August 30, 2014 at 9:49 am

Q&Auto: The design guru behind Caddy's curves

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface stands with the new ATS coupe. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

The Woodward Dream Cruise is a rolling art museum, showcase for an age when American design ruled the continent. Masterpieces include 1950s Cadillac Eldorados with jet-aircraft-inspired tailfins swimming like sharks through an urban ocean. Drawn by legendary GM designer Harley Earl, these sculpted vessels symbolized American post-WW2 optimism.

After decades in the wilderness, that Caddy swagger is back.

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface and his team are producing tomorrow’s classics today: The imposing Cadillac Escalade, elegant CTS (2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year), and sensual 2015 ATS Coupe.

As agile as they are beautiful, these vehicles stand with the best of BMW and Mercedes. The CTS and ATS are the sum of Cadillac’s decade-long design resurgence. They are bold. All-American. The product of a design chief who has sketched cars since he was a tike on a trike. His credits include Jeep Liberty and Chevy’s Volt. Get him talking about cars, and the soft-spoken 48-year-old is a kid again, reeling off his favorite designs. I sat down with Boniface in Litchfield, Connecticut to talk about the ATS, tail fins, and the Cruise.

Q: The Art & Science design language has matured since the breakthrough 2002 CTS. What changed?

Boniface: In the late 1990s we introduced a concept car called the Evoq. That car pointed the way toward Art & Science design language with a lot of creases. The CTS which was the first production car to use that language. I think it was the right thing at the time . . . to say that this was a different kind of Cadillac. It got people’s attention. But it was a severe design language. Since then we’ve taken the things that are good about it: The vertical light signature, the shield-shaped grille, the precise creases on the car. We’ve kept these but the surfacing between the creases is more sophisticated. (The cars) are prettier now.

Q: This is a conscious decision to evolve the design language?

BB: Yes. And in the case of the ATS Coupe, we listened to the customer. We had an earlier version which is more severe with a lot more wedge and rake to the belt. The side body was thicker. The grille . . . more severe. Customers told us that it looked heavy, inefficient - it didn’t look fun to drive. So we brought that information back to the studio and we took as much visual mass out of the car as we could.

Q: Look at the luxury segment today and there seems to be a German style, a Japanese style. Is there an American style of design?

BB: I think so. Our cars are very American. A lot of it is the vertical light signature, front and rear. They aren’t tail fins, but it harkens back to that - the blade-like corners of the . . . late ‘60s and ‘70s. We own that vertical light signature. It’s not everyone’s taste, but we’ve evolved it to the point that it’s very tasteful.

Q: The ATS is made for international markets. How much do pedestrian safety standards influence the front of the car?

BB: Quite a bit. Fortunately . . . we can pay for things on a Cadillac. We put pyrotechnics on the hinge of the hood (Ed. note: in Europe) so if a pedestrian’s head hits the hood, they’ll be safe. But it is a minefield on the front of the car: The sensors, the cooling requirements, the pedestrian safety requirement . . . . That’s why I’m so happy the car looks like a Cadillac because if you just followed the letter of the law – and we do – you could very easily come up with a very generic, jellybean front end.

Q: What distinguishes a luxury design from a mainstream design?

BB: Proportions. Detail. Cadillacs – with the exception of the XTS - are rear-drive vehicles. The wheels are forward, the windshield is back, the rear overhang is longer. The cars have this swept-back feeling. The details – that’s where the money is. The details on the headlamp, the machining on the wheels, even the brake calipers. (The luxury segment) is more than transportation. Cadillacs are a means of self-expression.

Q: At the Dream Cruise, what stands out to you?

BB: The designs that stand the test of time: The ‘60s American designs. Look at, say a 1966 Impala, or a ‘69 Camaro or a ‘69 Super Bee. They were basically stylized boxes – but, the subtlety of surfacing to get light to cascade across the body . . . are just beautiful. It’s harder today to design a car because of all the regulatory pressure — the pedestrian safety, the fuel economy rules, the crash-worthiness. But we have materials to do those things. Back then, they basically had a body on frame and wrapped sheet metal around it. They had to make a big ol’ box look good and they did.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface sits in the driver's ... (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)