As GM’s fifth design boss in nearly 100 years, he was a quiet man who let his work do all the talking.
In the world of automotive design, where each crease has a meaning and every crevice has a story, Wayne Cherry was a wiggle in a world of straight lines.
In an era of pop-star obsessions over designers and their creations, General Motors’ former North American design boss was the anomaly. He was a Midwestern boy with a global outlook; a soft-spoken executive whose artwork spoke volumes.
Not extravagant like current GM product czar Robert Lutz. Not a cult figure like Ford design whiz J Mays.
And definitely not a conversation piece the way BMW’s lead designer Chris Bangle has been. Cherry always preferred the shadows. He let his vehicles take the spotlight.
“I’m probably biased, but I think that design is terribly important,” he once told The Car Connection, an automotive Web site. “But we (designers) shouldn’t get in the way.” In 42 years at GM, the last dozen years as its leading designer, Cherry always avoided being in the way. But his products shook the landscape. The roll call of concepts and innovative designs that were created on his watch reads like a list of automotive all-stars. The Chevrolet SSR. The Pontiac Solstice. Cadillacs. Chevy trucks. And Hummers. Under Cherry’s direction, GM revealed more than 35 concept cars and trucks around the world, more than any other automaker in such a brief period. An award-winning designer, Cherry, now retired and in his early 1970s, is considered by many as the leader of a design renaissance at GM. And all of it occurred during some of the most challenging times, financially, for the automaker. Born in Indianapolis, Ind., Cherry began his career in 1962 in GM’s advanced design studios after graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, Calif. Three years later, after helping create the groundbreaking 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and the first-generation Chevrolet Camaro — two cars that would become cult classics — he transferred to Vauxhall Motors in Luton, England. It was considered a “temporary” assignment. He returned to the United States 26 years later.
During his time in Europe, Cherry climbed the corporate ladder, leading the design direction for Vauxhall and Opel. He established a new identity for European cars and trucks and would help bring GM Europe to No. 1 in overall sales through vehicles like the Corsa, Vectra and Omega, to name a few.
Cherry returned to North America in 1991 and was named GM’s new design boss a year later.
As just the fifth design boss in nearly 100 years of GM history Cherry quickly molded, shaped, sculpted and stamped the automaker’s product line.
Usually soft-spoken and rarely outgoing, a one-liner was just that with Cherry . . . a oneliner. He wasn’t flashy. And, mostly, he wasn’t forceful.
Even with GM struggling over money woes, he had work to do and his designs said plenty.
“Frankly, we had to rebuild an awful lot of bridges (in the early 1990s),” he told The Car Connection. “For a number of years, all advanced design operations had to stop. A lot of our advanced work wasn’t focused on product.”
Under Cherry’s leadership, it found life. In America, his first vehicles were the 1997 Chevrolet Corvette and the Impala SS. But the real renaissance took shape with the new direction at Cadillac. Pushed aside by imports and forgotten in the automotive landscape, Cherry helped bring Cadillac back to prominence with a set of angular lines and a defined style.
He found his greatest success with the CTS and the Escalade and his Cadillac Sixteen ultra-luxury concept car was characterized as “breathtaking” by the automotive press.
There were hits, and some misses.
Cherry was responsible for the Hummer H2 as well as the Cadillac SRX. But he was also responsible for the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, still a source of conversation for its design.
Near the end, Cherry had an influence on GM’s AUTOnomy high-tech platform, as well as the design direction of the Solstice roadster. He also thought trucks shouldn’t get the short shrift, telling a reporter once that “trucks deserve design, too.”
But his influence on advanced computer design and hiring practices was perhaps even more profound. He encouraged interactive, plasma-screen reviews of products in two- and three-dimensional models. And he hired from other companies, taking in talent from Chrysler, Renault, Audi and Fiat, a practice not common at GM in the past.
Cherry retired on Jan. 1, 2004, handing over the design reigns to Ed Welburn, an executive previously in charge of body-on-frame architectures for GM Design. But Cherry will not soon be forgotten.
Buyers still clamor for his Cadillac Sixteen concept. Ford’s J Mays even called it “the best damn piece of work to come out of GM styling since (former GM design boss) Bill Mitchell’s days.”
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.