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Sky's not the limit for this young designer

August 15, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

How was the man supposed to know who was blocking his camera?

After all, the dark-eyed kid with the long hair lingering near the hot silver car - and in the way - looked like he could have been anybody. Or nobody.

With his skinny frame edging ever so close, who could have blamed this press photographer at the Detroit Auto Show for wanting to move the guy out of the frame? Who was he, anyhow, the photographer must have wondered.

"Uh, excuse me," the photographer yelled at Franz von Holzhausen as the young designer stood near his creation: the 2007 Saturn Sky roadster. "Can you quit leaning on the car? I'm trying to take a picture. By the way, are you supposed to be here?"

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Could there ever be a more loaded question in this automotive world?

Von Holzhausen, a guy with boyish good looks who could easily pass for a decade younger than his 38 years, isn't the future, he's the now.

He's part of a cutting-edge group of young designers who are taking the auto world by storm.

They're hot. They're brash. And they're ready to place their collective stamps on the products of the future.

"There's a real sense of satisfaction I get from creating things," von Holzhausen said during some downtime in Detroit last January, just after the unveiling of the production version of the sizzling little two-seat Sky roadster, the exterior of which he personally penned. "There is something about seeing the final car at an auto show and knowing that you've poured everything into it."

His story is one made for TV.

Von Holzhausen grew up on the American east coast and attended Syracuse University in the field of Industrial Design. He was an exceptional art student and eventually found his way to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

After that, von Holzhausen worked as an assistant chief designer with a team at Volkswagen in the United States, designing the Audi TT coupe and VW Concept One, which became the New Beetle.

But his most interesting break would come with General Motors after von Holzhausen moved from VW to GM's design studio in Los Angeles, Calif.

In 2001, the Pontiac Solstice two-seat roadster was a pet project of GM product czar Robert Lutz. Shortly after joining GM in September of 2001, Lutz told design chief Wayne Cherry to create a Pontiac roadster concept car for the Detroit Auto Show, only a few months away. Lutz wanted to infuse Pontiac with a vehicle that would represent the soul of a race car at a reasonable price and he wanted a driveable concept ready in 15 weeks, about two months quicker than a typical concept vehicle.

The call went out to the designers at GM. They called it a sketch-off.

"Keep it simple, pure and beautiful and it will be easy to love," Lutz told the GM designers.

"I actually decided to throw this particular sketch into the running at the last minute," von Holzhausen said. "It was actually based on a coupe I sketched a while ago and thought it might look good as a roadster, so I thought I'd give it a go."

The sketch was worked into a full-sized clay model in the California studio within two weeks. Designers, using knives, made changes with the help of computer models and von Holzhausen was constantly in the foreground telling them what he wanted.

By January it was on stage in Detroit.

"An incredibly gratifying moment in my life," he says.

But it was only beginning.

Using his influences of Jaguars and Ferraris from the 1950s and 1960s as his guide, von Holzhausen moved on to developing other impressive vehicles, including the Sky, a two-seat roadster that some say is even more gorgeous than the Solstice.

His talent did not go unnoticed.

Less than six weeks after the Sky hit the turntable in January, 2005, he became the design director for Mazda North American Operations.

"It's difficult when you lose any designer," GM design chief Ed Welburn said at the Chicago auto show, just after the departure. "But this is a real problem in our business and one that, unfortunately, we have to live with all of the time."

In his new position, von Holzhausen is responsible for overseeing the design and development of all vehicles for Mazda in North America.

"Franz brings years of innovative design expertise to our team," said Robert Davis, senior vice president of product development and quality at Mazda's North American operations. "We anticipate great things from him."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at : www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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