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Under the hood: David Lyon

April 16th, 2010 by Austin

Pictured: GM Executive Director of Interior Design David Lyon inside the 2011 Buick Regal

GM gave us an advance preview of their new Buick Regal before it hits dealerships this May. We weren’t able to drive this particular pre-production unit for fear of the wheels rolling off into Park Avenue traffic, but the sporty-looking sedan definitely has some curb appeal – taught surfaces, an athletic stance, upscale styling cues and a level of interior refinement that goes beyond hard plastic and faux chrome accents. Overall, the aura (no pun intended to Saturn may they R.I.P) is decidedly European, which makes sense considering the Regal started life in Germany as an Opel Insignia [GM’s German subsidiary]. The Insignia has been on sale in Europe for about a year, where it sold more than 140,000 units and nabbed European Car of the Year honors. GM tells us it is often cross-shopped with the Audi A4…not too shabby for a brand that was selling rolling barcaloungers not too long ago. The Regal is also sold in China where Buick has achieved unprecedented sales success and possesses an almost Rolls Royce-like status in terms of prestige.

GM is down to its core brands after laying Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Oldsmobile to rest and selling off Saab to the Dutch. So it seems Buick is more important than ever for the GM brand portfolio. But as any auto marketer will tell you, there is no greater challenge than bringing a once great brand like Buick back to life. If Cadillac stands for luxury and Chevy for mass market quality and affordability, that leaves Buick square in the near-luxury segment currently occupied by the likes of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti. Fresh product and contemporary design seen in Buick Lacrosse and Enclave certainly aren’t hurting their chances based on the younger wave of buyers flocking to Buick dealerships. We caught up with 20-year GM vet David Lyon to get his take on things. Dave currently oversees interior design across all of GM’s brands and was formerly Executive Director of GM Asia Pacific Design where, among other projects, he oversaw the design of the utterly gorgeous Buick Riviera concept. More pictures and a Q&A after the jump.

What got you into car design?
It was cars first and then design. My dad was a car nut. We grew up just outside of Chicago. He used to take me to the Road America races at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin. You would see all the Porsches racing…Can Am was big back then. I was nuts for cars. At first, I really thought you had to be an engineer to style cars. That’s what I was told at least. So in high school it was four years of math, four years of science, drafting classes, advanced calculus. It turns out you don’t need any of that stuff. So right out of high school, I found a school in Detroit [College for Creative Studies] and they had a major in car design. It’s a pretty tough program. They started off with 60 people Freshman year and, going into sophomore year, it was down to 14. It was a lot easier to get into the school then it was to stay there because they have pretty formal reviews every semester. All the professors throw your work up on the wall and decide if your on probation or not. And If you’re on probation twice in a row then you’re out. You have to have really tough skin.

What are the “must have” design traits for the vehicles you work on?
Designers hate rule books. But for me, it has to be classically beautiful, it has to have a lot of tension but also very rounded forms and there has to be a lot of beautiful sculpture on the body side. A good car design should look like its in motion while standing still.

How does Buick position Regal next to other models like Lacrosse?
Its no secret that Lacrosse and Regal are built off the same architecture. So are the BMW 5 and 7 Series. But they are very different vehicles. Compared to the Lacrosse, which allows you to cross your legs while sitting in the back seat and is used by Chinese diplomats as limousines, Regal is a much more personal-sized vehicle. The interior is tighter…it’s less of a family car and more of sport sedan. I wont say 4-door coupe but it’s a coupe like profile for sure.

So how does it drive?
I drove one of the turbocharged models with a manual transmission the last time I was in Frankfurt…it’s a pretty thrilling drive. The turbo is very smooth. I used to have Saab 900s and the turbo was fun there but man you knew when it was on and when it wasn’t. This is a lot more seamless than that.

Sports sedans aren’t exactly the mental image when I think of Buick. What gives?
We get into trouble when we pigeonhole one brand too much. Cadillac’s portfolio is going to be predominantly rear drive at a price point that Buick won’t go. In order for Buick to be relevant today, it can’t just be about cushy family boulevard cruisers. There is a near luxury class of vehicles that are fantastic but don’t necessarily have the style and appeal of more premium brands. I’m talking Acuras, Infinitis..their not quite true luxury yet. We want to go after those guys with Buick and I think we can win.

Regal is sold in Europe as the Opel Insignia. Are we looking at the same car here?
We’ve done some tuning but we are not trying to take the character out of this vehicle. We designed this car to be sold globally so there is very little we needed to change. It’s a hit in Europe. It’s a hit in China. And we hope it will be a hit here. There are some regional differences for sure. Germans, for instance, really like a hard seat. What’s nice about having Lacrosse in the mix is that we have something that is a little more of a bridge from where people expect us to be to where we’re going.

What is the dynamic like with GM staffers outside of the design realm?
For most people it’s a little bit of a trust fall for the designer. When you are spending $100 million on a new car program, far more than that if it involves a new platform, it goes without saying that it’s tough to convince people to take you at your word when I tell them something will look good in the sheet metal. And if I am doing my job right it won’t look great today, it will look good 3 years from now when it’s on the road. You have to have pretty thick skin.

What moves you most about automobiles?
From a design standpoint, there is nothing more difficult. You’ve got life or death decisions on safety and ergonomics. You have complex materials and part interfaces. But when it’s all done, it has to look like a work of art or you didn’t do your job. That challenge is unbelievable. In my career I have worked on the outside of cars, I have worked on the inside, different brands, different regions…it never gets old. It is always changing. There is always a new competitor that comes along and does something you didn’t expect. It stings for day or two and then you get back into it and try to beat them. I’m not into sports, I don’t have hobbies..this is it. This is everything to me.

You have been styling cars for the General for 20 years – what are your thoughts on the “new” GM?
The last few years have been emotional for sure but the cars have never been better. A lot of that is Bob [Lutz]. Journalists often ask me if we fired all the old designers and hired new, better ones. The answer is NO. I graduated from the same school as designers from Mercedes and BMW. The difference now is that we have a company that really cares about design and took the leash off. The last 10 years have been very different than the first 10 years. I don’t know if it was Stockholm syndrome or what but I’m not quite sure why I stayed. For a while it was tough to be a designer in this company. And now we have full and free access to top management to explain exactly why we are right and the car has to look this way. And generally they agree with us. There is nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for on this car. It’s a designers dream.

What’s your personal style?
I probably align more with British philosophy where you have to respect traditional stuff. I don’t care if it’s fashion, clothes, cars, or shoes – the Brits do an excellent job of keeping what’s great about tradition and always managing to reinvent it. I wear a lot of Thomas Pink shirts, a lot of Ben Sherman. I’m very casual at home, but always in a suit at work. I lived in Korea for 3 years so I got used to not wearing belts and having slip on shoes. You pick up a lot of style habits along the way.

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