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Tesla is known for its slick beautifully designed vehicles, some with an almost space-age appearance. Franz von Holzhausen, an American born motor vehicle designer, is largely responsible for this.
He was born in Simsbury, Connecticut on May 10, 1968. Coming from a family involved with design was a big influence in his younger years as his father was an industrial product and graphic designer and this is where Franz learned about the beauty of design. He always had a love for cars, and this gave him an avenue to combine the two things he loved – designing and creating unique motor vehicles. Not only was Franz born into a creative family, but he went on to marry designer, Vikki with whom he has two children.
With the hype around the Tesla brand, little is known about the man himself. Despite his name, he is not German. He graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design in the early 1990s, which is considered the pinnacle of transport design programs worldwide. His design approach was also influenced by the time he spent in Switzerland, at the ArtCenter College’s sister campus, where he was introduced to more European approaches involving practicality and sensibility to vehicle design.
He still heavily considers form and functionality as very important factors when designing anything. He feels that if it is not functional then is it really design? At Tesla, they put functionality and form on par with one another in the vehicle’s design process as producing a beautifully looking car should also incorporate practical functionality. He also emphasized that the process of designing vehicles at Tesla was a continuous learning curve from previous models for the next generation. An example he used regarding design and functionality and the influence it had on the world, was the iconic VW beetle. Everyone you know, at some stage in their life has had some interaction with one, be it the classic or modern versions. The beetle is an icon in vehicle history, which always relates to years gone by, fun and having a great time.
Early in the start of his career, he was involved with Volkswagen, with the design of the New Beetle concept car, then known as Concept One. He also had a part in the Microbus project. He remained at VW for 8 years working on various projects and then in 2000, he made the move to General Motors as a design manager. The project that he was involved in at the time was for two roadster designs being the convertible Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice motor vehicles. In 2005 he then moved to Mazda North America operations and assumed the position of chief of design. In this position, he oversaw the design of several concept vehicles, including the design of the Mazda Kabura, which made its debut at the America International Auto Show in 2006. In addition to this, more of his designs along with the Mazda Furai concept car, were presented at the same motor show in 2008.
It was later that year when Franz was feeling frustrated with the traditional automotive industry and was also looking for a new direction. He took a leap of faith when Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, headhunted Franz and recruited him to work as chief designer for Tesla. The decision to make the move to Tesla was largely impacted by the EV company’s commitment to an eco-friendly approach and how completely committed Musk and Tesla were to change the transportation landscape.
“Tesla is changing the paradigm; we’re going to turn the world on its ear and create high demand through design. There is a new hunger in the air for automotive design and looking to where automobiles are going in the future. Tesla will capture this through good design and engineering.” Franz said. It became his mission is to build the world’s leading automotive design studio.
Although Tesla was far from the traditional motor industry capitals, Franz felt the urge to take up this new challenge. This was not an easy decision at the time as Tesla was in the red and the company only had one vehicle available for the market, the Roadster, which was based on the Lotus design. However, the electric version of the Roadster was fast and eye-catching and with Franz’s input, Tesla managed to raise $226 million in IPO for future Tesla designs.
Initially, Tesla had outsourced most of its work for the Roadster to the supercar manufacturer, Lotus however Franz realized that it was a difficult process to try and adapt ICE (internal combustion engines) to a fully electric version. Tesla would need to develop something new that is designed to be an electric vehicle and not a conversion. He took charge and commenced with the design of Tesla’s second vehicle, the Model S. This task gave him the unique opportunity to design an exciting battery electric vehicle (BEV) from scratch. A large hurdle was to change people’s perception that electric vehicles were not glorified golf carts, but rather high-performance exotic sports cars that were initially aimed at the high-end market. The ultimate goal though was to produce a long-range electric vehicle that was good for the environment and affordable enough for the mass market.
Franz began working at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne CA where Tesla had its first design studio. The idea of having the opportunity to design a BEV from a clean sheet was an exciting one. A two-year timeframe was given for the development of the Model S, so Franz had his work cut out for him. The design parameters for the Model S were basically to create a functional mid-sized vehicle that can seat up to 7 people and their luggage. The emphasis needs to be placed on the look of the vehicle, which had to stand out from the rest and make a statement.
Franz, along with a team of 11 designers set out to complete this task. Through dedication, long working hours, and numerous sleepless nights they finally completed the Model S concept car in a mere 8 months. This was well under the 2-year timeframe in which the project was expected to be completed. The reason for this shortened period is that the design process for an electric vehicle eliminates a massive component in regular (ICE) internal combustion motors, that being the drive chain. In an electric vehicle, the designer has more space to use as the drive chain components are not complex, thus providing more space for passengers and luggage and gives the designer more room to work with. The look of the vehicle can also be changed from the traditional feel, as items like a front grille and air intakes can be eliminated, giving the option for new looking profiles, which offer clean no-fuss lines.
The greatest challenge facing all motor vehicle designers and surely all designers is to create something that looks different from everything else. In these days a futuristic design is great, but it still needs to be universally acceptable to the man on the street. The Model S has a classic modern line. This fastback sports coupe wraps a functional car in a sports cloak along with a beautiful spacious interior and high-tech instrumentation.
Although Franz’s Model S was not a futuristic-looking vehicle, it was more of a subdued masterpiece, The Model 3 has very similar lines and was designed to be 10 – 20 % smaller to compete with the likes of the Audi A4 and the BMW 3 series as this was what customers were requesting. He designed an aerodynamic sporty car like the shape of the Model S with some additional modifications, creating a beautiful smaller vehicle. This was the car that Tesla would launch to attract the mass market.
Franz decided that his personal Model 3 needed a few cosmetic changes to stand out above the already outstandingly designed car! It was spotted at Tesla’s Los Angeles delivery center with some subtle adjustments. The door handles seem to melt into the body and he also changed much of the chrome decal to black and dark grey. The Tesla logo on the back was also removed and the name “TESLA” replaced with each letter spread out and all-new 20-inch sports wheels and customized painted calipers were included.
When comparing Tesla to other manufacturers’ designs, Franz pointed out that there are specific areas that designers cut back on when the budget is an issue, and one is the door handles. He noted that the first contact someone has with the vehicle is the door handle, yet this is typically the cheapest part of the car as a way to reduce costs. Yet, these plastic units are often the first thing to fall apart. He felt that Tesla’s famous, self-presenting door handles reflected the desire to make the driver’s first contact with the vehicle, a memorable one.
When the design of the Cybertruck began, von Holzhausen found inspiration from many unusual areas such as fighter jets and other futuristic vehicles and science fiction movies. He felt that they had to produce something that was radically different from what was available currently on the market, as the competition from other top-notch truck designers was already out there. So, he felt he had to change the archetype of how trucks look and perform. The design idea had to also fit in with the material used for the bodywork, in this case, stainless steel, which is hard and costly to form into curved shapes but cheaper to have less complex shaping. This also gives rise to why the body is shaped in an angular futuristic fashion as it is easier to bend these jagged profiles than to make rounded units. Stainless steel was used because of its durability along with its ability to withstand rust and dents to the body, making it a truly rugged vehicle along with bulletproof windows to go.
When the Cybertruck was first unveiled, much emphasis was placed on the strength and durability of the bodywork and windows. Musk pointed out that the windows were bulletproof and asked Franz to demonstrate by throwing a metal ball at the side window of the truck. The audience along with Elon Musk and himself were absolutely stunned when the ball contacted the glass and promptly shattered it!
“Well, at least the ball didn’t go through,” exclaimed Musk. However, a second attempt on the back window produced the same results. “For some weird reason it broke, we will have to fix that”, Franz remarked. But the metal ball exercise was done after they demonstrated Franz pounding the Cybertruck’s door with a sledgehammer, which left no visible marks or dents. In an interview with Joe Rogan, Musk said the sledgehammer demo actually fractured the corner of the glass, which is why they think the window suffered damage. Tesla had practiced the demo behind-the-scenes, throwing wrenches, balls, and hammers at the vehicle, and all these projectiles bounced right back without causing any damage. So, the public event didn’t go quite as planned as clearly sent Franz and his team back to the drawing board to find the weaknesses.
Von Holzhausen has been involved with all the vehicle developments at Tesla from the Model S, Model 3, Model X, Model Y, and the Cybertruck. His unique approach has put him at the forefront of electric vehicle design and forging a new path with Tesla in the 100-year-old industry. The automotive industry has not seen any radical changes in design up until now and many people are critical of some of his creations, however, Franz is not fazed and is determined to continue making bold and new statements in electric motor vehicle design.
When asked about his thoughts on the future of vehicle design, Franz felt that Tesla was on the leading edge of this process and that technology was providing greater opportunities for different methods of transport to be developed, from personal transportation units to drones.
Von Holzhausen’s involvement with Tesla is ongoing and updates and improvements to the interior and exterior of the Tesla ranges are continuous and have always allowed him the freedom and space to work outside the confines of the traditional motor vehicle environment. He noted that Tesla vehicles will never be constrained to something that they have done before. There is no Tesla blueprint to work from, it’s all about creating and designing beautiful vehicles.