At first glance, California's growing influence on automotive design has all the hallmarks of the grandest hoax ever perpetrated on an industry.

The world's auto makers currently employ hundreds of designers in California who churn out concepts for more than two dozen brands.

And under Wall Street's baleful glare, car companies have invested untold millions in “Left Coast” studios, where sandal-clad designers are guaranteed daily doses of surfside inspiration and a steady supply of moca-choca latte.

Meanwhile, everyone else involved with the product development process is condemned to toiling in the bowels of technical centers nestled in such garden spots as Detroit, Stuttgart or Nagoya.

The conspiracy seems obvious when the designers parrot identical rationales for locating in La-La Land. They say, without blinking, “the light is better.”

Huh?

“There's an actual color and quality of light that's different than other parts of the world,” says Marek Djordjevic, creator of the Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Skeptics might dismiss this claim. But there is no denying California's design community is aglow.

By spring 2007, when Kia Motors America separates its design operations from the Irvine site it shares with Hyundai Motor America, Southern California will be home to 15 major design studios, from General Motors Corp.'s facility in trendy North Hollywood, to Nissan Design America, situated on the picturesque northern tip of San Diego.

Kia hopes to hire 10 new designers this year, while Mazda North America Operations (MNAO) is looking to add at least eight.

Further expansion is on the horizon with last month's announcement that Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura luxury brand will get a standalone facility.

But there is more.

Djordjevic, along with seasoned designer Henrik Fisker, represent another sign California is turning the corner as a global design mecca. In the last 14 months, both men have left their respective positions with major auto makers to establish independent California-based studios.

Djordjevic left BMW AG-owned Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. to launch Marek Djordjevic Inc., which will target design work for premium land, air and sea-going vehicles.

Fisker, who supervised Ford Motor Co.'s advanced product creation center in California and led design for the auto maker's Aston Martin brand, now is CEO of Fisker Coachbuild LLC.

Fisker's Irvine-based firm reprised its Frankfurt auto show debut with a pair of custom-car unveilings at last month's Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

The company plans to build 150 units each of the Mercedes-Benz-based Fisker Tramonto and the BMW-based Fisker Latigo, which will sell for $296,775 and $197,900, respectively.

Is California on track to become the North American equivalent of Turin, the spiritual home of automotive design?

“It already is,” claims Fabrizio Giugiaro, vice president of the famed Italian design house Ital Design SpA and son of its founder, legendary designer Georgetto Giugiaro.

ItalDesign and its competitors Pininfarina SpA and Bertone SpA, have put northern Italy on the map as a global center of inspiration.

“We have a big reputation, historically,” Fabrizio Giugiaro concedes. But Turin “is a little answer to California. California, in terms of lifestyle and geography, is known as a place where there is complete freedom for brainstorming.”

Clearly, Californians think of themselves in such terms. Says an essay posted to the state government's website: “America looks to California as its bellwether, as the place where new lifestyles and attitudes begin.”

Franz von Holzhausen, design director of MNAO's research and development center (also in Irvine), goes a step further.

“There's a sense of optimism here in Southern California,” says von Holzhausen, who last year left Detroit after penning the Pontiac Solstice for GM. “There's a sense of this being a place to make your dreams happen.”

Such optimism apparently is shared by millions who sought California as a place to live. State statistics show one in four of its 34 million-plus residents were born outside the U.S.

“It's a melting pot,” von Holzhausen says. “It's what America's really about, smashed into one little area. There's all these ideas brought together. You've got this huge Asian influence. You've got this huge Latin influence. They're all bringing a completely different perspective of what's acceptable.”

From such diversity springs the hottest trends in fashion and leisure — key influences on automotive design.

Additionally, California offers a vast amount of suburbia but also densely congested areas, as well as narrow, winding canyon roads.

“There are so many different perspectives of why California is such a wonderful place to be as far as automotive development,” von Holzhausen says.

And then, of course, there is that superior light. Think sunrise at Yosemite, sunset at Malibu. “I don't know if it's a bluer sky, but the type of light that we get here is different than you get in the Midwest,” he says.

The sun seems to shine brightest on California in many ways. Its economy approaches $3 trillion annually, which is why Djordjevic and Fisker view the Golden State as the prospective successor to Italy as a center of cutting-edge coachbuilding.

“Italy remains a very powerful force in design in other fields like furniture and fashion,” Djordjevic says. “But for some reason, they lack the kind of (automotive design) potency they used to have.”

Says Fisker: “The reason we wanted to come here is because this is the biggest luxury-car market in the world. The strange thing is, there is no local manufacturer of luxury cars. So we really felt this was a good place to start the company and be in the middle of the biggest market and live and breathe it and understand it.”

Sales of ultra-luxury cars have been so strong this decade, marques traditionally associated with low volumes are increasing production, says Fisker, whose resume of dramatic cars includes the Aston Martin DB9, Aston Martin V8 Vantage and the BMW Z8.

“(Ultra-luxury cars) are victims of their own success,” he says. “You have a lot of buyers who expect, when they go out and spend $200,000 or $250,000 on a car, that it's very exclusive.

“But when they come home and see there's another three guys on the street that have the same car, there's not that much to talk about, other than to say, ‘Hey, you've got the same thing.’

Fisker says improved production processes portend sufficient cost savings to prevent the mistakes made during coachbuilding's golden era in the U.S. between 1930 and 1960.

The craft died out when the cost of low-volume manufacturing skyrocketed in an inverse relationship with the declining cost of mass production.

“Ten years ago, it would have been absolutely impossible to do a specifically designed wheel for a few cars,” Fisker says. “Today, you can do that. So a lot of production has been changed to the advantage of limited production.”

And then it happens. The romance of that California dreaming slips out.

“We have our own company, so we can tell you the truth,” Fisker says.

“We like to live and work at the beach. We do. We like to be here and cruise to work in the morning in our convertibles.

“And when we drive home and wave goodbye to each other in our convertibles, we decide whether we should go down PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway) or take the freeway.”

And then, just as quickly, he recovers.

“But the lighting thing is actually correct,” Fisker insists. “If you ever go to Africa, you realize the sunset in Africa is quite different than it is here. All over the world, there's different lighting.”

Nevertheless, not everyone in the auto industry sees California design studios as the answer to product-development prayers.

John Coletti can see just fine from Detroit. The retired Ford engineer, who helped guide the development of high-performance, high-profile cars such as the Ford GT supercar and a procession of SVT Mustangs, warns against dividing designers and engineers.

“It adds a delay,” says Coletti, who runs his own Michigan-based consulting firm, John Coletti Enterprises Inc. “One thing we learned, and we learned this years ago: co-located teams that talk to each other on a real-time basis are the most effective and most efficient. You've got to have face-to-face.”

Engineers and designers are “two different breeds of people,” he says. “Just having them separated by rooms in a building, let alone different buildings…now you're talking about California vs. here? It makes the acceptance of the project concept and the ultimate feasibility much more difficult. It just slows down the whole process.”

Coletti saves one final lightning bolt for Volkswagen AG, which rented a house in Malibu where designers spent a year observing America for product-development insights.

“Malibu is not America,” he sniffs before questioning “the batting average” for production vehicles coming out of California studios.

Many California concepts have been doomed to the regional auto show circuit. Or worse. But some have been hits. Volkswagen never got out of the on-deck circle with its Microbus concept. But its California-conceived New Beetle was a big success before it eventually ran out of steam.

However, the New York Yankee's A-Rod might envy La Jolla-based Nissan Design America's “batting average.” It takes credit for the 350Z sports car, Maxima and Altima sedans, plus the Pathfinder and Xterra SUVs.

Volvo Cars of North America LLC's design center in Irvine also has a styling “coup:” the S80 sedan.

Other California studios are just warming up. The '07 Hyundai Santa Fe cross/utility vehicle is a product of the auto maker's studio in Irvine, which only opened its doors in 2003.

Von Holzhausen's studio used the recent L.A. show to launch Mazda's CX-7 CUV, the first of four designed-in-California offerings the auto maker will introduce this year.

Retired Chrysler Group design chief Tom Gale sees value in locating designers in California, North America's single largest vehicle market and home to an economy that dwarfs that of most nations. But Gale favors central control.

“I admire, I love California. I helped set up the California studio for (Chrysler), and it's incredibly important,” Gale says. “However, to be really successful, design has got to be part of the fabric of the company.”

If, for instance, a (car) company is based in Detroit, “then that's where design is going to have to be,” he adds. “Or at least the leadership of design.”

Japan-based Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s North American operations, for example, have bucked the trend by opening a satellite studio in Michigan to complement Nissan Design America.

Chris Bangle, BMW AG's global design guru, arguably is the most outspoken and radical designer in the industry. Ironically, he advises caution when assessing the importance of California studios.

He says it is too soon to rate Los Angeles, which does not build cars, against Turin.

“Turin makes cars,” he says. “As good as Henrik (Fisker) is doing, and I give him a lot of credit, he's still an aftermarket parts maker. He's not making cars.”

Bangle likens the difference in regions to that of Bertone and ItalDesign. Bertone makes cars. Italdesign does not.

“(ItalDesign does) wonderful engineering, wonderful design, wonderful prototypes,” Bangle says. “But factories employing hundreds of people you have to feed everyday? These are different responsibilities.”

On the other hand, Turin has nowhere near the amount of independent, creative car design that happens in Southern California, Bangle says.

“A very potent part of this culture here (in California) is the culture of an independent mind, an individualistic and artistic approach,” he says. “The Europeans are far more oriented toward a systematic, industrial-level approach.”

Yet, locating in California does not guarantee success. ItalDesign and Porsche North America have closed design studios here. Porsche did so to consolidate its business, while ItalDesign failed to win enough new contracts. (Giugiaro says his company now is concentrating on Asia, through a design center in Shanghai.)

Within a large company, Bangle acknowledges assigning designers to a sunny clime is a hot-button topic among engineers who toil in cubicles and never see daylight. But he insists designers are not coddled.

“It's very important for a global design culture — if you want to have it in your company — to be balanced with a California component,” Bangle says.

And don't forget the light. Despite advances in digital imaging, Bangle says it is important for designers to spend time outdoors with their products.

“It helps if you have a climate where you can do that 99% of the year, instead of northern Germany, where it's (light) 43% of the year, or something like that.

“When I came to BMW, they were very proud to tell me about this silver paint they had recently developed that had a slight bluish touch to it. The reason being, in Germany, you wouldn't normally get a blue reflection in a silver car because the sky is so gray.”

Once, Bangle was forced to move his operations to southern France because designers needed more natural light.

“We had to organize heated transports and fly the entire modeling crew out there on the BMW jet just because, in the middle of February, you can't get that amount of time outside — a clear day, sunset, sunrise — in (northern) Europe.”

Is there any scientific basis behind the claim California sunshine is of a higher quality? Yes, says Marty Banks, a vision scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“In any dry climate and any high-altitude situation, the number of particles between the sun and the place on the ground where you're standing is reduced,” Banks says.

“If you're in a very humid climate, like Washington, D.C. in the summer, there's more water molecules between you and the sun than in the middle of Death Valley. And those water molecules scatter the light.

“So the fewer (water molecules) you have, you get a different scattering. That's why the sky looks darker blue if you're in the desert, than if you're in Michigan on a sunny, humid day.”

The same thing can occur on a Midwestern mid-winter's day.

“After it's been overcast and everything clears out, things can look really crisp, and the light can really look quite good,” Banks says. “That's because it got drier.”

Does this phenomenon occur anywhere with regularity? “Antarctica,” he says.

Clearly, no place for sandal-wearing designers.