Speed Record

The inside account of how GM stole the Detroit auto show by hustling its Pontiac Solstice off the sketchpad and onto the stage in record time.
An attack copter shows off new antimissile ware When Major Wandent Brawdsen of the Royal Netherlands Air Force rolled his Apache Longbow helicopter and fired a string of flares during last year's Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford England, it wasn´t just an air-show stunt. He was demonstrating the first and only Apache infrared missile-defense system. The new technology is sorely needed: When an attack chopper drops down to take out a target, it becomes an easy mark for shoulder-fired missiles such as those that were thought to have been the cause of two U.S. Apache pilot´s deaths in Iraq earlier this year. The ultraviolet sensors mounted beneath the aircrafts's wingtips detect and track missile exhaust and then fire off infrared flares to confuse the projectiles´ guidance systems. Stephen Wolf

Bob Lutz never minces dreams. The 70-year-old ex-BMW, ex-Chrysler, ex-Ford executive and ex-U.S. Marine Corps aviator joined General Motors last September with a no-nonsense, ambitious agenda. His immediate task as the automaker’s vice chairman and product czar: to snap the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer out of its longstanding, self-inflicted catatonia.

For Lutz, it was dj vu all over again. As Chrysler’s head of sales, marketing, and product development from 1986 to 1998, he helped transform the company’s outdated and boring vehicles into a bristling lineup that included the Dodge Viper sports car, Plymouth Prowler hot rod, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Ram pickups.

But the challenge at GM was more overwhelming. By the time Lutz arrived, the company’s U.S. market share had slipped to well below 30 percent, from nearly 50 percent two decades earlier. With too many divisions, more than 100 product lines, and frequent turf battles, GM was a bloated bureaucracy. Evidence of this was everywhere. For one thing, there was the new Pontiac Aztek, a combination sport sedan, SUV, and minivan whose ludicrous design caused customers to avert their eyes in disgust. And though Cadillac had attempted to come up with new, updated styles, most of the younger buyers the division was targeting showed no interest. Meanwhile, the once indomitable Oldsmobile was being phased out, and Chevrolet, which used to brag it was the perfect car in which to “see the U.S.A.,” had devolved into a truck maker.

GM needed shock therapy. Lutz decided what was required was a dramatic display of creativity. He wanted to show the world that GM was back online and that he was fully in charge-that the planet’s gutsiest car enthusiast was calling product shots from the company’s Renaissance Center towers.

Half a mile west of Lutz’s office stood the perfect stage for such a spectacle. Detroit’s Cobo Exhibition Center hosts the annual North American International Auto Show every January. Lutz wanted to take that opportunity to unveil a stunning new GM dream machine. But the timing was against him: He had just four months at his disposal, and planning, designing, and building a credible concept car-one that runs-ordinarily takes at least twice that long, even with a multimillion-dollar budget. The car czar faced a choice: Wait a year to make his statement or forge ahead with a push car.

Waiting was out of the question. Instead of squandering time on consumer clinics or tapping the company’s already murky crystal ball, he shot from the hip. He launched a design competition within the company, challenging his employees to make an affordable two-seat roadster that would squeeze the best out of GM’s neglected creative juices. “Keep the car simple, pure, and beautiful,” Lutz decreed, “and it will be easy to love.” He gave his designers a week to submit their ideas.

Along with a hundred or more of his colleagues, exterior designer Franz von Holzhausen put pen to paper. Though he had worked in GM’s North Hollywood, California, studio for less than two years, the 33-year-old auto artist was no stranger to crash programs. At Volkswagen, he had helped shape the Concept One (precursor to the New Beetle), the Audi TT, and the Microbus show piece. “Sports cars from the ’50s and ’60s are my favorites,” says von Holzhausen. “The competition began shortly after I attended the Monterey Historic Races in northern California, so superb Jaguar, Alfa-Romeo, and Cheetah designs were fresh in my mind.”

For the most part the designers, von Holzhausen included, submitted sketches of rakish roadsters adorned with chariot-sized wheels and rubber-band tires. But when Lutz sat down to review the hundreds of submissions, it was a flaming orange coupe that caught his attention. “On a whim, I tossed that sketch in at the last minute,” von Holzhausen says. “The following week, when my boss told me my theme had won, it was pure elation followed by panic (because of the) daunting deadline.”

The race was on. While GM’s West Coast team studied two rival roadsters-Honda’s S2000 and Mazda’s Miata-to help them lock in basic wheelbase and track dimensions, a surreptitious plan was being hatched in Detroit. GM’s executive director of design engineering, Mark Reuss, conspired with project manager Mike Lyons to push Lutz’s dream even further. Instead of building the fiberglass push car their boss had ordered, the two decided to build a real steel-bodied running prototype. It was a risk. Knowing their jobs could be on the line if the scheme backfired, Reuss and Lyons decided to keep Lutz in the dark as long as possible.

To compress the schedule, GM engineers decided to use as many off-the-shelf mechanical parts-from existing GM cars-as possible. Lyons recruited a small army of Detroit-area subcontractors to handle the myriad engineering and construction tasks involved in creating the body, chassis, powertrain, and various other odds and ends. Wheel to Wheel, a company with extensive prototype and concept-car experience, would build the engine and transmission. Roush Industries would supply the chassis, brakes, and suspension. InSite Industries was hired to provide stamping dies and steel body panels. Special Projects was assigned the critical task of gathering components from the other contractors and assembling them.

Naming the car was another challenge. Pontiac, which had just painfully announced that 2002 would be the last year of its 1960s-era muscle car, the Firebird, desperately needed a lift. So Lutz put the new concept car under Pontiac’s imprint. None of the designers or engineers was particularly cheered when Pontiac proposed the name Solstice, but it stuck after more evocative suggestions failed legal department scrutiny.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, von Holzhausen’s design crew bid goodbye to the beach and began clocking 13- to 16-hour days, seven days a week. To save a week or two, they skipped the usual step of building one-third-scale models; they advanced directly from sketchpad to full-sized clay models. Von Holzhausen’s group pushed and scraped clay by hand for five weeks to create a model of the Solstice’s exterior, while a team led by designer Vicki Vlachkis sculpted the interior. When hand-shaping of the clay models progressed too slowly, a Tarus computer-controlled milling machine was used to revise character lines or surface sweeps. As portions were finished, technician Nick Mynott lifted cross-sectional data from the clay models with a three-axis coordinate measuring machine and logged it into a Silicon Graphics Octane2 workstation.

This so-called math data-numerical descriptions of planes, surfaces, and solid volumes that would become the car’s hood, windshield, and doors-was then sent via phone lines to engineers at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. The engineers compared the data against their own math files, which represented the size and shape of every major Solstice component, to make sure the mechanical parts they were working on would fit within the car’s racy lines.

Speed was of the essence, and digital communication was the buzz that kept the creative process on the fast track. Once the clay models were complete, they were scanned by a laser beam-a 4-hour process that yielded a detailed image of the entire car. That data was instantly broadcast to Warren.

On Oct. 26-54 days into the project-the West Coast team loaded the Solstice clay models and their computer-design workstations into a truck destined for Warren. Shipping both hardware and massaged clay seems out of sync with the digital age but, as von Holzhausen explains, designers don’t trust two-dimensional representations of their work. Besides, to offer Lutz and the other executives a choice between two kinds of surface treatments, headlamps, tail lamps, and grille designs, the clay model of the exterior was split down the middle, with different styling on the right and left.

Von Holzhausen caught up on lost sleep while the Solstice spent the next three days en route. Upon the car’s arrival in Warren, Lutz and GM design vice president Wayne Cherry chose the designs they preferred and asked for minor fine-tuning of the overall look. That put the burden back on the West Coast group to work feverishly to make the requested alterations in both the clay and its corresponding math model. “Our backs were against the wall,” says von Holzhausen. “We faced the deadline for forwarding finished math data to the body panel vendor, so we used every tool in our repertoire to save time, including the milling machine in place of hand sculpting.”

InSite began stamping-die construction for the body panels on Nov. 13. Tape-controlled milling machines (similar to the Tarus mills used to carve clay) directed by GM-supplied math data cut into solid chunks of material-either machinable urethane or a metal alloy called kirksite-to create the dies that would be used to press flat steel sheets into compound-curved body panels. A matched pair of male and female dies was created for the more complex panels. A proprietary technology in which a flexible bladder served as a substitute for the male die was used for the smaller, simpler panels. Metal pressing began on Nov. 24 and, with no Thanksgiving Day break, the 21st and final panel was stamped on Dec. 3. After laser trimming, the panels were positioned on a holding fixture for presentation to engineering director Reuss and project leader Lyons. “I had spotlights all over our panels,” InSite manager Jerry Leitch recalls. “When the wraps were pulled off, Reuss’ and Lyons’ faces sparkled with nearly as much delight as when Bob Lutz drove the finished car onto the stage in Detroit.”

A frenzy of activity was under way at Special Projects long before the body panels arrived. GM designers had set up shop with their computer workstations and their clay models. The instrument panel and center console were molded out of fiberglass, which was also used to create a just-in-case set of exterior panels. Structural components fabricated at Roush Industries arrived and were welded together. Wheel to Wheel delivered the engine-a 2.2-liter GM Ecotec four-cylinder reconfigured for longitudinal mounting and supercharged to boost output to 240 horsepower. Donor parts drawn from a Chevy Cavalier (front suspension), Subaru Impreza (steering gear), Buick Rendezvous (rear suspension), Chevrolet Trailblazer (differential), Chevrolet Corvette (six-speed transmission), and Cadillac CTS (brakes) were modified where necessary, then bolted in place. “The amazing thing is that all those parts fit just as the math data predicted they would,” says Special Projects owner Ken Yanez. “Everything bolted in as intended.”

The car was 60 percent done when Lutz realized what was happening. “When he saw real brakes and an engine going in, he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are making this thing a runner, aren’t you!'” says Reuss. “Sitting on a milk crate with a wheel in his hands and an empty instrument cluster, he turned to me like a kid with a smile on his face and said, ‘I can hardly wait.'”

Lutz’s reaction lifted the team’s morale and made the long hours and lost weekends worthwhile. While dozens of craftspeople welded, bolted, and fabricated, von Holzhausen and Vlachkis used computer-aided manufacturing tools to hone the car’s most intricate details, such as instrument bezels, radio knobs, headlamp lenses, and grille panels. Stereo lithography, laser sintering for bonding metal parts, and laminated object assembly equipment helped the pair convert screen depictions of parts into three-dimensional solid objects in a fraction of the time that it would have taken using traditional methods.

The final leg was an intense three-day thrash, with 100 or more participants working, napping, or just lending moral support. “The night before the Jan. 6 show, we all took a break at 2 a.m. to enjoy some of my wife’s homemade bread,” says Lyons. “Everyone had that look of determination on their faces that this project was not going to fail.” By 6 a.m., the car was complete.

A mere 6 hours later, a beaming Bob Lutz drove the sleek silver Solstice into the North American International Auto Show to a rave response. AutoWeek gave the two-seater its Best in Show rating. For the Solstice’s creators, there was another level of satisfaction: They had begun a revolution in the time it takes to make a working prototype. Designers at every automaker in Detroit are now struggling to speed up the pace from concept to finished car-though it’s unlikely that others will follow a four-month schedule that cost GM up to three times more than normal. As for GM, its Pontiac division is considering including a $20,000 version of the Solstice in its 2005 lineup.

Of all the automakers, nobody would have guessed that GM would be the one to set such a radically new benchmark. But then again, GM never had Bob Lutz at the helm before.

“I was excited from the beginning,” says von Holzhausen, “because it was Lutz’s first GM project. He said it best: ‘While you never forget the cars you work on throughout your career, you always remember the first as the sweetest.'”


On Aug. 2, 2001, Robert A. Lutz was appointed GM’s vice chairman of product development. Before he even got there, he hatched a plan to produce a visionary sports car for the upcoming Detroit auto show. It usually takes at least eight months to build a working showpiece; Lutz had just four. Here’s a brief history of the Solstice, with comparable milestones for a more typical driveable concept car.

Solstice timetable Average timetable
Day 1 On Sept. 3, Lutz reports for work at GM and initiates design competition for Detroit show car. Day 1
Day 8 Lutz and GM design vice president Wayne Cherry select Franz von Holzhausen’s design. Day 57
Day 15 Work begins on full-size clay models at GM’s North Hollywood, California, design studio. Day 58
Day 54 Finished models and designers’ workstations trucked to GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Day 99
Day 59 Clay models arrive. Lutz and Cherry decide on final design. ****
Day 82 Car assembly begins. Day 113
Day 92 Final steel body panel pressed. ****
Day 96 Assembly of the 240-hp four-cylinder engine is completed. ****
Day 108 The engine and transmission are installed. ****
Day 123 Design and engineering teams begin around-the-clock work schedule. Engine started for the first time inside the car. Day 239
Day 126 Freshly painted Pontiac Solstice is completed at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6. At noon, Lutz drives car onto stage of Cobo Exhibition Center. Day 253