LOS ANGELES - Is California's weather affecting global automotive design?

It might sound like a strange question. And, it has nothing to do with El Nino.

When Ford Motor Co. chose J. Mays as its new head of design last October it raised many eyebrows. He was an outsider, a relatively young designer (42) who'd gotten most of his hands-on design experience in California and Europe, not Detroit.

Mr. Mays already had a legacy because he can take much of the credit for VW's New Beetle, which is set to be one of the most talked about production car designs in many years. Although some would call it a retro car - a statement with which Mr. Mays vehemently disagrees - it has certainly put him on the map. And it also has put California on the map as an important global design center.

With more than 15 design studios in one area it probably beats any place else in the world in sheer numbers. Northern Italy is probably the only region that comes close.

But it's only in California where there are U.S., Japanese, European and Korean design studios all within 120 miles of each other.

Certainly, nowhere have so many design studios been so far removed from the major centers of manufacturing.

Following the Japanese and the Americans, the Europeans and Koreans realized the importance of California and began opening studios here. The last European manufacturer to join in was Mercedes-Benz, and it already has produced two noticeable vehicles: the Smart Car and the M-class SUV.

The Koreans recently moved in, and even independent European designer ItalDesign opened a studio not long ago.

Noticeably absent: General Motors Corp., whose Advance Concept Center (ACC) established in 1984 in Thousand Oaks was among the first West Coast automotive studios. GM quietly shut down ACC in June 1996, consolidating its activities at the GM Design Center in Warren, MI.

It was while Mr. Mays was working at VW's studio in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles, that he penned Concept One, which evolved, without much change, into the New Beetle. It would seem quite a shift in design philosophy for Mr. Mays to go from the rounded New Beetle to the "New Edge" look espoused by Ford. He, of course, does not see this as a problem. But how does the design world he left behind in Southern California see the shape of things to come?

Dan Sims, chief designer at Mitsubishi Motor America's California design studio, sees the general trend to a "crisp edge" in design taking us back to the look of the '80s. "It's a geo-mechanical direction, a return to basic forms such as cubes and squares," he says. Mr. Sims doesn't see it as much a styling approach as almost an architectural approach, giving "more strength to the sheet metal."

He suggests that the Mitsubishi Technas, unveiled at Frankfurt last year, shows this trend also is coming to Mitsubishi.

Tom Matano, Mazda's California-based designer who penned the Miata, thinks the car could not have been designed in Japan. "Designers there commute by train each day, so how could they come up with the Miata?"

He sees California as a natural place for design studios. "The weather and different scenery nearby provides recreational pursuits all year round. The beach, the snow, they all provide inspiration," Mr. Matano says.

"Living and breathing the California environment enabled Mazda to come up with the Miata," he explains.

As Charles Ellwood, executive director of the VW Design Center, puts it so succinctly, "I'd never want to work for Volvo in Sweden - their designers only have a few months of daylight each year!"

He adds that "if a designer gets up each morning with the sun shining, he's in a better mood than if the skies are gray."

Apart from the weather, another strong influence that helps the California design studios is the proximity of the entertainment industry.

Chuck Pelly, founder of Designworks/USA, says that the entertainment, computer and fashion industries help make California a leader when it comes to vehicle design. His studio, wholly owned by BMW since 1995, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1997, making him one of the originators of the idea that California could be a design center. Mr. Pelly is not at liberty to discuss exactly what his studio has done recently, but does admit that "we enjoyed our heavy involvement" in the upcoming new 3-Series BMW.

Designworks recently designed the new MCI coach, which he claims is the first new coach design in the U.S. in 25 years. Apart from design influences, Mr. Pelly also sees the computer and entertainment industries helping bring new technology into play as well.

This sentiment is echoed by Mark Stehrenberger, a teacher and designer in his own right, at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He says that the campus is building a new wing just to house computers, and that computer companies are using students as guinea pigs as they test new software that eventually will find its way into studios.

Mr. Matano points out that it's important to have a common data set from beginning to end of a project. It helps if a designer starts using a computer-aided design (CAD) program at an early stage as it brings the designers into the loop with engineers. Eventually it can include suppliers. Mr. Matano says this has helped speed up the whole process in developing a new car.

Mr. Ellwood says VW is spending $500,000 on new computers, and his designers are excited about using a virtual reality room with computer-generated pictures.

He admits, though, that using computers is not as easy at the concept stage, but that it makes a lost of sense in final design stages.

New technology also has allowed manufacturers to integrate their California design studios into their worldwide systems, often turning them into production studios rather than just advanced concept studios.

But Dave Stollery, president of Industrial Design Research, laments this turn of events. He was the initial designer hired by Toyota Motor Corp. to develop Calty Design Research in 1973.

He believes it is still very important to have a studio that can pen futuristic designs away from the politics of headquarter-based design studios. He says he is saddened to see that Calty has become just another production design studio in Toyota's network, effectively working as a backup studio to Japan.

Chrysler Pacifica, the No.3 automaker's advanced studio in carlsbad, CA, still operates in this way. Tom Tremont, chief designer, describes how his studio still works as a "dedicated studio away from the mothership" and is the first to work on new platforms. He thinks that the "New Edge" look coined by Ford is only a form of vocabulary. "It's more of a crisp look, and the whole world's doing that now."

But, he points out that "after 10 years, a look will not be fresh anymore."

Of course, California has been influencing auto designers for decades thanks to the Art Center, just north of downtown L.A.

It's difficult to find a senior auto designer who didn't graduate from this famous art school. But most move on to regular design production studios at or near auto companies' headquarters.

American designers are having more and more influence on a worldwide basis. In addition to Mr. Mays, American Chris Bangle heads BMW's design staff in Europe.

"Americans by nature are more free-thinkers," says Mr. Matano. "That's why there are a lot of Americans in Europe now. A different education in this country allows you to let yourself go."

>From a global perspective, California probably has more influence on automotive design than anywhere. Mssrs. Matano and Stehrenberger are sure that the Mercedes-Benz design studio is having a major impact on the German company's future designs.

Yet, despite all the talk of the global car, most manufacturers have come to the conclusion that what an American wants in Peoria is not the same as a the ideal car for a family in Bavaria or a housewife in Hiroshima.

For this reason the California studios have become the place where American cars are designed for European and Japanese companies. This trend toward regional designs has been going on for several years but it is now making itself felt in the marketplace.

"Mercedes designers in Stuttgart could not have designed the M-class," says Mr. Matano. "It took knowledge of the lifestyle needs in America.

- John Rettie is Ward's West Coast correspondent based in Santa Barbara