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2011 Los Angeles International Auto Show

 

Filippo Perini was standing on a catwalk that ran down the center of the room, a large sheet of paper and a row of drafting pencils before him. Nobody in the crowd was paying much attention to his drawing demonstration, even at its climax. With two lines, Perini drew a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. With the first, he built the car's backbone, linking front wheel to back. With the second, a wedge that jutted out of a front arch, he gave the car a floating windshield and defined the car as a barchetta.

A bit of shading revealed the Gallardo's side air intakes, but the car itself took its shape from those first few strong lines. He didn't add an oversized spoiler, no hood bulge.

But in auto design, simplicity doesn't come cheap. In interviews, Perini has said that only Lamborghini can afford to build cars out of a single line, designed without compromise from a clean sheet. But even those designers lucky enough to be trusted by their employers to craft a car from scratch are not completely free. Design directives, price targets, marketing taglines, manufacturing specs and more tumble down the corporate ladder. By the time most designers get down to work, their clean sheets of paper are already covered with compromise.

The auto business is a business after all. But if there is one place where that ladder is upended it would be at an auto show, where function is forgotten and cars become pure form. There, designers are free to be artists working in the medium of steel and glass on rubber, their sculptures placed on pedestals for public and peers alike.

In mid-November, the first international auto show of the season takes place in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, I ran into a lot of designers there this year. Young designers on class field trips, their badges betraying their pre-graduate status, critique the concepts on display with crossed arms, no doubt thinking they could do better. Long-employed designers, recognizing the opportunity to study up on their competition, use the show for reconnaissance. I spent an awkward few minutes in a Mercedes SLS next to a man wearing white cotton gloves who spoke quietly into a tape recorder as he slowly opened and closed the car's signature gullwing doors over and over again. His badge read "Honda R&D."

I saw him again later that day at the Hyundai press conference, straining to take a photograph of the brand-new midsize sedan, the Azera. Hyundai has achieved record sales in its subsidiary company, Kia, after hiring Audi’s former head of design, Peter Schreyer, who has given the Kia model line a bold aesthetic that breathes quality and worries their competition. I noticed as many badges at the conference from foreign and domestic automakers as I did members of the press, a crowd so large we spilled over into the adjacent Audi booth. Es tut mir leid wieder, Audi.

A second unlikely automaker took aim at Audi. Cadillac launched the replacement for not one but two slow-moving cars, the STS and the DTS: a new car called the XLS from arguably the best American designer operating today, Ed Welburn. Looking at Welburn's stunning Cadillac Ciel concept, you can see that he respects the heritage of the brand as he reinvents and refines it, line by line. Though it was unveiled three months earlier at the Pebble Beach Concours de Elegance, the Ciel was the most beautiful car at the L.A. show. It makes you wonder what Welburn would have sketched if the XLS didn't share its underpinnings with a Buick LaCrosse.

At least Welburn has the courage to modify tradition. Porsche's 911 has been an automotive institution for so many decades that its designers are afraid to alter the car's iconic shape. The 7th generation 911 debuted at the L.A. auto show. Porsche's North America CEO Detlev von Platen talked about how exciting it was for his team to have the opportunity to re-imagine their flagship sports coupe, which was said to be "90% different" from its predecessor. But when the slipcover was pulled back, I saw almost exactly the same 911 that I do every day prowling Wilshire Blvd. The most exciting unveiling at the Porsche booth was that of a test track –one of five Porsche Experiences in the world– that they're planning on building on the site of a former landfill in Carson. Ground breaks next spring.

If there was a car manufacturer at the show who resembled the Porsche clan of yore, a firey family focused on racing small, lightweight, mid-engine road cars, it would be Mastretta. Carlos Mastretta is the company's general manager. His brother Daniel is the lead designer. With the Mastretta MXT, a taut, track-ready rocketship, they have created the first sports car to be made in Mexico and the first Mexican sports car company. They have no mold to follow, no tradition dictating their design directives. Their goal was to build a car suited to cut through the mountain roads of Chiapas. I'd love to see if the car feels how it looks.

By now, the sculptures of the L.A. Auto Show have driven off their pedestals and become cars once again. The car designers of the world have packed up their badges and flown back to snowier climes, pencils in hand, ready to draw the future again.