Drawing Up a Dream

Written by David Kushner, Rolling Stone

Thursday November 13th, 2003

Detroit's hottest car designers were raised on video games and MTV. It shows.

“Camilo! Hey man, come on,” slurs a drunken surgeon, “I want to show you some hot chick.”

It’s happy hour at a hip outdoor bar in Detroit, and Camilo Pardo, the auto industry’s hottest young designer, is on the move as always. He doesn’t have time for the surgeon’s come-on. Pardo’s too busy handing out invites for a party he’s throwing tomorrow night at his downtown art studio, a rundown warehouse with a twenty person hot tub and a sawed-off 1968 Thunderbird parked inside.

“Hey killer,” Pardo says, slipping a flier to a tattooed rock goddess passing by, “party tomorrow. Beer. Art. Whatever.” Pardo calls everyone killer. He has a pencil thin goatee and frazzled ponytail, wraparound silver glam rock shades, paint-splattered shorts, and the kind of ironic gas station attendant Ford shirt you’d see in the hip quarters of Brooklyn. Except the shirt’s not a joke. Pardo designed it, along with the most anticipated sports car on the planet, the 2005 Ford GT.

That’s why the rock goddess smiles at him in a big way, just like everyone around town smiles when they see Camilo Pardo. Pardo’s the man of Motor City, superstar of supercar, a Colombian kid from a broken home who grew up to be the unlikeliest hero the auto industry has ever seen. When Bill Ford, CEO and great-grandson of Henry, called the GT the future of the Ford Motor Company, he was handing the keys to a self-proclaimed “freak” who dips nude runway models in chocolate for fun and, in another era, would have been lucky to wash Henry Ford’s tires. “I think they’re always a little scared that I’m going to freak them out forever,” Pardo says.

Though the Ford people might not know what to make of Pardo, they know what to make of his car. The GT is a remake of the 1965 Ford GT40 – also the most important sports car of its era, but for dramatically different reasons. While the original GT galvanized the country by proving that America could stand up against the Italians on the international racing circuit, the new one needs to prove that Ford can simply stand up against itself. These are bad times in the North American auto industry, with sales down $20 billion last quarter alone. Ford is still trying to recover from $5.5 billion in losses it reported last year. The company – and country – could use something to rally around. The GT is the auto industry’s Seabiscuit.

And the hero worship has already begun. Auto Week, one of the industry’s bibles, has already anointed the car the “American Hero.” With a $100 million budget and only 4500 cars being produced, the $150,000 GT is already a must-have among the Hollywood elite. Jay Leno, Nicholas Cage, and John Travolta are among the first to put in their orders when the GT becomes available next spring. Now Pardo just has to get it out the door. “We’re trying not to lose it on the last lap,” he says.

The improbable rise of Pardo and the GT isn’t just relevant to Ford. It symbolizes the rise of a new generation of automotive designers who are fueling a new generation of cars. Along with Pardo, the best of the bunch – such as the guys behind BMW’s revamped Mini, Toyota’s FJ Cruiser – are finding inspiration in the past, remaking classic cars in a way that resonates with their peers; some have called the movement “retro futurism.”

Weaned on raves, MTV, and video games, these designers don’t aspire to do the back nine at an exclusive country club in Grosse Point like the generations of auto makers who preceded them. They want to get paid to spend all day doodling dream cars like they did in the back of high school trigonometry class. “Our teachers always told us that if we kept drawing cars all day, we’d never amount to anything,” says William Chergosky, a senior designer and rising star at Calty Design Research, the U.S.-based design group for Toyota and Lexus.

They were wrong.

Bill Chergosky has a suitably nice ride. We’re snaking down the sun-drenched highways of Newport Beach, California in his white Lexus IS300, a company perk. It’s a cool pod for cranking Coldplay during his morning commute, but it’s not the ultimate ride, he tells me. That would be the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s hot rod spaceship from the Star Wars films. “Everyone of my generation who gets into car design does it because of the Millennium Falcon,” says Chergosky, a clean cut 33-year-old who could be cast as a roomie on Friends. “We’re always thinking about the aesthetic of Star Wars,” he says.

Chergosky isn’t kidding. Like Pardo, he’s part of a legion of new automotive designers coming into power and changing the way we look at cars. The epicenter of this trend is in Southern California. Almost all of the major auto manufacturers, including Ford, now run design studios on the roads between Malibu and Newport. The Art Center College of Design, one of the top schools for automotive design, makes its home in Pasadena. The rush to the region makes sense. As the 68 million members of Generation Y gets into the driver’s seat, beleaguered auto makers are scrambling for new ways to reach them. And, from the hip-hop Bentleys to the Fast and Furious street racers, this area is the best place to stay on the pulse. “In Detroit, cars are often seen as just products,” says Chergosky, “In California, it’s like, ‘oh man, they’re cool.’”

Chergosky and Jin Kim, 26, another design whiz at Calty, are making them even cooler. The two designed the Toyota’s FJ Cruiser: a futuristic Sports Utility Vehicle that was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this January. It’s an important car not only because it’s the guys’ first design after college, but because, as with Ford and the GT, the future of Toyota is riding on it.

For off-road car nuts, the FJ Cruiser has esteemed and awesome roots. The car is a remake of the FJ-40 and early Land Cruisers, popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Based on a design originally contracted by the United States Army, the FJ-40 was essentially Toyota’s Jeep – a rugged, brawny way to plow through mud and get dirty. It became Toyota’s first successful car to be released in the United States, paving the way for future successes like the Camry, currently the best-selling car in America.

The take on how to remake the FJ-40, ironically, didn’t fall on older Toyota guys misty for the past. It came from Kim, a former graffiti artist who saw the vehicle as a way to ignite the company’s future. Born in Seoul, Kim grew up like Chergosky and other guys of this generation – playing video games and sketching cars in the back of class. But his dreams of a career in automotive design were nonexistent. “I never realized that designing cars was something you could actually do for a living,” Kim says, “it’s like making video games for a living. Who does that?”

Plenty of people, he discovered after his family relocated to Southern California when he was 12. Kim, who wears his hair spiky and talks with a surfer dude cadence, fell hard for the SoCal youth culture, listening to hip-hop, playing Counter-Strike computer games, and becoming a spray-painting his tag across town. Kim applied that sense of adventure to his work as a student at the Art Center. For one project, he brashly chose to redesign the icon of the American auto industry: the Model T. “It was the same spirit as the original,” Kim says, “but with this surface that was like super modern.” It landed him a job at Calty.

In September 2001, Toyota gave word to Calty that it wanted a new entry-level design of a Land Cruiser. Kim, once again, saw an opportunity to hack the past for something new as he had done with his Model T project. “I wanted to show the heritage and history of Toyota,” Kim says, “There’s some funkiness to the car, the proportion is funky, the front end is really unique, it has this linear grill with integrated headlights. It’s kind of cute, but when you look at the whole car it’s really rugged.” Kim got the gig to design the exterior, Chergosky would handle the interior.

With Eminem blasting on his headphones, Kim spent his days in his cubicle doodling his dream car. The vehicle had to maintain its organic strength, it had to be fierce. So he drew inspiration from one of the fiercest creatures he knew: his pet pit bull, Tiger. The sketches took on a forward-leaning shape, like a dog ready to attack. Though he was conscientious to maintain some sense of the FJ-40’s original features– the separated lower bumper piece, the upright cabin, the kick down angle on the front fender – he took a DJ’s approach, sampling pre-existing elements into something entirely new. “I wanted to maintain the uniqueness of the FJ 40,” he says, “without going totally retro.”

For Chergosky, inspiration came from a futuristic first person shooter video game, Halo, for the Microsoft Xbox. “Halo has this unbelievably full sense of design,” Chergosky says, “every detail is really thought out, nothing is empty, everything connects with you.” Chergosky saw an emerging opportunity to similarly push the edge in car design as a new generation of drivers came of age. “There’s a new freedom to car design,” he says, “You can be soft, hard, retro, progressive. Anything goes.”

Other car designers agree. Adrian van Hooydonk, president of Designworks/

USA, BMW’s California-based design group, says it’s a similar sense of freedom that inspired his design on the concept car that evolved into the new Mini, voted the 2002 “car of the year” by the North American automotive press. Like the GT and FJ Cruiser, the Mini took a car with classic style and appeal, and transformed it into something edgy and new.

“The Mini doesn’t take itself to seriously and that’s what people find so attractive,” van Hooydonk says from his office near Malibu. “Something is changing in America in terms of design,” he adds, “because life has gotten so complex, there’s a movement toward simplicity. People want to understand the world they live in. They want products that are iconic and recognizable, like the iPod. We’re all trying to make designs that are classic.”

Like the Mini, the FJ Cruiser went for a classic combination of style and function. Chergosky designed a steel tub of an interior with speakers bolted on the sides, amber mining lights, and a removable positioning satellite device in the middle of the dash. It had to be the kind of car you’d want to drive to a Burning Man festival, he says, so, naturally, it had to have a gapless deck that folds down to accommodate a pair of sleeping bags.

The taffy blue concept car, looking very Halo-like, inspired plenty of awe when it was unveiled at the Detroit auto show this year. Kim and Chergosky had many of their design heroes come up and give them numerous pats on the back. The Toyota brass were impressed enough to remark that it would be nice to see the car put into production. Heavy words, and a clear indication, many predict, that the FJ Cruiser will be rolling out of lots some time in the next couple of years. Chergosky and Kim are already on to their next top secret projects at Calty. They can’t say what they are, given the competitiveness of the industry, but they plan to further surf the edge they’re helping pioneer.

As Chergosky peels into Calty’s lot past a moat of crystal blue water circling the building, I ask him what he thinks of another car that’s carrying a company’s future: the Ford GT. Chergosky smiles, as he slips off his shades. “It’s a great product,” he says, “but is it really pushing forward the needle of design? To me, it seems like they just pillaged the old design. It’s just a one-off car. The FJ Cruiser has legs.”

“Hey killer,” Pardo says, with a pleading grin, “can I get the keys to the 360?” We’re midway through a frenetic morning at Ford’s engineering studio, a militarily ensconced warehouse at the company’s Dearborn, Michigan campus, and Pardo is trying to hustle us a serious ride. And, among the car geeks here, there are few rides more serious than the Ferrari 360 Modena: the car they intend to crush with the new GT Pardo is designing. They keep one parked outside for inspiration. On the back is a bumper sticker that reads, “I’d rather be driving a Ford GT.” But Pardo’s never been able to take the Ferrari for a drive. His biggest challenge in becoming the savior of the Ford is his wild reputation. And his reckless driving.

The 360’s key bearer is a young guy sitting in a cubicle under an ancient French newspaper with a headline announcing the first GT’s victory. With the exception of a framed photo of an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, GT paraphernalia – model cars, engine parts, old black and white photos – cover the walls and the cubes throughout the floor. Engineers have been darting in and out of cubes, racing to get Pardo’s feedback on the most picayune details, from the sheen of the GT’s aluminum control panels to the hue of the lights behind the stereo knobs. It’s no wonder why the key bearer stares so wearily at Pardo, who’s milking the excuse of this Rolling Stone story for all it’s worth. “Okay, okay,” the guy finally says to Pardo, “just don’t wreck it.”

Pardo grabs the keys like a victorious teenager, and mutters, “fucking awesome!” as we head out through the garage. Inside are a few early production GTs – called workhorses – gutted, hoisted in the air, shedding duct tape. Anxious guys in jeans stare a giant blue shock plug as Beck plays from a boom box. They’ve got three weeks to get this cars fixed and ready for some media test drives in California.

“What’s the word?” Pardo says.

“These guys are going to be screaming to get out,” says Ken Harrison, the car’s performance engineer, “They’re going to be scared shitless. They’re going to crap their pants.”

Pardo looks pleased, as he runs his hand lovingly along the hood. Even in these larval stages, the cars are stunning to behold. If blasted with a shrinking ray, the low white body with the navy blue racing stripes down the middle would be the prize in any Matchbox collection. “Look at those proportions,” Pardo coos, “it’s so sexy. Look at the waist. The hips. The contours. It’s sexy, but brutal and beastly like an animal.” Pardo’s anthropomorphisms are not the stuff of hammy PR speak. The car so is alive for him that it ceases to be a car. He says, “it’s a girl you can crawl inside.”

For Pardo, making the GT is akin Anthony Michael Hall creating Kelly Le Brock in the movie Weird Science. He’s building the perfect woman. And she’s been a lifetime in the making. As a kid growing up in the Bronx, New York, Pardo became obsessed with cars shortly after his father abandoned him and his mother when he just three years old. Pardo’s uncle, an engineer with General Motors, became a father figure, taking Pardo to funny car races whenever he came to town. Pardo began drawing the cars before he had even learned to spell. “I knew by the time I was four that the only way I could get these cool cars was if I made them,” he says. And there were none cooler than the Ford GT-40, the greatest American race car that was created, like destiny, the same year he was born.

Like Pardo, the GT was the underdog hero of its time. The car was born in fury. It happened after Henry Ford II hatched a plan to buy Ferrari. At the last minute, the story goes, Enzo Ferrari, the company’s tempestuous founder, pulled out of the deal because he didn’t want Ford to control its place on the international racing circuit, which Ferrari had dominated for years. Enraged, Ford announced that his company was officially pulling out of the Automobile Manufacturers Association ban on racing activities. He told his engineers and designers to build him a car that could beat his Italian rival at the Twenty-Four Hours of LeMans, France’s prestigious road race. An American car had never taken the checkered flag at LeMans. Ford said, build me Ferrari killer.

Race cars are more important to an auto company than simply being manifestations of boss’s mid-life crises. As Charles H. Patterson, Ford’s executive vice president in the 1960s, put it, “racing improves the breed” – from the cars themselves, to the company’s engineers, designers, and assembly line workers. “It enables and forces us to compress time, mechanical wear, and human experience,” he said, “it adds the imponderables of human action and reaction under the stress of competition that no computer can simulate.” Ford’s top employees came together to achieve impossible tasks, like achieving speeds of 200 miles per hour, faster than most airplanes. The GT-40 went so fast, they had to work hard to make sure it stayed on the ground.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon on June 19, 1966, Ford’s GTs shocked the world by finishing in the top three places at LeMans, dusting Ferrari and setting a new world record of 126 miles per hour race speed. In addition, the car won that year’s 24-hour races at Dayton and Sebring, earning it the World Championship of prototype cars. Ford, the man and the company, was back on track.

The GT still held its allure three decades later when Camilo Pardo won a spot in the prestigious College for Creative Studies, the leading school for car designers in Detroit. Pardo became a rising star, known for his fluid and prolific sense of design. CCS became a Mecca for Detroit’s early 80s underground scene, with students blasting the Ramones in the studios and openly smoking pot in the cafeteria, Pardo recalls. “There was this heavy radical punk feeling going around,” he says, “so I tried to integrate that with fine art.” And the ultimate goal, he says, was to channel that passion into automotive design. When asked why his work stood out, Pardo says “my shit had personality.”

Pardo joined a group of industrial artists who called themselves Propeller, and bought an abandoned janitorial supplies warehouse in one of Detroit’s ubiquitously crappy parts of town. There, he painted giant, colorful Peter Max style portraits of classic sports cars like the Ford GT, and began staging elaborate parties. At one, he outfitted a group of models with steel skirts and headdresses, using the existing conveyor belts of in his warehouse as a moving runway. He bought the jet black 68 Thunderbird, sawed off the roof, welded the doors shut, and parked it in his living room. Kid Rock, a friend, borrowed it for one of his first videos, which includes a scene of Pardo behind the wheel. Pardo wasn’t just making the scene, he was becoming it.

He was also leading a double life. At the same time he was conquering Detroit’s burgeoning underground scene, he was insinuating himself into the ranks of the city’s most diametrically opposed world: Ford Motor Company. Pardo got plucked out of college to join Ford’s staff of more than two hundred automotive designers. But he quickly found this to be far removed from the Motor City culture he knew and loved. “I didn’t give a fuck about the country clubs and the golfing,” he says, “I just wanted to make some badass cars.”

It would be slow-going. For a guy who viewed cars as a genuine form of erotic art, Ford’s fleet of Middle America trucks and sedans was anything but sexy. Pardo work odd design jobs within the company, but nothing nearly as inspiring as the cars that got him into the business in the first place. And, he felt, his talents were unappreciated. When word got out around the company that he was a painter, his artworks soon began hanging on the walls of Fords executives. He became the company artist, which was cool enough, he thought, but hardly fulfilling. “They were having me design the company Christmas cards,” he said, “but I wanted to be running my own studio.”

By a stroke of fate, he soon got the chance. In 1997, J Mays, an industry design legend, became Ford’s new vice president of design. Mays was hot, having just come from Volkswagen where he designed the remake of the Beetle. Like Apple’s iPod digital music player, the Beetle had become iconic of the auto industry’s next wave – sharp-looking, pragmatic cars that appeal to both nostalgic boomers and style-conscious young people. Though sometimes dismissed as retro, the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, unlike the boxy cars of the 80s or the cheesy “organic” look popular in the 90s. “Design doesn’t have to be complicated,” Pardo says, “it should be pure, simple, and dramatic. It should be like a manta ray.” Pardo calls the style “functional graphic.”

Mays, who shares Pardo’s aesthetic, took an immediate liking to Ford’s resident eccentric. One day he surprised him – big time. Mays walked into Pardo’s office, shut the door, and said, “start sketching how you would design a new GT.” Pardo was floored. The GT!? He asked. Mays explained that the company wanted to make a big splash at its upcoming centennial celebrations in 2003, and the GT was the ticket. It was iconic, it was American, and it was sure to rev the auto geeks engines. They would make both a show car and a production car. This was too good to be true, Pardo thought, since the dream of any car maker is to get a vehicle into production and on the road. But the pressure was palpable. “It was like redesigning the most beautiful girl in the world,” Pardo says.

There was on condition, Mays said, the GT would have to be designed on the downlow. With Ford losing billions of dollars, the stakes were high enough without adding on premature hype. Aside from Pardo and what would become Ford’s small “dream team” of designers and engineers, no one could know about the project. It would be done in secret. And it would have a code name. Petunia.

The project pulled some of Ford’s most esteemed car makers out of the woodwork – and retirement. Neil Ressler, a former Ford vice president, left his retirement to put together the rest of the team. The first person he dialed was Norm Ziegert. Ziegert, a 78-year-old engineering supervisor, was sitting by his pool in Florida when he got the call to see if he’d be interested in heading back work on a new GT. Ziegert had been at Ford when the first GT was built, but since the car was designed in England, he never had the chance to work on the original dream machine. “The whole country is built on dreams,” he says, “whether you can afford them or not, you still want to see them.” Ziegert hung up, and told his wife he was heading to Detroit.

Pardo, as chief designer of the GT, he threw himself – and his team – headfirst into the project. The goal was to have a show car ready for the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He covered their walls with photos of Steve McQueen. Every morning, he screened the opening of the classic 1960s racing movie, Grand Prix. Once again, Ford was taking aim at Ferrari, whose 360 Modena was the top of the class. “That car has muscle and drama,” he says, “but it’s too round and pudgy for me.” So he set about making the GT even more stunning than the Ferrari and the original. He focused on the lines, keeping the contours low and mean – the car rises just forty-four inches off the ground. With a wide backside, a slim mid-engine, and a languid, low front, the car was suitably seductive. And, as Pardo quickly learned, it was also endangered.

Despite the elation over the GT, times were growing grim for Ford. By 2001, the company was embattled from a mounting controversy over the safety of its Explorer Sports Utility Vehicle. Hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits began pouring in because of rollovers resulting, it was alleged, from the Explorer’s high center of gravity; Ford spent tens of millions settling out of court. But that wasn’t all. The company also had to recall 13 million Firestone tires after they were found to be unsafe.

In August 2001, the company announced that it was cutting 5,000 management jobs, with more than $5 billion in losses. One month later came 9/11, which only darkened the mood. The GT project, frequently threatened to be cut by conservative upper management, seemed doomed. Pardo was told that the car would no longer go into production. His dream of putting the most beautiful girl in the world back on the road was over. But they could still do a show car for the Detroit show. “At least we had that,” Pardo said.

Pardo put everything he had into the last lap of the race, even designing the checkered flag go-go outfits that the showgirls would wear when car was unveiled. Pardo and his team watched in awe as they rolled out the classic GTs at the Detroit auto show under fog and smoke. “It was like a dream,” he recalls. Then out came his baby, white with blue stripes. The stunned crowd burst into applause. They swarmed Pardo. He became an instant star. Forty-five days later, he got the call of a lifetime from Mays. “Dude,” Mays said, “the car’s back! We’re going into production!”

Awed by the response to the concept car, CEO Bill Ford decided to fast track the car into production so that it would be on the road in time for the company’s 100 year anniversary. It would be, as Ford called it, “the Centennial Supercar.” And it had to be done in one year – a stunningly short amount of time to release a car of this magnitude. Pardo called down to Florida to speak with Ziegert, who had returned to retirement after the concept car’s completion. Ziegert hung up the phone by his pool with a big smile on his face. “Don’t tell me,” his wife said, “you’re going back to Detroit?”

Today, the team is racing to complete the car by the spring of 2004. To get the job done, Ford has a few warehouses of employees on the job. An old Stanley door warehouse is now serving as the production plant for the coming GTs. Because of the cost and care involved, there’s no assembly line here. Every car is handmade. In an age when rappers aspire to flaunt their rides on MTV Cribs, the ultimate test of the GT, Pardo says, is its ability to make an entrance. “When you pull up to a club or an art gallery, the people there can bust you when you’re being fake fast,” he says, “I need a car I can pull up in without looking stupid.”

Pardo isn’t having any trouble with that at the moment. As we squeeze into the Ferrari he’s borrowed, a crowd of Ford guys with greasy hands file outside to admire the ride. “Let’s hear it, Camilo,” one of the guy says, as we head away. As soon as we pass through the parking lot gate, Pardo slams the gas until the engine roars enough to satisfy his crew. Then, carefully, he slows the car down and heads for lunch, careful not to wreck it.

The crowd is coming and the hot tub is in bad, bad shape. It’s about an hour before Pardo’s party at his studio. Shirtless, in shorts, he scrubs the tub wearing big blue rubber gloves. A DJ is busying sampling some techno vinyl. Pardo’s mother, an ebullient Colombian woman, helps stretch some canvases in a corner. The studio has that Pardo flair for sex, cars, and rock n’ roll. Giant, colorful paintings of sports cars hang on the walls next to profiles of curvaceous women in racing suits. Claw-foot bathtubs are painted like race cars, yellow and blue with black racing stripes. Back in the corner is a giant silver Hershey’s kiss hat, a prop from one of Pardo’s more controversial performance pieces: the Girl in Chocolate.

He created the chocolate girl for a party he held every year for car designers in town for the Detroit auto show. It was a spontaneous and somewhat random idea, just the kind he favors. He had done other pieces involving near-naked women in the past. For a fashion show, he hand-painted a half dozen runway models in pop art latex. One of them was painted to resemble the Ford GT. The chocolate girl, in her own way, would also celebrate the beauty of the cars. “When a girl’s dipped in chocolate,” Pardo says, “she looks like she’s painted. She’s contoured. So when you walk down the street and see a girl in chocolate, you say wow, look at her. When the GT drives by, there’s the same level of drama and dynamics.”

The party soon becomes hopping with a photogenic downtown crowd: gorgeous models, downtown hipsters, and a couple nervous looking Ford employees. Pardo sneaks into his bedroom to scarf down rice and beans, while Woody Allen’s futuristic movie Sleeper plays silently on the TV. A drunk guy with a shaved head stumbles in with a beer bottle in a brown bag. He doesn’t know Pardo, it’s clear, the moment his picks up the GT model car sitting on a nearby shelf.

“Cool, dude!” The guy gushes to Pardo, “What is this the 1966 GT?”

“Nope,” Pardo says, “the 2005.”

“No fucking way! They’re making a new one? How do you know?”

“I work there,” Pardo says, nonchalantly, “I designed it.”

The guy’s eyes go wide, as his palm raises high in the air. “Dude!” He says, giving Pardo a five, “That kicks ass!”

“Yeah,” Pardo says, as though he still can’t quite believe it himself, “it does.”