Two decades ago, car designer Tom Kearns would make a point of strolling the floor of the big annual auto show in Detroit to see the latest designs from Asian competitors. What impressed him? Not much.
"You almost didn't pay attention," says Kearns, who was working for General Motors at the time. "I thought we clobbered them."
Now Kearns is head of the U.S. design studio here for South Korean maker Kia. His latest handiwork and that of others goes on display to reporters today and Thursday at the press preview for the New York International Auto Show, open to the public from Friday to April 19. It will range from minicars to a 621-horsepower Bentley cruiser.
Kearns considers the sleek metal babies that his team is cranking out to be designs as good as or better than anything Detroit is offering.
In fact, they all have a lot in common.
Consumers used to embrace new cars and trucks from GM, Ford Motor and Chrysler because despite any failings, they were considered better-looking and distinctive.
Today, all new cars from the world's major makers are designed by pretty much the same folks — a roving band of top designers for hire. Their careers are spent going from one automaker to the next, spanning the globe. As a result, designs are often not as distinctive as in the past.
Also, most of their cars must eventually be on sale on several continents at once. As beautiful as they might be, it's harder to make them distinctive as designers are forced to seek lower common denominators to appeal to multiple regional tastes.
Safety and technology features force an international homogenization of appearance as well. The Europeans adopted regulations designed to better protect pedestrians when they get struck by cars, and cars worldwide became more snub-nosed and devoid of hood ornaments as a result.
We are the world
It's a far cry from the American showboats of the 1950s through 1980s that stood apart from just about everything else produced. Newfangled Toyotas shipped in from Japan ran like clocks but never could capture the panache of a mid-1960s Chevrolet Impala.
Today, a Nissan Altima competes in size and looks with a Ford Fusion. A Toyota Tundra pickup takes aim at a Dodge Ram. A Pontiac G8 may be marketed as pure American muscle, but it's actually a buff Australian import.
Designers themselves love how they are stretching borders. Sure, foreigners are luring away top American talent. But many of them go on to design some of the world's most famous cars for other markets. Conversely, some top foreign designers turn their talents to developing icons of the American highways.
The quest is always the same: to dig into the ethos of a place and a people to figure out what kind of ride they will love.
"We're cultural architects," says Freeman Thomas, now a top designer for Ford Motor after stops at Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen and what was DaimlerChrysler. "It's designing for a specific culture and customer."
American design was always rebellious, free-form, not as tied to tradition, Thomas says.