Was It Savvy Or Stupid For Chrysler To Close Its Cali Design Studio?

Beware the Ides of March. By now, Chrysler's Pacifica Design Center in Carlsbad, CA should be a warren of ghost-cubicles, with perhaps a few shreds of jettisoned sketches for futurecars scattered on the industrial carpeting, reduced to janitorial found art. The Pentastar has shut it down and concentrated "blue sky" conceptualizing under the gray skies of Detroit. The studio, which focused on advanced design, had been part of Chrysler's master plan since the early 1980s, according to various published news reports. It was the first California facility opened by a U.S. automaker. And, in a twist of fate, the first to bite the dust.

It's irrelevant to discuss the business merits of shuttering Pacifica. Chrysler owned the building, which sits just north of San Diego. Around 20 designers worked there, cranking out high-concept stuff that was mainly intended to provide a snapshot of future trends, rather than produce anything destined for immediate real-world production. Back of the envelope calculations suggest that Chrysler will probably save a few million by bringing advance design back to Detroit (and who knows how much they'll get for the real estate, perhaps the true plum in all this).

The larger question, of course, is "Can Chrysler really afford to have no designers on the ground in carland?" Pretty everyone else, save Nissan, does. Numerous automotive trends, short-term and long-term, are shaped in Cali, home to everything from SEMA customization to hot rods to daily commutes to tuners to homebrewed racing leagues. The state's economy is huge—larger than Italy's. It's the biggest automotive market in the known universe, the asphalt arena in which all the carmakers compete. It leads the nation in environmental legislation, making its a test ground as well as a legislative front line for green technologies.

Beyond that, Californians effing love their cars.

And Chrysler, according to statements emanating from the corporate hive, doesn't need to be there anymore.

Chrysler—seemingly in the worst shape of the Big Three, although who can be sure, given the Stygian nature of Cerberus Capital Management—needs exotic design like humans need the Sun. Take it away, and it's game over.

Forget that all the futurecar startups—the Aptivas and Teslas and manifold electric micros—are also located in Cali.

One assumes that some of the Pacifica team will head back to the Mitten-Shaped State, but that would be what we have come to call around here some sad ham.

So who cares if the move makes peripheral financial sense? It a boneheaded cultural move. Chrysler staged a comeback in the public imagination precisely because it led with design, For a while anyway. Only portions of that may have originated at Pacifica, but nevertheless, simply maintaining an advanced shop signaled a commitment to the discipline—and esoteric, specialized one, to be sure, but as anyone who has any understanding of the car biz and history will tell you, an utterly necessary one.

Here's how Chrysler spun it:


"We don't need a California presence to have design leadership," said Chrysler spokeswoman Dianna Gutierrez. "It's more about having a grasp on the global pulse."

I say, caca. Chrysler certainly does, now more than ever. What this looks like, alarmingly, is an early effort to circle the wagons. Chrysler insists this won't affect new product. We'll see. But the thing you want to think about isn't what Chrysler is going to be putting in front of consumers in the next few years—assuming it's still around. No, what you want to think about is what Chrysler will be selling a decade from now.

A grimmer analysis? How about balance-sheet acrobatics, to harvest some value where it's available—namely in lucrative West Cost properties? (Even that's a sort-of-kind-of, given where real estate has been headed in the Golden State recently.) Hello, Tracinda?

That could be Chrysler's new West Coast vision of the future. [San Diego Union-Tribune]