer that, but I understand the allure of the A5. It’s a beautiful car.

So you know, Audi’s the direct competitor and that’s really an uphill battle because that’s an amazing company. But again, we’re not trying to take a million sales from Audi. We’re trying to take back our core clientele and maybe some people who would have considered Audi or BMW being default choices for them saying, “wow, this new Saab is something.” My mother currently has an A6, and I’m getting her into a 9-5. It’s an amazing car.

km- You talk about getting your core clientele back and, being a New Yorker yourself, is it a personal goal to get Jerry Seinfeld back into a Saab convertible?

JC- I’d love to get Jerry back into a Saab. That would be great and I think we can do it. I think I’ll probably get wheeled out to a lot of events out here so we’ll see. It’s a benefit obviously and I come from this area, I know the brand and I know the heritage and the clientele. It’s definitely in my favor and in Saab’s favor. Best of all, we’re having fun.

Don’t get me wrong, car design is always fun; we lose sight because there’s a lot of yelling and screaming and diva-ness in car design. I’ll be the first to admit that. We’re trying to force art into an industrialized product, and it is not easy.

People are quick to criticize cars and they don’t understand how a car designer suffers to get a car to that point. That’s why, for whatever I think about the new 9-5, and I do quite like it in all sincerity, I wouldn’t be critical anyway because I have no idea what the conditions were when they designed the car. It’s not just about drawing a pretty picture on a piece of paper and somehow that gets built. The process is so involved and there’s politics, bureaucracy, cost problems, feasibility problems, time problems, so many problems. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, all that. When I hear young [design] students walking around auto shows saying something is crap, I always tell them they have no idea what they would have done, because they weren’t there when it was done. It’s very easy to be an armchair Olympian, it’s much harder to actually do it. The small club of really accomplished car designers, they know, and they don’t really comment. They comment on what they do because that’s what it is and everybody’s always about praise, but what’s the point of criticism? You weren’t there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *