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Back in 1986, before he was one of the hottest designers in the United States, Freeman Thomas gave a ride to a guy he barely knew. It was winter, and Thomas was living in Germany. "I remember thrashing through these narrow, twisted roads," says Grant Larson, who is now a friend and colleague of Thomas. "He had a little Fiat Uno, and he was scaring the hell out of me. He was hammering around these curves, these narrow streets. I was fresh from America, where the streets are wider, of course, and the cars don't handle as well as European cars."
Thirteen years later, Freeman Thomas is doing the same thing, again with someone he hardly knows. This time, he's doing it on a sunny, cool afternoon in the suburbs of Detroit. He's slamming through turns, using all five gears, dodging slow movers — providing a breathtaking, and breathless, tour of the landscape. One landmark flashes into view, and before you can absorb it or appreciate it, Freeman Thomas is downshifting and roaring off to the next one.
The Detroit performance is even more remarkable than the German one, however, because Freeman Thomas is taking this ride without the benefit of a car. He's sitting at a weathered picnic table behind a small Catholic church. And his brain is moving so fast that his mouth can hardly keep up.
In one hour, Thomas manages to connect the show "I Love Lucy"; the American Dream; Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house; Alfred Hitchcock; and the peasant cooking of the Italian countryside. He connects them not only to each other but also to the thing that is most important to Freeman Thomas: cars.
Freeman Thomas has designed two of the most distinctive cars of the '90s. He is codesigner of VW's New Beetle. He also designed the Audi TT — a sports car of such purity that a New York Times critic called it "historically significant" and nominated it for "car of the century."
For ordinary people, the Beetle and the TT share a slightly different quality: It's hard to look at either one without smiling — and without itching to slide behind the wheel. That's no accident. For a guy as cheerfully obsessed with cars as Freeman Thomas, the journey really is just as important as the destination. And it is a great sin to create a dull ride.
This summer, Thomas made a move that may result in the addition of some distinctive shapes to American roads: He jumped from VW/Audi to DaimlerChrysler. As head of advanced product design, Thomas is in charge of three U.S. design studios. His main job is to keep DaimlerChrysler's American cars from being dull. This afternoon, Thomas has been out driving through the streets of Detroit in a Plymouth Prowler, a low-slung concept car that is little more than fenders, seats, growling motor, and attitude. The Prowler is every hot rod ever built, distilled into a single package.
"So I'm driving over here today in the Prowler, and I pass a car. There's a man driving, a kid in the front passenger seat, and two more kids in the back. They see the Prowler, and they grin and give me a thumbs-up," says Thomas. "And I give them a thumbs-up back. You only get one life; this life is not a rehearsal. So chances are, you want to have fun. You still want to act like a child. That spirit is a frame of mind, not an age. And the automobile gives you a chance to have an adventure every day. Say you drive 20 minutes to work every day. Your commute could be totally pragmatic, but it doesn't have to be. Having a really nice car is like wearing a really nice suit. It's like a role you play — a role you get to play. Who doesn't want a thumbs-up experience?"
Freeman Thomas on Cars and America
What would the 1950s have been like in America without the automobile? The automobile created restaurants, fashions, television programs. It gave us style. It gave us attitude.
Driving across America is an adventure — the old "Route 66" idea.
If you stop, there's a TV in the motel room where you stay. And on the TV, there's a show about people and cars.
The stories on TV are about American life. They are optimized reflections of American life.
Look at a show like "I Love Lucy." Remember the episodes about the big car trip to California from New York? The car is there.
The late 1990s have not been a fecund era of car design. If anything, there has been a numbing convergence across brands and price ranges into a handful of looks. At a glance, it is difficult to distinguish a Honda Civic from a BMW, an Acura from an Audi, a Volvo from a Saab, a Mercedes SUV from a Lexus SUV from a Kia SUV. Infiniti? Century? Catera? If you've spent $40,000 on your car, shouldn't someone be able to tell?
Talking about specific cars with Freeman Thomas gives you an appreciation for how impoverished design has become, as well as a sense of the values that an innovative designer brings to the table.
Thomas is out in the Detroit suburbs on this particular afternoon to attend an annual car event: the Woodward Dream Cruise. The Cruise is a weekend event that draws roughly 2 million spectators. Thousands of vintage-car owners in Detroit get their cars out of their garages and cruise down Woodward Avenue — one of Detroit's main boulevards — into the city, showing off their wheels and ogling everyone else's. On this one strip, every era of America's infatuation with automobiles is represented.
Thomas has come to the Catholic church as a rendezvous and a place to park his borrowed Prowler. Before he heads over to Woodward Avenue, he gives a brief lesson in design while standing in the parking lot of the church.
"The Prowler makes you smile," he says. "Why? Because it's focused. It has a plot, a reason for being, a passion. It evokes the hot rod. It evokes the American Dream. This car is the human psyche."
He turns to an older green Chevy pickup parked nearby. The truck is all straight lines and smooth sides. It's uninflected, with the utilitarian style of a washing machine. "It's a bland architecture," says Thomas, referring to the Chevy. "It's very practical. What is its story? It's very left brain. You buy it because you need it."
Not four spaces away is a new Dodge Ram pickup. Its nose is high, its hood cocky, its fenders bulging over its rear wheel wells. And it's red.
"This car is more true to what a truck is," says Thomas. "It has a fender and a hood like a big truck. That's the passion. A truck. The fenders have shape, they invite you to touch the truck. The Dodge Ram is like Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater house: It expresses its environment. The beds of these two pickups are the same. They're both designed to hold a 4x8 sheet of plywood. It costs exactly the same to give the metal sides on the outside of the truck some shape as it does to leave them flat. If you get up to wash your truck on Saturday morning, of these two trucks, washing the Chevy is going to be a chore, and washing the Ram is going to be a pleasure."
Thomas walks over to a Buick Century. "This isn't that much different from the Taurus or the Camry," he says. "This is what I call 'committee design.' These cars are reliable. But they are not a forum for honesty. They are really just different sizes of the same car — the same shape, the same architecture."
The silhouette of a car is what first captures Thomas's eye — both when he's looking and when he's drawing. A car reveals its personality through its silhouette: the stance, the position of the wheels, where people sit, the curve of the roofline, the balance between the windows and the body. "You can instantly tell the era of a car by its silhouette," says Thomas.
The New Beetle, in profile, has three arches: the roof and the front and back fenders. Why does that particular combination of shapes evoke good humor, friendliness? Thomas takes a pen out of his pocket and points to a tiny logo on its clip: It's the ears and head of Mickey Mouse. He hasn't answered the "why" question — only pointed out that the arch shapes you see when you look at the Beetle have the same appeal in other contexts. The Audi TT silhouette has oversize wheels dramatically positioned at the far reaches of the body. It's a car that will grab the road and not let go. The roofline — which evokes the distinctive swoop of the TT's cousin, the VW Passat — almost seems to be ducking to get out of the way of the wind. Even in a simple sketch by Thomas on a piece of notebook paper, the TT radiates energy and speed — but also conveys a heft that is often absent in sports cars.
Thomas turns back to the Prowler for a minute, with its hooded roofline and its squinting side windows. "They look aggressive because they're so small," he says. "It's an illusion of stealthiness. It's like Alfred Hitchcock in that classic pose of his — in profile, partially in shadow. He's trying to convey stealthiness — he's creating a sense of mystery." It's a different way of envisioning cars — as a series of silhouettes. On a nearby street, an ordinary minivan pulls away from a stop sign, catching Thomas's eye. "The minivan was a new silhouette when Chrysler invented it," he says. "It had never been done before. The Jeep Cherokee was a new silhouette, too." And it is in silhouette that the Accord and the Camry, the Taurus and the Century, and all of the other "committee" cars look so unoriginal.
Out at Woodward Avenue, Thomas grins as a girl in a 1950s Corvette convertible cruises by. She's got a video camera aimed at the passing parade. "Look at that!" he enthuses. "The 1950s designers were full of optimism, euphoria, motion. It was the age of the jet. The cars expressed that culture, and influenced that culture."
A VW Microbus putters by. It's pale green. "Color is so important," says Thomas, his voice drifting off. He returns with an odd, TV connection. "The show Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In" was part of that culture, part of the hippie culture. And the Microbus was part of the hippie culture." And if you let your mind drift for a minute, you can see the same Microbus-color green in the background of the "Laugh-In" set.
There is a whole parking lot filled with various versions of the Corvette. Thomas admires old dashboards, old convertibles. He comes upon a red 1978 Corvette, dating from the era of the molded plastic body. "It has a kind of sleazy feeling to it, doesn't it?" he asks. "You can see the person driving it without the person being there. He's headed to a brothel."
Thomas approaches an orange 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona. With its streamlined front end, muscled body, and sleek tail, it has the purity of an American icon. This is a car that knows what it's about — and expresses it. "That's just incredible, isn't it?" says Thomas. "It encompasses all of the great things about America."
Freeman Thomas on Cars and the Environment
If you're driving a Prowler down Woodward Avenue in Detroit, you're a part of the environment, but you're also influencing the environment.
There are two identical Picasso sculptures of a head that I've seen. One is in a California museum, one is in a French museum. You can touch the one in France, but you can't touch the one in California.
So the one in France has this tactile emotion about it. It has smooth places, because it's been touched. The one in California is more sterile.
The sculpture in France is like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house: It expresses the environment.
I could see a whole TV show being created about the Prowler. Just the Prowler and a couple of guys doing something every week.
The world of people who design cars for a living in the United States and Europe is small. There aren't that many companies, there aren't that many jobs, and there aren't that many stars. Many car designers — including Freeman Thomas — have graduated from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. Designers tend to know each other, or at least know of each other.
In that world, Freeman Thomas is known for a couple of quirks. He loves Porsches. Porsche was his first employer out of school — in Germany — and Grant Larson remembers that for a while, working at Porsche was a kind of exquisite torture. Thomas was working for his dream company, Larson says. "The poor guy was a total Porsche fanatic — but he couldn't afford one." (Thomas now owns two Porsches.)
Thomas can talk about cars literally all the time. In 1989, he teamed up with Tom Kellogg and David Weston to form a three-man design firm. Says Kellogg of the experience: "We talked mostly about cars. I brought up a lot of other subjects, but he wasn't really interested in anything else."
Jesse Alexander, a photojournalist, documented some of the work that Thomas and his team did at VW/Audi in the company's Simi Valley, California design studio. "We would drive to Los Angeles together," says Alexander. "We would talk cars the whole way down, and the whole way back. We didn't talk about politics, or the big issues of the day. Thomas just totally thinks about cars. I'm sure he dreams about them at night."
"I'm really into cars too," says Larson, who now works for Porsche as a designer. "I'm, like, really into them. For a car nut to get tired of talking about cars, well, it could only happen if you're with Freeman Thomas. It just shows his passion. He's one of the most extreme car enthusiasts I've ever met."
Thomas is always sketching cars. He has a simple, rough, freehand style, using whatever ballpoint pen is around. He uses lots of lines and cross-hatching — capturing the mood and the shape, rather than the details. Sketching helps him think, helps him experiment, helps him explain.
The Audi TT literally started out as a Freeman Thomas sketch on a cocktail napkin. "I have been drawing cars almost forever," he says. "It's my passion." Thomas won his first car-drawing contest when he was in the first grade. "It was a drawing of a fire engine," he says with residual pride.
In college, Thomas would sit and do his drawings while listening to a Walkman. Coming through his headphones, according to a friend, were the sounds of cars at the racetrack. No commentary, no sportscasters calling the action — just the full-throated, full-throttle sounds of engines roaring by.
This summer, DaimlerChrysler hired Thomas away from VW/Audi. At DaimlerChrysler, Thomas heads three of the company's advanced product-design studios. After his first full week of work in Detroit — with his family still in California — Thomas stretched out on the bed in his room at the Residence Inn and reviewed his week: what he'd learned, what he'd seen, what inspirations he'd gotten from the designers. "I just made a series of sketches. I sketched my week by sketching cars," he says. "Unfortunately, I can't show them to you because they're all top secret."
Freeman Thomas on Cars and Cooking
I'm not a workaholic. I make friends with my neighbors. At a certain point, you have to get away from work and look at as many different things as possible — then bring them back to work.
Look at cooking, for instance. The great dishes have come out of peasant cooking — from Italy, France, Germany. In Italy, it's just pasta and tomatoes. Look at all the different flavors made from those same ingredients.
In the studio, we don't want to homogenize cultures; we want to differentiate them.
Freeman Thomas could not look more ordinary. Passing him at the mall, pulling up next to him at a stop light, you'd hardly give him a second glance. In California, while at VW/Audi, Thomas often came to work in shorts and a T-shirt.
In the offices of DaimlerChrysler, where Thomas is one of four vice presidents who sit in a row of roomy glass boxes, he wears a coat and sometimes a tie. But he does almost nothing to draw attention to himself, contrary to what you might expect from a hip designer. No earrings, no shaggy hair, no all-black wardrobe, no outrageous fashions. His personal style is so unselfconscious, it's almost a statement of its own — the absence of style.
If this straightforward presentation isn't exactly calculated, Thomas can nonetheless explain it. "A lot of people in the design world are full of BS," he says. "They want to create the facade that there's an extreme individual there. I don't want to be someone who can't be approached."
Thomas is no longer a kid sitting with his sketch pad and his Walkman, drawing cars and listening to the sound of roaring engines. Modern car design is, by necessity, a thoroughly collaborative process. There are transmissions to consider, the quality of surface materials, costs, manufacturability, safety and other government regulations, and marketability.
In that world, Thomas has evolved a role that serves both his artistic and his bureaucratic needs. "I'm a storyteller," he says. "I think of a designer as a processor of information — like a scriptwriter or a novelist." Thomas sees himself as a kind of cultural filter and architect: Listen carefully to what's going on out in the world, consider history and context, and create a vehicle that matches the zeitgeist. The Microbus is an artifact of its era; so is the minivan.
Thomas believes absolutely that every vehicle needs a story. "What's the plot?" he asks of the Prowler, before answering his own question. Being able to communicate that story to consumers is one thing. But being able to articulate it to people inside the company is perhaps more important, if your designs are going to survive, and if they are going to transcend "committee-ization."
"It's important to be able to communicate, not just to designers but also to nondesign people," Thomas says. "If people don't have a vision, you have to be able to walk them through what you're talking about. You have to be able to connect equally with an engineer, with someone from marketing, and with someone from the fabrication shop. The question is, How do you get people to work together? Most companies have 'committee design.' That's not what I like. I like 'consensus design.' In a committee, people don't speak up. They don't say what they think. Nothing is allowed to come out. Consensus design means that you all express yourselves, and your ideas, and at the end of the day, you all agree to do something. You might initially be against an idea, but if someone walks you through the thought process, you might then be able to say, 'I see what you're talking about.' "
One of the many projects that Thomas has worked on is a series of forklifts for the German manufacturer Linde AG. His forklifts have style and curves, including a sassy reverse curve along the back of the cab. "It's like a little squirt, " says Thomas. Indeed, he sketches a forklift, and below it, he sketches a cartoon character named Esso, an animated guy whose head is a drop of oil. (The character is used to market Esso products in Europe.) "That's where the curve came from on the forklifts," says Thomas. "From the curve of Esso's head."
With all their functionality, the forklifts had that touch of whimsy that made some of Thomas's colleagues certain that the design would never be approved.
Not only did Thomas shepherd the forklifts along (they remain in production), but one customer also discovered that a cold-starting problem that had existed with the old forklifts did not exist with Thomas's forklifts. No changes had been made to the starting mechanisms. "The company looked into it," says Thomas, "and discovered that the drivers were parking these new forklifts inside at night. They liked these forklifts better, and because they liked them better, they were taking better care of them. The passion goes all the way through. You end up with something that is more than the sum of its parts."
Thomas strives for simplicity. The fewer the lines, he says, the clearer the story that a car tells. Beyond cars, his taste is a blend of simplicity and functionality. "I like the Weber grill: two sides, three legs. It's a piece of Americana. I like the classic yellow school bus. I like the good old American postbox, with the red flag up. What is more exciting than getting mail?"
Thomas never has trouble communicating his own passion. His ordinariness drops away when he starts talking, conveying not only his judgment but also his energy.
"He generates so much enthusiasm and so much emotion in the studio," says Jesse Alexander, the photojournalist who watched Thomas work for several months. "The people around him get caught up in it."
Frank Saucedo worked for Thomas at the VW/Audi studio in Simi Valley, and succeeded him as chief designer there this summer. "For Freeman, no idea was too crazy. Every idea was valid. The question was 'How does the idea fit into the scenario?' Freeman's a storyteller. The Beetle speaks to the heritage of VW. Likewise, the TT is about Audi's long history: It's about racing; it's about technology; it's about Auto Union [the manufacturing conglomerate of the 1930s that Audi was a part of]. And it's also totally original."
Thomas arrives at DaimlerChrysler with a fascinating pedigree for the job he's taken. DaimlerChrysler is struggling with how to merge two very different corporate cultures: the very German Stuttgart and the very American Auburn Hills. Thomas is a product of those same two cultures: a German mother and an American dad. His father was an air-traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force, and he can tell you what cars his family had during postings in Oslo, Madrid, and Athens. Thomas — the same Thomas who had won a contest for drawing a fire engine — became a fireman in the U.S. Air Force after high school. He was crew chief of a crash rescue team assigned to a squadron of F-111s.
Having gone to school, lived, and worked in California, he is steeped in that state's cruising culture. And he is steeped in the European auto culture, which he admires, having spent much of his professional career in Europe. This is the first time that Thomas has worked for one of the big American automakers, and the first time that he's worked in Detroit.
Thomas often speaks of "being willing to put my head on the chopping block" — not only to come up with unusual designs, like the forklifts, but to explain them until their stories make sense.
"My job here is to encourage designers to take risks," he says, "to look at what they are doing, and to help them bring greatness to the surface. Most important, my job is to help them create a story. Car designers need to create a story. Every car provides an opportunity to create an adventure."
Thomas likes the way that DaimlerChrysler is organized into product teams — an approach that means that designers work from the very beginning with engineering and marketing people. As a result, designs don't develop in a vacuum, or get mugged later by technical problems. "I've been able to work at double speed here compared to what I was able to do at VW/Audi," he says, just one month into the job.
Some auto-industry observers have expressed concern over the course of the DaimlerChrysler combination, but Thomas thinks difficult corporate times often offer an opportunity for risky designs to surface. "I'm very comfortable with the future here," he says. "I know what's going on in the back of these design studios. There's a lot of new stuff coming."
His role in the studio, he says, "is to scare the hell out of myself. That's important. Because it doesn't take long to get used to something once it's on the street."
Charles Fishman (email@example.com), a senior editor at Fast Company, is thinking about replacing his 1986 Honda Accord (it has 189,500 miles on it). Learn more about DaimlerChrysler on the Web (www.daimlerchrysler.com).
Sidebar: What's Fast
What drives distinctive design? According to Freeman Thomas, who assisted in the creation of two of this decade's most engaging cars — VW's New Beetle and the Audi TT — it isn't just one thing; it's a combination of honesty, intuition, collaboration, and open-mindedness.
Good design begins with honesty.
"Honesty is my approach," says Thomas. "That, and not being afraid to put my head on the chopping block to take a risk." Honesty of design, for Thomas, means designing cars that know what they are trying to be. "Forms, shapes — they have a certain language. Either they are honest, or they feel contrived." Honesty doesn't mean designing cars that are purely utilitarian — Thomas views every car as a chance for fun. "Sometimes, you want to be lifted away from the ordinary. We've learned to make cars more and more efficient, but we need to learn to bring emotion back into them."
Good design asks tough questions.
The next generation of cars will question assumptions, just as the current generation does: How will we use a car? How will we feel inside it? What technology will it offer? How will it function ecologically? And how safe is it?
Good design comes from collaboration.
"I want the most interactive team in the world. Part of that means exposing my own strengths and weaknesses." Thomas often sketches while talking to his designers, something that not all managers are willing to do. "A car requires different talents to come together. But you have to have a conductor. At the end of the day, you want the product to say something polarized and distinctive."
Good design comes from trusting your intuition.
Thomas's own creative process, he says, "is very intuitive. Intuition is part experience and part talent. Your intuition — your ability to know what's right — should become more and more sharp over time."
A version of this article appeared in the December 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.