One on One: DaimlerChrysler’s Bryan Nesbitt

Few recent products have had such a profound effect on the new car market as the Chrysler PT Cruiser. "It’s too cool to categorize," was how retired DaimlerChrysler co-Chairman Bob Eaton described the vehicle. Deceptively smaller than it seems, it blends modern engineering and retro styling touches to create a roomy package that’s selling faster than the factory can keep up with. The man behind PT Cruiser is himself a deceptively complex designer named Bryan Nesbitt, at 31 years of age, a rising star who was given an unusual degree of authority over the project from the moment the first sketches won management approval. A graduate of Pasadena’s Arts Center School of Design, Nesbitt can barely remember when he first got hooked on cars. He talked about this fascination, about the PT Cruiser and bi-polar appeal, with reporter TCC Team.

TCC: How did you first get into automotive design?

NESBITT: It was a desire of mine from the very beginning. My father recognized it and took me to the campus of Art Center at 12, and I knew I wanted to go back. I graduated from high school and …went to Georgia Tech for a few years getting some basics out of the way and then transferred to Arts Center.

TCC: What was it about designing cars that drew you?

NESBITT: My parents separated when I was young and when they did, my Mom sold everything, bought a car and started driving across country. We lived in that car for a long time…touring all over the country and Canada. We camped a lot and made ends meet. That probably had something to do with it.

TCC: How did you wind up at Chrysler?

NESBITT: I was there from ’90 to ’93. And I took an internship at Chrysler in ’92 at Pacifica (Chrysler’s advanced design studio in Southern California). I got to see the Dodge pickup and the Prowler concept car, which they were just finishing up. There were all kinds of exciting vehicles being finished up. It made a great impression on me. I knew right away that was the environment I wanted to be part of. They continually challenged everything. They had an aggressive concept car program that was tied into their engineering program, and wasn’t just making PR cars. There was production intent.

PT Cruiser Concept Sketch
An original sketch for the PT Cruiser, which Nesbitt lead from drawing to reality.

TCC: Your generation seems to have a different attitude towards design, an optimism. How does that influence you in particular?

NESBITT: It gives a sense that you can build almost anything. You can manipulate almost any materials into any shape. There used to be many more constraints on the fabrication side. And now, you can do anything you want. Being able to achieve that and the quality (you want) over and over, you’re not as inhibited as you were before. We show that in concept development, where we try to push the envelope by twisting glass and twisting surfaces and the PT Cruiser is a good example with the deep draw of the front fenders.

TCC: It sounds more like the world of the artiste than that of the traditional automotive designer. But aren’t there still all sorts of restraints you, the designer, have to plug into engineering and marketing?

NESBITT: I’m aware of the type of artist I am and I like the balance and challenge of something that seems uncompromised from an artistic point of view, but still meets the realistic parameters. It’s the balance that’s important…and to me, that’s the ultimate challenge.

TCC: You seem to be in a company that aspires to push the envelope.

NESBITT: Absolutely. What’s the point, otherwise? It’s so competitive. We know the competition will bring invention, so we have no choice but to keep re-inventing. But that’s what I think is exciting.

Cruiser inspiration

TCC: When you first were asked to sketch designs for the Cruiser, did you know you had a good shot at getting it into production?

NESBITT: No, you never know at the beginning. It’s a very competitive environment and everybody (including other design teams competing for the project) is creating concepts, and all the concepts were themed very differently. Then, even after they pick your design, you have to go through feasibility. So you never want to get too attached to anything. As a designer, you can become too sensitive to "my baby." But they can change their mind at the very last minute.

TCC: Where’d the inspiration for Cruiser come from?

NESBITT: Concept cars, like the Plymouth Expresso and the Plymouth Pronto, were inklings of the packaging behind the Cruiser. Executive management was looking to invent a new category from the very beginning. We knew we needed something around "C" class (subcompact) size, the most popular size, internationally. And the hatchback is just so pragmatic. The seating position became the invention behind the car. I started with some fairly conventional sketches, but we began to question everything.

TCC: The early sketches had some pretty wild flair.

NESBITT: We had a lot of ideas, but we didn’t know where we were going. We knew we did have a great interior environment that was easier to get in and out of, and more command of the road visibility. Yet we were able to put the seats closer together to have a smaller vehicle. The real challenge was making one car that we could sell in 40 different markets. From the very beginning, we knew we needed to sell it outside the U.S.

TCC: Was that a real challenge, selling Americans a car six inches smaller than a Neon?

NESBITT: That’s a huge challenge. People in the domestic (U.S.) market aspire to something bigger. We equate status to size. Otherwise, you feel like you’re compromised. There were a lot of ideas how to achieve that. We felt we had to create a car that was a tremendous value, that you were completely surprised by how much you would get.

TCC: Chrysler is not really an international brand, yet you were planning to sell this globally.

NESBITT: I was sent overseas to do some research to see how our brand is (perceived) and it was really great to see the difference in cultures. We do sell a lot of Jeeps and minivans overseas, but cars we don’t. So we’re in a special category. To go into the volume (car) segment, it was very important to communicate that we’ve been building cars for a very long time. And we had to communicate we had this American heritage.

TCC: The Cruiser is a hatchback, a body style that hasn’t been very popular in the U.S., yet it seems to work. Why?

NESBITT: No one (in the U.S.) really aspires to hatchbacks unless it’s a minivan or a four-wheel-drive (SUV). Because it is so practical, there’s really no status in it. It’s the ultimate compromise. So we had to figure out how to add some emotion to that and an appeal, yet keep the pragmatic utility.

TCC: There were those who worried that the Cruiser would turn off a lot of potential customers. But it wasn’t the first time Chrysler had taken that risk, was it?

NESBITT: The Dodge Ram, when it came out, was an example of creating a polarized statement. It was a very conservative truck market and (the Ram) made a bold statement. Ultimately, we gained huge market share and it became an icon for the Dodge brand. That was a good example of taking that risk.

TCC: You reached into the past for inspiration.

NESBITT: If I want to sell our culture, I had to define what it stands for: the individualism, the pioneering spirit, it’s the inventiveness. So, in the American automotive genre, what epitomizes that is the custom car, this hot rod feel. So I instantly started drawing stuff that had the ‘30s architecture, separate fenders. What I loved about that ‘30s architecture with this vehicle is that they were taller vehicles, they looked protected. They looked very androgynous, not like a truck, not like a car, but right in-between. Not too macho, not too feminine. That’s what I really liked. Then I added body color touches to the interior, not something many cars do, and then they are usually low-volume luxury cars, with the exception of the New Beetle. It gave a custom car feel…more personalized.

TCC: What’s the origin of the name, PT Cruiser?

NESBITT: I badged the car "Cruiser" early on to communicate the idea to indulge yourself a little bit. We added the PT for "personal transportation," which emphasized the sense of personalization.

TCC: You had the chance to do more than just create the original sketch. Isn’t that a bit unusual?

NESBITT: The program moved pretty quickly…and I got to follow it all the way through, which is pretty unusual. I got to participate in all the design elements, through the engineering, the wind tunnel development, the headlights, the bumpers, everything. It’s a real education to see how all those things come together. You realize how complicated everything is. I wish I had a house that got this much attention, the amount of design work that went into every square meter.

TCC: The Cruiser seems to have an unusually broad appeal to both young and old.

NESBITT: It transcends demographics. The older demographic is obviously very familiar with it, so it isn’t alienating. We (appeal) to a younger generation, too, that’s completely unfamiliar with this ’30s architecture.

TCC: Have you been surprised by Cruiser’s success?

NESBITT: It is a surprise. Oh, yes. We’re very excited by its success. There was a PT Cruiser club that formed months before the first one was even on the market. That tells me a lot. The risks made, from an executive’s point of view, have really paid off.

Sophomore jinx?

TCC: There aren’t many artists who can create multiple masterpieces.

NESBITT: Oh, please, don’t tell me that.

TCC: Well, how will you take this vehicle to the next step? And where will you, personally, go next?

NESBITT: What makes Chrysler unique, among manufacturers, is the idea we see in all the concept cars of trying to reinvent the wheel, (come up with) the next solution. The human body doesn’t change, but how we live our lives does. In a lot of cultures, the status symbol never changes, but in America, it does. We’re very open-minded. Anything goes. That perpetual moment creates the challenge of always coming up with something new.

TCC: There seem to be some new things starting to affect automotive design. There’s this movement to niche vehicles. And there are a lot more vehicles. How does that change, free up, a designer?

NESBITT: That becomes the path. You investigate the niche…possibly to a new mainstream segment. And the niche vehicle can become the billboard for the brand. It imparts exclusiveness. The shorter turnover time gives us more opportunity."

TCC: Lead time is so much shorter than ten years ago. How does that affect you?

NESBITT: You get to react quicker to trends so you can appeal to hyper trends, as well as the underlying trends. Ultimately, the runway trendy aesthetic, you have to be careful how much you invest in it because it is a short timeline. But vehicle (development) is becoming so short, we’re getting very expressive vehicles that can take that risk…and make them feel so compromised, so vanilla.

TCC: There’s always a debate over the terms "retro" and "heritage," how much do old ideas influence you?

NESBITT: You can’t help but take into consideration what your eyes see when you go to an (old) car show. What comes out is different for each designer. With the Cruiser, it was an appropriate influence. Whether it’s appropriate for the next product? Probably not. We have to move on and move forward.

TCC: Thirty years from now, do you expect to see the Cruiser out there at the classic car shows?

NESBITT: I certainly hope so. That would be a nice compliment, for sure. The idea is to have a car that looks good for a long period of time.

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