Dave Marek has always loved cars. He has sketched them, built models of them and, once he could afford to, bought an assortment of them. Now he has the kind of job that makes car enthusiasts salivate: chief designer for Honda R & D; Americas Inc., the U.S. design arm of Honda Motor Co. The 47-year-old Sacramento native joined Honda after graduating from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design in 1987. At Honda, he has designed or assisted in designs ranging from the 1994 Accord station wagon to the boxy Element to the recently redesigned Acura TL sports sedan. With the auto industry paranoid about competitors stealing new car designs, Marek's office was off limits, so the interview took place in a conference room in the research and development building on Honda's Torrance campus.
Question: I don't want to sound rude, but why does Honda produce cars with such boring designs?
Answer: It's OK. That is pretty much the question that I always get. It's kind of like, "You're chief. How do you not change that?" But we are a motor company first. And we are a packaging company. The question is, "How can we make this the best experience for this person?" So there is more headroom. There is more legroom. It's finding the perfect balance, as opposed to styling, which would be more aggressive.
Q: That must be frustrating for you as a designer.
A: I think the Element did change that a little bit. But we don't want to compromise the buyer. A lot of it is bolder surfacing, headlight grill and things like that to give it stronger identity. And within that package start moving it around a little bit. We have the other problem of establishing what Acura should be compared to Honda. The styling of it is hinting at where I'd like it to go to, but I think Acura needs to be much bolder.
Q: What's your favorite car?
A: Any exotic car. I love the Lamborghini Murcielago. My favorite Honda is the RA 273, a Formula 1 race car from the '60s. My favorite Honda today would be the S2000. It is the spirit of Honda. It's not overly done, but it is great to drive.
Q: The Element certainly is bold. How did that come about?
A: It was, "Let's get a car for a Gen Y male. We need a car for young men. How do we do that?" We went to college campuses. We went to the X Games to study these guys. What do they need? From that we grouped into five concepts of different kinds of cars.
Q: Tell us about the design process. What happens after the concept is decided?
A: At that point you will do sketching and narrow the focus. Then we will do clay models of those and pick from them.
Q: How much of the designer's vision winds up in the production model of the car?
A: It depends on the company, but you try to ingest some feeling of what that car should be, but be a little bolder. You try to embellish a little bit. Some of the graphics get bolder. Definitely the interiors get more bells and whistles.
Q: Are you saying you over-design, anticipating it will get watered down?
A: Yes. So when it's watered down it becomes what you want. You know you are going to scare the crap out of them. But it does get watered down and at the end of the day you will look at the car and say, "That is pretty good."
Q: What do you think of design trends on the road today?
A: The character of cars is becoming bold. The SUV thing is evolving into more character, more sporty, less utility for example the Nissan Murano. That is nowhere near the utility of a Honda Pilot but you sure see it when it goes by. There is that evolution to, "I don't have to carry as much anymore. I want to look cool."
Q: Is that why we are seeing wagons coming back?
A: Sport wagons. It's more, "I want a sports car. I want a sedan and I don't want an SUV but I still want the utility." That is why you see all these crossovers (like the Chrysler Pacifica). Nobody knows what to do with those yet. They don't know if the market is there. Everybody is tiptoeing around it.
Q: What about this whole retro thing with the new design for the Ford Mustang?
A: Ford has permeated this. Retro futurism is how they coined it. They have this studio whose whole job it is to take the character of years past. Retro was cool for Baby Boomers. It's, "I always wanted one of those when I was younger. Now I have the money to buy it." You can have hints of it, but to me it has already run its course.
Q: So what is on the horizon?
A: We are working on what is next. It's very generic broad terms. What happens to sedans? What happens to SUVs?
Q: Can you be more specific?
A: I'm not going to say.
Q: Then can you talk about some technological changes that may affect design?
A: Lighting technology is moving finally where we can use it affordably. If you had plasma lighting you could actually have clear glass that would become opaque. You can give it an electrical impulse and it will change color or become opaque. You can have more privacy. With fiber optics you don't have to have this huge headlight in the bulkhead or the taillight area. You can have more cargo room. You can literally free up the car.
Q: How do you get a feel for what your competitors are up to? Are you constantly checking them out?
A: Nonstop. A lot of times I look and think, "I hope we are not copying that." But at the same time I admire a lot of the cars. So I will say, "Get that car and let's get it in the studio and look at it." And we will go over it and see why it's cool.
Q: So you actually have Honda folks buying cars at competitors' dealerships?
A: Absolutely. We drive them. The ergonomics of it. The layout of it. The feel. Say you are doing an SUV. You should drive as many SUVs as you can. We will rent them sometimes and go on a drive somewhere. You kind of live with it for a few days. Each person rotates it through.
Q: What are you driving these days?
A: Right now I drive a Honda Pilot. I don't own a car. I am this crazy car person and I don't own a car. When I became a manager I got a car. We also have a pool of cars. I drive whatever else we have just to try it. I get free gas.
Q: Not a bad deal.
A: It's a good life.
Q: You've always been a car nut.
A: I love to draw. Always drew cars, built models, as soon as I could breathe. I would draw everything, any kind of car. To this day if you asked me to give you my favorite genre of car I can't. I love all of them. I would do drag cars and do sports cars and do old cars. I would always draw the neighbors' car.
Q: What was you first car?
A: I had a '62 (Ford) Sunliner convertible. It was epic. Everybody thought I was the coolest guy. I was 16. At the time it was 800 bucks. But I repainted it. Put flames on it. I did the whole thing. I can't believe how much money I have spent on cars.
Q: Why did you choose working for Honda after graduating from the Art Center?
A: My dad had a Civic. He was a mechanical engineer. He was like the first guy on the block to appreciate the engineering of it and the gas mileage. It was that recommendation and the fact that the school had a lot of instructors who had worked here. They let me be who I am here. It's a meritocracy. If you do good you will get rewarded.
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