“We've got car nuts in China just like in the States 50 years ago — really superb product guys who are so focused on product excellence they could easily have a future outside China.”
— Bob Lutz, General Motors Corp. vice chairman and product development chief

Bob Lutz may have had James Shyr, director of design at the GM China Group, in mind when he made that observation.

Asked what he thinks of the Cadillac CTS, just now going on sale in China, Shyr sounds like a young Bob Lutz: “I love it, especially the V-Series (high-performance, 400-hp version),” which he has driven at GM's Milford, MI, Proving Ground. “You can really burn some rubber. With the 6-speed gearbox, I can really kick some asses!”

His Yankee predecessors of the 1950s may not have used those exact words, but they likely would share the excitement he exudes when it comes to hot wheels.

Shyr had no direct role in the CTS. The sport sedan is imported from the U.S., along with the SRX cross/utility vehicle and the Cadillac flagship XLR 2-seat convertible.

“In the future (when CTS is assembled in China) we will have input on the CTS,” he says.

But the slim 42-year-old designer has led his 62-person crew, all Chinese nationals, in tweaking numerous vehicles for the Chinese market from GM's global affiliates.

They also have developed some eye-catching concept vehicles that one day may move into production, and the team is working on a variety of cars and light trucks that soon will come on line in China.

“Design has a long development time,” he says. “Our work (extensive design input) won't appear until later this year or 2005.”

An ethnic Chinese who grew up in Japan, Shyr joined GM China three years ago.

He graduated in 1990 from the Art Center College in Pasadena, CA, and is a frequent U.S. visitor who has “always loved to draw and always loved cars.”

Shyr began his career with PSA Peugeot Citroen in France and moved on to Toyota Motor Corp., also in France, and then to Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. operations in Taiwan before arriving in Shanghai at GM China in 2001.

“It's good to have a variety of experience, but I'm staying here,” he says.

“Here” is the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC) in suburban Shanghai, a joint venture with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.

GM and SAIC are 50-50 partners in Shanghai General Motors Co. Ltd., GM's chief operation in China that builds and sells four vehicles under the Buick banner.

Formed in 1997, PATAC is responsible for design, engineering, testing and validation of components and vehicles.

It is linked with GM technical centers in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, the U.K. and Germany as GM strives to commonize vehicle development worldwide while providing product distinction to fit local markets.

PATAC is renovating a sprawling old motorcycle plant to house state-of-the-art equipment, including a virtual-reality studio, said to be the first in China. With virtual reality, GM's staffers worldwide can view each other's computer-generated designs in real time.

PATAC's first task when its design studio opened in 1999 was to adapt the Buick Sail from GM's Adam Opel AG Corsa small car. Chinese engineers and designers unveiled their first concept car, called the Qilin, at Auto Shanghai 1999.

In 2001, the Shanghai center began re-engineering the Buick Regal in the upper-medium range, which was introduced in December 2002 and quickly became GM's best-selling car in China.

GM sold nearly 260,000 vehicles in China during this year's first half, up 57.6% from 2003.

However, recent government policies to slow China's super-heated economy are taking a toll on all auto makers in the region. After huge double-digit quarter-to-quarter gains, Regal sales during the first eight months rose only 3.2% to 57,577.

To expand Buick's inroads, PATAC took a model from GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co. to fit below Regal in the lower-medium sedan segment, renaming it the Buick Excelle. Deliveries began in August 2003.

Under Shyr's direction, the Kunpeng concept CAV (compact activity vehicle) debuted at Auto Shanghai 2003 in April and was featured at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit — the first time a concept vehicle developed in China was shown outside the country.

Although its name may sound strange by U.S. standards, the Kunpeng illustrates innovative Chinese design acumen. The name comes from a legendary Chinese animal that transformed itself from a fish to a bird.

“It combines the aerodynamics of a bird in flight with styling reminiscent of a fish in motion,” GM says. “True to its name, the design of a streamlined body incorporates fisheye-line headlamps and fin-like door handles.”

Shyr says the Kunpeng was designed with Chinese buyers in mind but at the same time demonstrates “the rapid development of automotive design in China.”

His group — which operates four vehicle studios, a modeling studio, rapid-prototyping facility, a paint booth and the new virtual-reality studio — includes designers, sculptors/modelers, engineers and color/trim specialists.

Before Shyr arrived at GM China, PATAC inherited the Regal, considered a modest midsize car in the U.S., and set out to move it upscale for government and executive sales as the Chinese market was just starting to heat up.

Buick was chosen because it was said to have a special place in Chinese history. In the 1920s, the mayor of Shanghai had a Buick, as did Sun Yat-sen, China's revolutionary hero in the early 20th century.

Shyr arrived at GM in time to work on both interior and exterior Regal design modifications. “It was a complete makeover for the China market,” he recalls.

“In the U.S., the Regal was mostly for personal use. Here, half of them are chauffer driven. We added a hood ornament for a more formal look.”

That was not all. Inside, an analog clock mimicking the look of a watch was installed. “Executives have time pieces, so why should it look different?” Shyr asks.

Large DVD screens on the back of front headrests were added for viewing by the “boss” seated in the rear, as were rear-mounted heating and air conditioning controls, built-in phones and privacy sunshades.

“The brand is considered very premium, and we wanted to keep brand equity,” he says.

PATAC staffers re-engineered the Sail for China, adapting the suspension to fit China's mostly cement — not asphalt — roads, Shyr says, while designers came up with new front and rear fascias.

The Excelle also was tailored for the Chinese market, and the front end was redesigned to provide a Buick family look.

That was the same goal of GM's designers in Warren, MI, who transformed the modest Chevrolet Venture minivan to become the Buick GL8 “executive van” on sale in China.

Besides adding Buick's “waterfall” grille, the GL8 also has built-in DVD screens in both front headrests and slick, brightly lit “Buick” nameplates located in the sills of each sliding door.

The GL8's successor likely will include considerable Chinese design input. And Shyr's group already is working on the Regal's successor, which will start with the Buick LaCrosse, now arriving in U.S. showrooms.

Indeed, Shyr says his team had some input on the LaCrosse, especially as it relates to “elegant” touches.

As a member of GM's Global Design Leadership Council, Shyr stays in close communication with Ed Welburn, GM's design vice president, and his counterparts at GM's other technical centers “to make sure we have a common vision and common practice,” he says.

Married and the father of two, Shyr says one of his favorite cars is the '76 Cadillac Eldorado, “the last big convertible.” He also is fond of the Ferrari Daytona and the Porsche 928, “which was way ahead of its time.”

Those same cars also are favorites of designers around the world, suggesting at least one of China's emerging car nuts stands in good company.