Volvo's Southern California Design Studio Celebrates 20 Years of "Out Of The Box" Thinking
DNA Testing Reveals Today's Head-Turning Volvos were Conceived in SoCal
November 14, 2007 (Camarillo, CA) - Close your eyes and picture yourself in the year 2027. What kind of Volvo do you see in your vision of tomorrow? Is it low and sporty or tall and curvy? Is the propulsion system in the front, the rear, under the seats or contained completely within the wheels? For that matter, does it even have wheels? For most of us, this is an exercise in daydreaming. But for the lucky few at the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center (VMCC) in Camarillo, California, it's a job. Combine that with the need to experience the trendy, often casual and perpetually cool LA lifestyle and you might describe it as a dream job.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Volvo's team of SoCal visionaries report to Jan Hedegaard-Broch, vice president and general manager of VMCC. That may be the title on his business card, but within the walls of this corporate think tank he's known as the company's "chief spymaster" and keeper of secrets yet to be told. Automotive secrets that will influence the global transportation mix for decades to come.
From its inauspicious beginning 20 years ago, VMCC was created as an experiment to immerse Volvo's designers and engineers headlong into the creative energy and lifestyle that California represents. Trends that emerge in the Golden State have a habit of spreading worldwide. As a harbinger of things to come, no one would have predicted back then that Volvo Cars of North America would eventually follow VMCC's lead, moving its U.S. headquarters from New Jersey to sunny Irvine, California.
"This is absolutely the best place for Volvo to be," said Hedegaard-Broch. "Our founders had a vision that has been proven correct several times over. Besides creating the impetus for the latest series of Volvo vehicles, this site caught the imagination of our competitors. When first established, Volvo was the only European automaker to have a design studio on the West Coast. Today most manufacturers have followed our example."
Southern California has a storied history for spawning automotive designers. The famed Art Center College of Design in Pasadena traces its roots to the 1930s. Art Center has become a Shangri-La for aspiring automotive designers from every corner of the globe. According to the college, more than half the world's car designers are Art Center alumnus.
Thanks to the moderate climate - and a deeply rooted car culture - automobiles tend to last longer in SoCal than in other parts of the nation. Thus, a weekend drive on Pacific Coast Highway often reveals an eclectic mix of vehicles. One might see a beautifully restored example of Volvo's classic P1800 sports car, a vintage Ferrari, or a tall-finned Cadillac sharing the road with today's vehicles. Stop at a cruise-in and high-riding monster trucks, souped-up muscle cars, low-riding lead sleds or Euro and Asian brand tuner cars coexist in the land where anything goes.
For all the glitz and glitterati that is LA, the VMCC facility is amazingly nondescript. There are no futuristic facades, neon signs or public tours to draw attention to the important work that happens here every day. Engineers, scientists, sociologists, designers and computer experts are the creative geniuses whose passion is the reinterpretation of the automobile. This collection of brainpower and enthusiasm is housed in an unassuming industrial park building that serves as camouflage for the high energy design work that goes on inside.
"Others think our work is similar to the many top secret aerospace engineering labs and test sites throughout California - centers that push the envelope of what is possible regardless of the product or technology," said Hedegaard-Broch. "In our case the challenge is to build safe and responsible vehicles that capture the eye and emotion of the owner today and in the future."
VMCC's challenge is more complex than in its early years. At that time Volvo was a singular company. Today it's part of a global corporate structure that must accommodate shared platforms, economies of scale, brand identity and a host of competing concerns.
The tactical agenda for VMCC is to make the most of Volvo's global ability to share parts and technology from its parent company and its resources. This achieves economy of scale while always maintaining Volvo's values and uniqueness regarding customer perception.
What this means for VMCC is clear: it's monitoring of market shifts, consumer tastes and patterns, retailer demands and anticipated economic conditions must blend with the extraordinary imaginations of its core design and engineering staff. As Hedegaard-Broch puts it, "What we eventually recommend to management must be globally relevant for Volvo and its parent company."
Such was not the case 20 years ago when Volvo first considered a remote styling and design lab, far removed from Sweden's small homogeneous population and Volvo's dominance of the Scandinavian automotive market. "We knew that if Volvo was to compete on the world stage, we needed to expand our thinking and gather influences from those consumers most likely to affect our global business growth," said Hedegaard-Broch. "California was targeted as the environment to inspire and encourage Volvo to re-think its automotive personality and to shape its identity in step with those trends and attitudes we expected to develop."
This think tank reports to a board of senior vice presidents. Lex Kerssemakers, head of Brand, Business and Product Strategy is the chairman. "VMCC is one of the most successful concept centers in automotive history," said Kerssemakers. "No other concept center comes close to the amount of major deliveries. One explanation is unique talents but most important is the cross-functional work. VMCC is not just another design studio. Design, technique and business form the three major disciplines. The intense cross-functional work is the key to its success."
The need to become wired into the California consumer mindset that was shaping the automotive market of the early 80s resulted in the first series of front-wheel drive, transverse engine Volvo cars. These cars redefined the Volvo persona, leaving behind the idea that safety mandated boxy designs.
"Creativity cannot be a substitute for competence," said Hedegaard -Broch. "We needed to demonstrate our core competences on a changing world stage. Styling alone was not the challenge for VMCC. It was the combining of core engineering and safety competence enhanced by other technical innovations that inspired our dreams of building a new series of vehicles that were true to our Volvo values, yet attractive to a new and different set of buyers. In my opinion, the most recent fleet of Volvo models - beginning with the S80 - would not have occurred without VMCC."
The volume leading S60, flagship S80, highly acclaimed XC90 and the svelte C70 owe their fundamental design to VMCC. Yet, the concept car SCC best exemplifies VMCC's philosophies and capabilities. The SCC (Safety Concept Car) was the inspiration for the C30. "The C30 developed in Gothenburg, Sweden, demonstrates Volvo's ability to create a stylish, contemporary vehicle while offering high performance, impressive handling and the utmost in safety engineering," said Hedegaard-Broch. "This car epitomizes the dream of our founding members and represents our mission statement entirely."
Gazing into the crystal ball, Hedegaard-Broch already has a sense that future automotive consumers will demand vehicles that reflect their decisions to be responsible for the planet's resources, air quality and occupant and pedestrian safety. These have been core Volvo values for over a century. While the hip new C30 is light-years from Volvo's boxy sedans and wagons of the 80s, there is a common bond between these models as each is the product of automotive passion and the desire to move forward.
Under Hedegaard-Broch's leadership VMCC will continue to encourage innovation while relying on responsibility as the final arbiter when it comes to accommodating the new. That's how it's been for the past 20 years and how things are likely to continue as VMCC quietly and efficiently pushes the Volvo car envelope ever further.