FRANKFURT – Despite rumors to the contrary, sources say Martin Smith did not resign as executive director-design at Adam Opel AG to head up Ford of Europe Inc.’s design operations because he was passed over for Wayne Cherry’s job at General Motors Corp. last year.

Cherry’s job, instead, went to Ed Welburn, who was named vice president-North America design. (See related story: Ed Welburn Only Sixth Design Chief in GM’s History)

Smith simply did not want to move from Europe to Detroit to an as-yet-secret new position within GM design, insiders insist. Nevertheless, his defection is stirring up rumors as well as change.

Minutes after an obviously delighted J Mays, Ford’s global vice president-design, rang to announce that his long-time friend Smith was joining Ford, the fax machine whirred. American Bryan Nesbitt was to become the new chief designer for Opel/Vauxhall, replacing the popular Brit. (See related story: Martin Smith to Ford Europe; Nesbitt Takes Opel Design Helm )

Nesbitt, 35, who joined GM in 2001 after seven years at DaimlerChrysler AG, is best known for his work on the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Designers frequently move between rival companies but rarely at such a senior level. No wonder the automotive design world is stunned at the news of Smith’s defection. The subject is certain to occupy the gossips at next week’s Geneva auto show, despite the absence of Smith, who is not expected to be there.

The 54-year old Yorkshireman is joining Ford of Europe effectively in the same position he held at GM for nearly two years, to greatly strengthen Ford’s design talent. He will report directly to Mays but also to Derrick Kuzak, Ford of Europe vice president-product development.

“Martin’s the best boss we’ve ever had,” Astra designer Freidhelm Engler, said the night before the resignation, completely unaware of the following day’s dramatic announcement. “He pushes the young designers, doesn’t hog the limelight and allows us plenty of freedom.”

Smith’s departure is acknowledged within GM as a serious disappointment, a real blow to Opel/Vauxhall’s intention to become style leaders in Europe.

Nesbitt, meanwhile, moves from his position as head of GM North American truck design, though previously he headed the teams that styled the upcoming Pontiac G6 and Solstice.

Many are asking why Smith would leave his job in the middle of the critically important Astra launch, a model he’s spent much of the last four years working on. Some speculate he did not want to report to Welburn.

Smith, whose contract includes a six-month’s severance clause, is not talking.