Is the ''aero'' shape in automobiles the wave of the future? And if so, how slippery will cars become? Specifically, what will the automobiles of tomorrow look like?
Irvin W. Rybicki has been boss of the GM design staff for nearly six years, ever since August 1977, when he moved into the seat occupied by William L. Mitchell for 20 years. Before that, Harley J. Earl had directed the styling crew for 30 years.
Thus, in a half century the design of GM cars had been under the overall direction of two individuals. That will probably never happen again. In contrast to his predecessors, Mr. Rybicki cannot remain on the job longer than nine years because that's when he bumps up against the mandatory retirement age of 65.
Like Messrs. Mitchell and Earl before him, Mr. Rybicki wields enormous clout in the US auto industry because he heads up the world's largest design organization of nearly 1,300 persons. And while he may not have the visible flair of a Bill Mitchell, he nonetheless knows what he wants. And he has his own style and way of doing things.
Soon after he took over the job, for example, he shook up the GM design staff by consolidating all design functions under one person and all engineering activities under someone else. Up to then, the design operation was fragmented.
''We had more people in this building at the time Bill Mitchell left,'' Mr. Rybicki says. ''We've reduced the forces in other areas, but we haven't touched the creative arm of our business at all.
''We've dropped some clerks that weren't necessary and put in some graphic consoles in all our rooms, which speeds up the process and gives us more time for creativity. Too, we're making technological changes. We're looking at computer graphics, where we deal with color, so that we can see the vehicle in two dimensions on the screen in color.
''Hopefully that will save a lot of time in the rooms and give us more time for creativity.''
The following is an interview with the director of the world's largest automotive-design staff:
Can you hold on to good talent these days?
Longevity at the top is no longer a problem, because Irv Rybicki is not going to serve for 20 years. I'll serve about nine years, and then we'll have movement in the organization.
I think that's the proper way to handle this structure.
Our good people have stayed with us. True, we've lost a few people who prefer to work in some sun climate, but you're never going to hang onto those people. But there are good points and bad points about that.
Where you might lose a good man, it does give you the opportunity to infuse the organization with youth. And this is a young man's business.
How much freedom of expression do designers have these days?
In developing the theme or design concept, we are not influenced at all by the top people on the 14th floor of the GM Building.
We present what we believe to be correct for a given market and a given time frame. The three-dimensional model is shown to the car division or divisions involved, as well as our executive committee, and they're usually in accord with us. They may find some things that they don't like, and we'll make adjustments.
Once the theme is set, then we sit down and work with the manufacturing and cost people to be sure that we reach those targets as well.
It isn't just costs today. It's also how the vehicle will come together in the assembly plant.
Are the designers and engineers less harried by the government today?
I don't know how to answer that question. We have gear that we've been running, such as front-wheel drive and platforms. Now we have the opportunity of redesigning the physical structure of the cars - size, quality, paint - and come to market with proven gear.
I look for great strides in quality, fuel efficiency, and aerodynamics in the future. I happen to know that because we have some vehicles released right up to 1986 and we're releasing '87 programs right now.
What are some of the design trends, looking a few years down the road?
The cars will be cleaner, simpler, aerodynamically efficient, and we're not going to lose any space inside these machines in spite of making some of them smaller. However, they won't get a great deal smaller, except for some at the top end of our lineup.
We won't offer a vehicle over 200 inches long by 1985. The wheelbase will be about 110 to 112 inches at the largest.
I'm from the school of understated, simple, clean design. I'm not a chrome fella, and I don't like buttons and bows and biscuits in the interior of our vehicles. So we're cleaning up our act quite a bit.
(The '84 Chevrolet Corvette and the Camaro-Firebird are good examples of his philosophy.)
That kind of mood we will amplify in the next three or four years with the products we're bringing on stream. I can sum it up as cleaner, slipperier, and far more simple in the way we treat sheet metal, apertures, and detail.
Don't look for tail fins to happen while I'm in this office.
Does styling really help to sell cars the way it used to? Some of the GM designs are less than beautiful.
The US is a notch-back society. Selling fastbacks in this country, other than on sports machines, is very difficult.
I think we have to move carefully and in a calculated fashion. When you look at slippery, aerodynamically purer automobiles, the fastback silhouette is the one to chase. That's the one that will get you down below 0.3 and perhaps even below 0.2 in coefficient of drag.
And you can pick up a lot of mileage with aero.
A vehicle we had in the Chicago Auto Show is called the Aero 2002. That vehicle has 72 percent less drag than the current Chevrolet Citation, which translates into a 26 m.p.g. improvement at highway speeds.
We all know that the current flood of oil in the market isn't going to be around forever and that the price of fuel will rise.
So you can understand the role which aerodynamics will play in future vehicles in the 1990s.
Now the question is: Will they be notch back or fastback? I think we'll be doing both.
How low can the drag coefficient go?
We're not satisfied with getting below 0.3. That vehicle we had in Chicago, while it's an aero-test bed, was 0.138. Ford's Probe IV is 0.152. And in further testing with the Aero 2002, we discovered we can get below 0.138.
Now the silhouette which develops in reaching those figures is something else again.
Even the professional designer has a little difficulty with the silhouette, but it's something we're going to have to live with and understand to see if it's a lasting shape and one that is commercially sound.I don't think any of us would jump into it and try to produce it by the mid-'80s, but it's going to come.
What is the plan for more individuality between GM car divisions?
I think you have to understand why we did what we did (the clonelike appearance of some GM cars across the line). When we did the J-cars, and even the current A-cars, the pressure was to get a lot of new front-wheel-drive running gear into the system, which meant rehashing all our plants. The cost of doing that on an entirely new and specific-looking car for each division was prohibitive.
Now that we've got those plants turned around and the running gear in place, you can look for a lot more specificity between our car divisions in the future - that is, from 1984 on.
We're going to introduce a series of luxury sedans in the fall - Cadillac Sedan de Ville, Oldsmobile 98 Regency, and the Buick Park Avenue. You will see that the Cadillac is a totally specific automobile that is in no way related to the Buick and the Olds.
What about minicars?
We're shooting for vehicles under 2,000 pounds in weight and around 150 inches in length.
But who is to say that's as small as we'll go?
How aerodynamic can the minicars be? Aren't they going to be more boxy?
Not the ones we'll do. I'm not speaking of those vehicles we'll bring in from Suzuki in 1985. I'm talking of a point down the road where we produce our own. Hopefully we can get there in five years.
How about safety in such a small car?
We're constantly looking at what we can do inside the vehicle to provide protection for the occupants, because as hard as everyone has tried to get motorists to wear seatbelts, they're not doing it.
So the unbelted occupant is critical to us, and we're looking at all sorts of approaches to glass and where the structure is located within a vehicle.
What about front-wheel drive?
FWD is fine in certain applications. I see rear-wheel-drive sporty machines, because as far as handling - weight and balance - is concerned, it is the right way to go.
But with family sedans, I think that FWD is the way to go, because it offers more interior space, is good in wet or snow, and is the right combination for that kind of vehicle and in that kind of market.
In commercial vehicles, weight transfer becomes a problem, so I feel that in vans and pickup trucks, rear drive is the way to go.
How much pressure do you feel from the Europeans and the Japanese as a designer?
A lot of our people here talk about European design, but I don't think many of them point to the Japanese, because we don't view them as very innovative.
The Japanese are good at taking what is current and doing a good job with it, but they don't reach out and do the new things.
Some of our competitors talk about their vehicles as being European in feel. Well, we have no interest in that. Here in the GM design staff, we are doing American automobiles for the 1980s. I believe that machines ought to look different in various parts of the world.
You've been working on a six-year cycle, right?
Yes, I think it's still true to some extent. If we put a vehicle out there that doesn't do well in the marketplace, however, we'd change it in a hurry and the six-year cycle would quickly evaporate.
The objective today, with the high tooling cost, is to get something out there that is going to last that long - and that's not an easy assignment. That's why we have a series of advance studios so that we can do a car, and we're doing them now, that's aimed somewhere in the '90s. We can put together a three-dimensional fiber-glass model and live with it so as to see if this thing has a lasting quality about it.
If it does, then the next step is to get it up into one of our divisional studios and plan it as a production program.