Bryan Nesbitt made his name as the stylist of a tall, retro-looking, compact cross/utility vehicle. As a 27-year old graduate from the Pasadena, CA, illustrious Art Center College of Design, he styled the PT Cruiser during his 7-year stint at Chrysler Corp.
In his words, the PT was, “a celebration of lots of cars from the late '30s and early '40s. It used creative aesthetics to give a high emotional appeal that went beyond customer expectations, at the same price as the more rational competition.”
The company and the continent may have changed, but today Nesbitt's basic design philosophy — to use confident, “archetype” design to make consumers feel good about their purchases — drives his new job as head of General Motors Corp. design in Europe.
In his new position, Nesbitt oversees styling for the Vauxhall, Opel and Saab (increasingly being integrated into GM's Russelsheim, Germany, research and development operations) brands, as well as GM Europe's advanced studio.
Nesbitt was plucked from Chrysler by GM's former design chief Wayne Cherry in 2001, shortly after the Daimler-Benz AG takeover — “a different time, a different atmosphere” — and before the arrival of Bob Lutz, vice-chairman-product development, to GM. He quickly went from being chief designer at Chevrolet to head of design for all GM North America's unibody models — in other words every GM car and cross/utility from five brands.
If heading the design teams for Chevrolet (including Corvette), Cadillac, Buick, Saturn and Pontiac is the biggest design job at GM (apart from the vice president position currently held by Ed Welburn), why come to Europe?
Nesbitt, now 35, takes the long-career view. He recognizes his need for international experience, if he eventually is to be a credible candidate for GM's top design job.
Nesbitt replaced Martin Smith who, having turned down a straight job swap with the American, preferred to remain in Europe. In a move that shocked (and disappointed) GM management, Smith jumped ship to Ford Motor Co.
Under Smith's motivating leadership, measured risk-taking became the design norm. The Britain-born Smith unlocked the design talent, introduced new processes to improve perceived quality and pushed manufacturing to meet design's objectives. The new Opel Astra emerged as the class styling leader. Insiders say the next-generation Opel Corsa is just as bold.
Nesbitt arrived in March shortly after initial design work began with Suzuki Motor Corp. on the Opel Agila replacement. Given the lengthy lead times, the first production model to reflect Nesbitt's input is the next Vectra, due in late-2007.
Nesbitt, appreciating the need for consistency now that Vauxhall/Opel has found an attractive look, wants to continue Smith's direction in developing the brands through innovative design.
“Playing safe can be just as dangerous as taking huge risks,” he says, in an unspoken if clear reference to the evolutionary styling of the current Corsa and even the Vectra. “The Astra validates what Vauxhall has achieved.”
He concedes there is much to be done at Saab Automobile.
“To keep Saab relevant, the brand needs to be the alternative choice, not following the herd,” he says. “A value alternative to the safe, monotonous (meaning German) premium brands.”
“He's more than a hot pencil,” Lutz says of his young colleague. “Bryan works well with the engineers, can do great designs on a reasonable budget and is a brilliant communicator, both inside the company and with the press.”
Nesbitt says his contract to work in Germany is open-ended. How he does in the tough European market, where GM continues to lose money, will to a large extent decide his future role with GM design.