Cadillac Design Director Brian Smith Paints an Exciting Picture of Forthcoming Electric-Car Styling

cadillac electric car

Making the transition from Escala design language to Celestiq design language for Cadillac’s new electric cars.

General Motors’ flagship brand is taking the lead among its marques to go fully electric with its Cadillac electric cars portfolio. The company plans to proliferate its EV portfolio throughout the 2020s on the road to that goal, using the new Ultium system and common, flexible “skateboard” platform designed to offer driving range of more than 400 miles on some models.

This means a new design language for Cadillac electric cars, or at least a design language heavily modified from the Escala concept influence found on conventional internal-combustion-powered models. Cadillac hinted this with unveiling of its Lyriq (see main photo) midsize battery-electric SUV and its stunning Celestiq flagship sedan, which only media members and others who attended GM’s EV day in early March have seen so far. The Cadillac Lyriq is scheduled to begin production in 2022, and the Celestiq is planned by 2025.

The marque’s exterior design director, Brian Smith, is in charge of this transformation for Cadillac electric cars. Smith is a classic car designer with classic car tastes, with a personal scuderia that includes a 1967 Triumph TR4A, 1972 Triumph TR6, 1976 Jaguar XJ coupe, and 1978 Porsche 928. We caught up with Smith to check up on the progress of these very modern Cadillacs

Are you and your staff able to keep up with all of these Cadillac electric cars and running the projects while working from home?

Brian Smith: We are, remarkably, staying on task with a lot of stuff. The obvious issue becomes we can’t build clay, we can’t verify [designs] three-dimensionally, but we are starting to develop some virtual tools that are working really well. We have to work with clay so we can validate it three-dimensionally.

cadillac electric car

You have developed new tools after the shut down due to coronavirus?

BS: Not everybody has the correct three-dimensional software on their computers to be able to view the 3-D map, so the team’s gotten very creative and they have ways to stream 3-D data where the person without the software can link up through an internet site and actually control the map from their computer. We just started to experiment with [this after the shutdown] and we’re starting to use it more now. We’ve got a virtual environment where we put the models on it and it looks like we’re all standing out on the [GM Design Dome] patio, it’s really cool.  

You have an aggressive program for Cadillac electric cars. Have you kept it on schedule? 

BS: We have so far. We are coming up to some key dates where we need to see the model build, and so we’re anxious to get back in the building. But we are staying on track with engineering and marketing and leadership to keep the decisions rolling. It’s been remarkably efficient, actually, but it is taxing. Just sitting at the screens all day has been a real challenge.

How does Cadillac’s emphasis on future electric cars affect its design language going forward? Do you simply extend the Escala influence?

BS: You see that influence in cars like the CT5 and the CT4 … the XT6 and Escalade. We are making a bit of a departure with our battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). It’s really about taking the crisp features and blending in a bit more muscular lines and beauty in the surface. The beautiful surface and strong silhouette with some really technical details and unusual graphics can give the cars a futuristic and electrified presence. Tesla proved [BEVs] don’t have to be weird looking. They can still be beautiful, and that’s something we believe as well. Making electric cars desirable is what we’re all about. They’ve got to be just as beautiful and thought provoking as any internal-combustion-engine vehicle … more so given the technology that is coming along with that beauty

How do you deal with the fact the Cadillac electric cars don’t need grilles? The face of Escala has always been a big part of what that design language is.

BS: It’s the most interesting challenge, or opportunity with electrified vehicles. They require some air flow. We still have some air cooling for the battery, but the opportunity is when you close the front end up, then the aerodynamics get that much better. You’re not compacting a bunch of air in a dirty engine compartment, and in some ways, it affects lift balance as well. We still want the car to have a strong face and recognizable graphic, but now we can have a slick, flush appearance with different ways to do the detail.

You stole the show with the Celestiq. How did it come about that the next Cadillac flagship is pure electric?

BS: An internal-combustion vehicle was underway that would’ve caught the tail end [of the pre-electric era]. That’s when the company took a turn and said, “Hey, wait a minute, are we doing the right thing here?” [We did] a set of scale models, one of which was a standout with a really wild silhouette. It very quickly became a vision not only for that vehicle itself in the lineup, but for the rest of Cadillac. You see it in the Lyriq, which bears a strong resemblance in its lighting elements and some of the graphic executions of the front end, but the [other] car came first. It was designed first and it influenced the Lyriq. As a flagship, high-technology, high-priced, hand-built vehicle, it’s going to influence the electric lineup, for sure.

Cadillac electric cars could be ahead of whatever Mercedes-Benz does with the S-Class and what BMW does with the 7 Series …

BS: We’re aiming for the moon with that car, and it will be unlike anything else in its class of vehicle or segment.

How did you come up with the hatchback-style rear glass treatment?

BS: When we look at every vehicle, they have to have a bold silhouette, and I think [the Celestiq] defines that. As an avid car collector, I’m always drawn to a unique silhouette. Cars like a Porsche 911 or a Mini Cooper, they’re instantly recognizable, and they become sort of iconic. That was a goal for this car. It is unusual. It is a little bit polarizing. But it’s going to be beautiful, stunning

Are you working on anything you can’t talk about but that you’d say, “Well, this doesn’t fit into anything that is in the showroom today”?

BS: We have leadership reviews and we look for competitors, and we pull in the nearest competitors for some of these electric vehicles—and in a lot of cases, they’re current internal-combustion vehicles, because there isn’t a vehicle in that segment yet. We like that it doesn’t really compare to a lot of our new products because it’s different. Taking a brand like Cadillac and moving it into the future, we’re not looking back, we’re honoring our heritage but we’re really looking forward. The other aspect of it is range and aerodynamics. It matters to have the ultimate [driving-distance] range-figure on the car.

How will autonomy dictate design language going forward? I presume it’s less influential than EV technology.

BS: The AVs add a large sensor suite. Cameras are another complication because they are somewhat circuit-dependent; certain materials the radar can’t see and the radars have to be positioned in such a way that they can see a range of view. It is an additional aspect to the design of these vehicles. Our goal is to keep them thoughtfully hidden, thoughtfully detailed, and not just take the approach of slapping them on a surface with a hole or a bolt with a hole

Before the CT4 and CT5, you had a more formal roofline in the sedans. Are these two cars’ faster C-pillars a response to the onslaught of SUVs?

BS: Mainstream sedans are the ones that are going away, because people who are spending money on them can get all the capability in an SUV. I think the way to keep sedans around is to make them really thought provoking and aggressive and sporty in their profiles.

As a designer, you’ll have to think about where car design will be in five or 10 years, following drastic cultural changes from this pandemic. Any early thoughts on the next generation of Cadillac electric cars you’ll be designing?

BS: I’m not sure what I would take from the pandemic itself and applying it to design, but I think some of the tools we’re using from home can have an effect. I think we’ll take a lot of what we’re learning working from home back to the office. The virtual tools and some of the way we work … I think we’ve learned a lot of streamlining of our process. Our digital filters have grown through this process. They’ve gotten a lot more attention in this process because they’re kind of all we’ve got. What I think we can take forward is being a little more digital. I won’t pretend that clay models will go away, because it’s just such an important tool, to have hands sculpting a car. There’s always a sensitivity there that you can’t really capture with computers.

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