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The Car Design Review 5 Interviews: John Cafaro, GM

25 May 2018 | by Michael Gooderham

I got into car design because I saw a Corvette concept car and I wanted to know who created it – from then, I only wanted to work on Corvettes. GM has always had great Corvette concepts – I’m specifically inspired by the stunning designs of the ’50s and ’60s.

It’s a 24/7 lifestyle to be in a leadership role like this. You need a good creative mentor (mine was Jerry Palmer) who is in a leadership role so they know what to look for. It takes talent, drive, knowledge and relationships.

On a day-to-day basis, it’s exciting – the team here has a lot of fun together. It’s really all about the people once the awe of the [Eero Saarinen GM Design] building and the work wears off.  I love interacting with creative people as well as the manufacturing and engineering teams to bring creative concepts to life. Then a few years later you get to see someone driving it and hear them saying how much they love their Corvette. That’s great.

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2018 Corvette ZR1 Convertible

GM Design is a global, diverse organisation where the projects are endless and one after the other – everybody is looking into the future. GM Design was revolutionised in 2002 and we’re carrying that momentum. Our dynamic leadership team recognises our value and creativity. The vision and opportunity in front of us is incredible. Everything from crossovers and trucks to 750 horsepower Corvettes and everything in between. The variety keeps it interesting at Chevrolet.

I love the business now more than I ever have. We want to be the best in the world, we want to win every day, on the track and in the showroom – and it has never been more competitive. I’m proud of our design team and the people who work so hard to make us number one. We have to be on our game every day. You have to be a passionate, committed team player.

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2019MY Chevrolet Silverado

When hiring young designers, we look for that passion, talent and willingness to take risks. Young designers need to have confidence in what they are trying to do and the strength to cope with rejection. They need to be hungry for it. I love going to design schools now and listening to the enthusiasm for GM Design – we have a great leadership team and great cars, crossovers and trucks.

Watching young designers come in from around the world and becoming seasoned professionals is rewarding.

There are still people like me who see the more recent Corvettes and get inspired to explore automotive design. The Corvette culture is something special within General Motors. It’s really a mindset of people working together.

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Cafaro (left) with Tom Peters (right)

Tom Peters is at the helm. Tom is the exterior design director of Chevrolet Performance Cars. We shared a mentor, Jerry Palmer, and we work together so well. Tom and I are really peers. Tom is the best here, and in the industry. He makes things that people really want to drive and has consistently designed award-winning performance cars for Chevrolet.

When I was in the Corvette studio Jerry asked me about who should replace me, I told him Tom was the guy. We are close, our families are close. So I’m going to bring him in, because I want to showcase his thoughts too.

Tom Peters: When you come into this kind of career you pick out inspiring people, you see who the ‘shooters’ are. John was one of those guys for me. He had a beautiful machine quality to his work which I loved. John knows how to have a vision and actually bring it to life and execute it. We’re on the same wavelength, too – we communicate so well.

Collaborating leads to designs that no one person could ever do on their own. This means collaborating with sculptors too. There is a sort of ‘magic synergy’ that I love – when things happen unexpectedly.

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2018 Corvette ZR1 coupé

It’s like watching a symphony or ballet of creativity – picture the clay model in the middle of the studio and everyone working together around it. I feel honoured to witness it.

We both believe anything is possible. I agree with John about mentoring too. It’s so important. The mentors here, in the past and today, communicate a sense of continuity, timeless spirit. The timeless continuity is affected by trends, technology and customers to make it relevant for people tomorrow. We try to offer fresh details with timeless proportions that always resonate and are understood globally.

It’s global, diverse, such a wide spectrum of people and products. The Corvette is the pinnacle of this brand and gets down to every vehicle. It’s really the best of everything, the most technical, and it’s inspirational. There’s a little bit of Corvette in every Chevrolet. Performance DNA resonates globally. It’s attainable. We try to drive that spirit into every vehicle.

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Corvettes old and new

John Cafaro: Every Corvette has been great because of the people before us – we all had that passion. Hopefully when we’re long gone we’ll be part of that chain. But I also look forward to seeing where we go with autonomous. I hope people will have pride in what picks them up and recognize it for its style, brand and artistry.

Tom Peters: When I look into the future, I look forward to the first autonomous car with free expression of design, when there is no traditional automotive vernacular. We’re currently in a place similar to when horse-drawn carriages were replaced by automobiles that resembled the carriage, just without the horse. I hope to see an expression of art in its purest form with technology inside.

Both: We both want to leave GM design better than it was when we got here.

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This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.