John Herlitz: Hooked On Design
Personality Profile | Collectible Automobile
It all started with a fish. When John Herlitz began working as a Chrysler Corporation stylist in July 1964, his first task was to design a depiction of a barracuda for the badges on the Plymouth pony-car of the same name. Even then, he had to be shooed out of the studio at quitting time on his first day.
“The smell of clay was just so great I couldn't leave it," Herlitz says with a laugh. For more than 36 years, the smell of clay and the look of cars were part and parcel of his professional life. When he retired last January, John Herlitz did so as senior vice president of design—the biggest fish in the styling pond at DaimlerChrysler Corporation's U.S. operations.
Herlitz was born in New York City on December 30, 1942. When he was seven, his
family moved to the little town of Pine Plains, New York. But by that time he was already swept up in the mystique of the automobile. In 1960, he began his formal design studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated in 1964.
Though he had interned at General Motors in the summer of 1963, Herlitz had an affinity for Chrysler and managed to line up a job there upon graduation from Pratt. Assigned to the Plymouth Studio, his early projects included working on the design for the 1970 Barracuda and '71 intermediate line. Over time, he would be involved in a number of significant Chrysler production vehicles and numerous concept cars. Herlitz also moved steadily up the man-
agerial hierarchy. In September 1968, he was named to head the studio that designed inter-
mediate Plymouths. He held that posts until 1976, when he became chief of interior design
and color. In the fall of 1981, Herlitz and Tom Gale were, respectively, named directors of
exterior and interior design for all Chrysler car lines; in mid '82, they swapped roles. Herlitz resumed responsibility for exterior design in 1985, when Gale assumed the styling vice presidency. Herlitz succeeded Gale in that position in April 1994.
A resident of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Herlitz and his wife of 32 years, Joan, have
two sons, one a computer engineer and the other an industrial designer. In retirement, Herlitz looks forward to returning to painting and cartooning, the latter a talent he displayed for years in an internal Chrysler management publication. Collectible Automobile® Publisher Frank Peiler gathered the following reminiscences and observations from John Herlitz in an interview conducted several months before his departure from DaimlerChrysler.
CA: How did you get interested in car design?
Herlitz: I was always interested in cars and you know, like most designers in the business, they can't tell you why, but they just gravitated to them at a very young age. We used to drive from New York City to a little town in upstate New York called Pine Plains and I'd always stand in the back seat of my Dad's Oldsmobile and name the cars that were coming the other way. That led to sketching cars, drawing cars when I was about four. I kept that up all the way through school and meanwhile, I sent some sketches to Chrysler when I was 13. They sent back some studio illustrations to me, which, I mean, to a kid 13 years old, man, living in Pine Plains, New York, with one stoplight and this package came in from Chrysler Corporation, holy cow! I even saved the mailing tube for years.
CA: Did you?
Herlitz: Yeah, but they were good enough to give me a lot of encouragement and guidance on schools to go to, potential schools to go to, and so they were extremely helpful. A guy he was in personnel and he gave me the most help, I think, of all of the guys that I corresponded with when I got out here after a few months, I tried to track this fellow down and they said that he's no longer with the company And I said, "Well, what happened?" They said that security caught him building an Imperial in his garage with parts that he had requisitioned through the studio.
CA: What was the first car that you can remember that really impressed you from a design standpoint?
Herlitz: Ah, that's a good question. Certainly the '55 Ford. We had a Ford dealer in the town and so new-car unveiling time was just, I mean, that was the hottest thing. That was like Broadway in that little town. And we used to walk up from high school at lunchtime and try and take a peek at the cars. The Chryslers of that period were pretty stodgy, so there wasn't much to look at there. Fifty five Chevy was also very good, '55 Chrysler line across the board I thought was great. I mean, they finally jumped aboard the train and were with it.
CA: Any European cars that really stand out in your mind?
Herlitz: Yeah, I think the one that really was the hot setup at the time was the 507 BMW. Those cars were gorgeous. There were a lot of European cars up in that part of the country, particularly over in Connecticut, around Sharon, and Lime Rock, and Lakeville, and so on. So, they were gorgeous cars and even the Coopers they were racing at Lime Rock at that point in time, the open-wheelers, they were really thrilling to watch.
CA: What was your first car project at
Herlitz: First car project was the '67 Barracuda program. And there were three phases to that program. There was one that was the formula of the original Barracuda, which was just a fastback Valiant. And then there was phase two, which was to do a total reskin of the Valiant, but hold the windshield, but come up with a unique body style. And then phase three was to do an all-new car from the ground up. That was the one that I got to work on and that was the one that was the lead proposal by the time Uncle Sam caught up with me and I went
1-A and went into the Air National Guard.
CA: How long were you in the Guard?
Herlitz: Well, it was just for six months. But by the time I came back, the die had been cast on the program and the company had gone as far as to consider buying Jaguar of England. But there was no way that they could finance (an all-new Barracuda) at the time, so they had
to scrap that. But they used the theme from the phase-three car and adapted it to the phase-two program, which was the reskin plan.
CA: That was a very clean-looking car.
Herlitz: Yeah, I was trying to get the company to get beyond this philosophy of just drawing lines in space and then connecting the lines with sheet metal. I really believed from all of my Pratt background that sheetmetal is a sculptural element and you should treat it that way.
CA: How did the little coupe come about? That was kind of an oddball in the mix.
Herlitz: Dick Macadam, who was heading the studio at the time, wanted to get the closest-coupled coupe top that he could possibly get on the car and the designer that we had, who was an ex-General Motors designer, came up with the thought of getting the side profile of
the DLO ["daylight opening") pinched as tight as he could at the top. Then follow- ing that, the backlight, he literally had to put a vertical kink in it at the top so that you had the adequate snap-back on the interior. So, it was an oddity. It really was. It was not a natural act.
CA: And where did you go from there?
Herlitz: The next program I worked on would have been the '70 Barracuda program. Now, there were some interim programs where I worked on the facelifts for the '68 Road Runner for '69 and '70, but the next major program was the E-body program for 1970. That was the Barracuda. That was a very active program and a lot of competition, back and forth, between the Dodge Studio and the Plymouth Studio. We knew we had to share certain things like the windshield and so on. There was a difference; we did separate the wheelbases on the two cars and most people aren't aware of that. There is a two-inch difference between the Barracuda and the Challenger. But I was able to sell the bodyside and body design on that.
CA: You did mention the wheelbase difference. Why was that decided?
Herlitz: For brand differentiation.... No one could tell that there was a different wheelbase, so I mean it really was not worth the trip and the interior space that resulted from it was zippo.
But that was an exciting program because you got to work very closely with the powertrain engineering group,since we were wedging in the biggest engines the company had into those bodies, and it gave us the opportunity to work with the aerodynamics guys, and the engine-breather guys on the shaker hood.
CA: They made some wild colors. Did You have any say so in the color selection?
Herlitz: No, no I didn't. That was all handled by a separate color departments at the time. But we did work very closely with the interior guys and try to get a harmonious interior/exterior theme quality, and I think we were pretty successful for the first time in doing that.
CA: The '70 is a complete departure from what you had done before in the last generation. How did that come into being?
Herlitz: Well, it came into being because the A-body platform, the smaller platform leading up to '70, could only take a 383[-cid) engine. That was the biggest that you could get in it and even then you had no air, no power steering,so those were brutes to drive. We knew that to be really serious in the pony car business we had to get to the big powertrains and so, therefore, we kind of co-engineered the '71; the Road Runner, and GTX, and Satellites, and Chargers we kind of co-engineered those, so that the cowl and plenum were shared between the car lines. That got us into the big engine boxes and the big engines.
CA: So you went from the 'Cuda program into the intermediates. When did you begin the designs of the '71 intermediates?
Herlitz: That would have been about 1967 and we sold the design for theSatellite and Road Runner in late '68.Then I was promoted to studio manager in charge of the intermediate cars.
CA: Speaking of design departures,that was quite a change, too, from the '68-'70 models to what you were doing in ‘71.
Herlitz: Yeah, although I set up the face of the facelifted 1970 to kind of lay the tracks, lay the groundwork for what was going to happen with the all-new car the next year.
CA: It just, to a casual onlooker, looked like you had the-sky's-the-limit with what you could do back then. It was quite a wild car.
Herlitz: Yeah, yeah, there was an awful lot of freedom on the program and the only thing that we had to share with our Dodge brothers was the backlight.
CA: Oh, really?
Herlitz: Well, windshield and the backlight. (The) windshield was going to be common between the two cars, but the backlight then ended up being shared as well.
But I can recall on the Barracuda pro-gram that we had some just bizarre design proposals on that one. Elwood Engel was our VP in charge of design at the time, and Elwood would take an active hand from time to time in design, and he had his own bodyside going which was the goddamndest thing you've ever seen in your life! It started narrow in the back and then grew wider as it went forward and had fully skirted front wheels. Yeah, It was an awful one.
CA: Boy, I'd love to see pictures of that!
Herlitz: All the designers stayed away from that platform because they didn't even want to be seen by it.
CA: He must have been scared by a Nash sometime in his life.
Herlitz: It was so antiperformance car, that thing.
CA: Where did you go after the '71 intermediate program?
Herlitz: Well, then that started the long chain of management positions and one of the things that I observed while I was "on the board" (designing) was that if you're a design manager, you ought to be just that and not constantly involved and competing with the designers on the board whose job it is to create. What you really need to do, I think-it's always been my philosophy-is keep one design in the back of your head just in case the team doesn't come through for you, but encourage the team to come up with the RIGHT answers. I was studio manager on the F-body program, which was the Volare/Aspen program. That was the next major pro gram that I was on. There were facelift programs in between, and then from there we went to the small-car
Program, which became the Omni/Horizon pro gram eventually. We started it off with rear-wheel-drive alternatives and finally landed on the front-wheel alternative and this whole thesis of doing a "world car" that was all new. We worked very hard on that and I think we ended up that, although the cars were identical in appearance to the Horizon of Europe, only the powertrain was comp. The rest of it, the sheetmetal, looked identical and everything was different just by a smidge.
CA: From the Omni/Horizon, the company then went to the K-Car pro-
Herlitz: Yeah, a lot of us were active in the K-Car program, but by that time I was on kind of a development assignment, which was with color and interiors and mastering. That was a learning experience. Dick Macadam, he said, "I would never have a vice president of this company or any high-ranking executive that didn't have interior design experience. So, he said, "You're going to purgatory for a while and learn the business." Which I did. I was working for Colin Neale at the time. He was director of interior design. At the time, the four powerhouses in
design, were Dick Macadam, Bill Brownlee as head of Dodge, Cliff Voss was head of Chrysler, and then Colin Neale had all of interiors and the color. He also had international operations.
CA: We never heard much of who was running Chrysler design after a certain period. It seemed like after Elwood Engel retired, it seemed to get very anonymous almost.
Herlitz: Yeah, well: "Mac" came onboard, succeeded Elwood, and he was a tremendously talented guy and really the best mentor that I ever had in design. And he just came onboard at the worst possible time. We had the energy crisis, the financial cutbacks that came with that, and trying to make do with virtually nothing and trying to put together a product line that was somewhat competitive. It was a hell of a time for him, but he soldiered through it and was really
true to his troops. But we got into the late Eighties, or Seventies rather, when Hal Sperlich came over. Hal and Dick got along quite well, but, boy, (Lee) laccoca could not stand Dick. Shortly thereafter, in came [former Ford designer) Don De La Rosa as a consultant and the handwriting was on the wall, and pretty soon Dick had to go.... It was 1980.
CA: Getting into those really rough years for Chrysler ...
Herlitz: Yeah, right, right. Roy Axe then of course was director of design at the time, temporarily, under DeLaRosa and he couldn't take the pressure, and he just packed it in and went back to England. So the place was really in disarray for awhile and later,DeLa Rosa promoted Tom (Gale) and Ico-directors. That was in October of '81. Tom and I got to be directors at fairly young ages. Heck, we were both about 39at the time.
CA: Back in those years, there was quite a change at Chrysler, at least Chrysler Design, to get with the K-Car and the derivatives of the K-Car. What was the feeling in Design doing that type of a car?
Herlitz: We were really designing cars with a philosophy that we knew what we could get past Lee. And Lee had a certain comfort zone that we had to play to. A lot of it was based on what he had been successful in marketing at Ford. The Continentals, of course, were replete with vinyl roofs and all the trappings that any good designer would normally turn his back on and run away from. But we had to play in that game with those materials, all of those trappings, in order to get the broadest spread of product separation coming from essentially a common platform. It was just stretched to get from K to Imperial
CA: It was a tough time for creators, though.
Herlitz: Yeah, it was. We had certain aberrations that were somewhat exciting, like the Daytona program and the minivans. We really enjoyed working on the minivans because that was such a breakthrough product. We knew that that was going to be a success and we were going to be the first ones to market with a sensible solution. So we had those projects kind of interwoven, interspersed, with the K programs.
CA: And then, of course, the LeBaron convertibles. That would have been '86?
Herlitz: Yeah, and the coupes in '86,we were all really turned on by those cars. But the problem is we were stuck with a four-cylinder power train. There's just some things that design can't overcome and rudimentary mechanicals is one of them. So we learned our lesson on that.
CA: But it did very well for the company
Herlitz: Yeah, the convertible did. The coupe never got to its real potential. And then ouf course, we'd miter things into the product, like when it came to market it shared the same instrument panel as the Daytona and again, had a four-cylinder like the Daytona. Then a couple of years you'd get a unique instrument panel and you'd get a V-6 finally. So, by the time the cars were ready to go out of production, it's finally a real car!
CA: Were there any designs that you really liked that just never made it for
some reason or another?
Herlitz: There were a lot of things that we did during the Seventies time frame.
[W]e had a proposal for a car off the Omni platform. It was a totally rebodied car and it had side glass that actually had a curvature, a real sharp break in it, and was called the Stealth. As a matter of fact, we invented the name Stealth for that car. But, it had a character line that started high at the back and just dove all the way forward and went right through the glass. Everyone was wondering what the hell do you do with the glass if you can't drop it. Well, we had it set up so that it was a "gullwing" glass. Two little arms came up and out of the door to push the glass open and it was an amazingly functional thing. I mean, you could still get to coin receptacles at toll booths and the ventilation quality was fabulous. And there was always the glass there as a barrier to traffic when you had the windows open. But that one never came to be....that was one that I would really have liked to have seen happen.
CA: Was it a coupe? Or a four-place?
Herlitz: It was a 2+2, but a real tight back seat.
CA: What year was that?
Herlitz: It would have been 1980. The car still exists. It's down on Pine Street But it's in bad shape. It sat out in a field for awhile.
CA: I guess the whole Prowler program had to be a fun one too. Did that originate on the West Coast?
Herlitz: Yeah, that originated out in Pacifica. That was born out of an idea affair that we had where we asked the guys to just go ahead and let your minds run free and tell us what you think we might want to do as a company, really shake up the industry. ... So they came up with everything from the Prowler to edible cars. I said on the edible cars, "You can't do that; it's already been done." Did you ever hear about the guy that over a period of three years ate a '58 DeSoto? Cut it up into little pieces.
But out of that came Prowler, revisiting the all-American hot rod and, in fact, the first fiberglass looked so terrific that we just had to go ahead and build one as a concept car.
It was an interesting car to work on from a technical standpoint in the studio. In so many cases now we mill the first models, the first full-size models. But this one, having a triangular body shape, the mill couldn't reach the nose of the car, so we ended up having to really hand-
model the entire thing.
CA: You do mostly milling now?
Herlitz: Yeah, we start off at the designer. The designers work up their designs in the (computer) tube and they develop them working with our studio engineers. ... that's converted into the data that drives the mill and then we'll do one pass with the mill and get it roughed in, and then the actual sculptors come in and really finesse it. What it really does is it expands our ability to do a lot of full-size models with the same crew that we've always had, the same size modeling crew. Instead of having them packing the bucks and then roughing out the models, getting them rubbed in, God, to-do it in three days with the mill is just a great way to do it. Concept cars, just as a subject for conversation, of course, they've become really important to us over the years, not only to reflect to the public or convey to the public where we're going with product in general, but it's a method for us to really excite the public about DaimlerChrysler and what it's all about and the design process. And we've been very successful in bringing along our new generation of designers, turning them on to these projects and letting them take it from cradle to grave. It's a wonderful, wonderful development tool for designers and a lot of them have absolutely thrived on it and they've developed so nicely as a result.
CA: So you don't really do as they did in the old days: take someone from design school to design fish, for example, or door handles or knobs?
Herlitz: No, no they hit the decks running and they will be involved in production design programs immediately or concept cars immediately and it's baptism by fire. But we "safety net” around them, of course, with people who are seasoned so that we don't allow them to sink
the first time they're in the pool.
CA: It's got to be very exciting for them.
Herlitz: Yeah, it really is. I mean, just the fact that they get to go on the show circuit with the car and speak to the public about what they did and how they did it, what their inspiration was. It is a wonderful way of maturing the young designers very quickly.
CA: What age are they?
Herlitz: They range from 25 to 35, the guys that are doing most of the concept cars. Every once in a while we'll have a veteran do one, like Bob Hubbach, who was one of our longtime great designers. He did the Atlantic and the Viper coupe as well.
CA: What do you see in your future? Where are you going after retirement?
Herlitz: Well, I'll probably do some consulting work, I think, with suppliers as we outsource more responsibility to the suppliers for design development and design follow-through. think there's a real opportunity to do some value-added work there with a supply company because right now, they don't understand what design is all about, and what refinement is all about, and what design intent is all about. Some of them do, but there's a lot of them that really don't. It's because their management is essentially grown up through manufacturing ranks and they don't care about that stuff, and as a result they don't know about it. They don't know about the value of design, so I think there's some training work that can be done there. And then there's going to be travel and a lot of fun stuff.