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Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda

Carmaker's head designer for North America helps create a more sophisticated look for the brand's front ends, known in the past for a happy-face grin.

  • Cars in a parking lot

Derek Jenkins is a bit of a Southern California surfer dude. He grew up catching waves and still does, and he’s building a dune buggy in his garage.

He’s also fascinated by the car and bike culture around him — all of which plays a part in his job as director of design for Mazda North America in Irvine, Calif.

“The diversity makes it interesting,” Jenkins says. “You can visibly chart how each scene is involving. I might see a colour finish, or something somebody did with a seat, and that’s an influence for me.”

Jenkins initially wanted to be an engineer, but a coach at his high school steered him into the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, famous for its transportation design courses, when he noted Jenkins’ automotive interest.

“I really liked cars, I liked making stuff and building things, and I did a fair amount of drawing, although I wasn’t really what you’d call overly artistic,” he says.

During his schooling, he did several internships with Porsche in Germany, and then with Volkswagen in the U.S. That company hired him when he finished school in 1993. He worked with its Audi division, first in California for four months, and then in Germany.

“I started with the Audi A2, the first volume space-frame aluminum vehicle Audi made at the lower-cost end,” he says. “It was quite radical for the 1990s, because the target fuel efficiency was over 70 mpg (3.3 L/100 km). That was my first project, and I followed it up with the last-generation Audi A8. I did a lot of concept vehicles at Volkswagen, including the Microbus concept. That was a fun project, and probably my favourite there.”

He stayed with Volkswagen for 16 years but gradually felt that his options were becoming limited.

“The brands were so well-established that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for risk-taking in design,” he says. “Mazda was developing platforms and was eager to develop a design direction to go with and push the brand, and I saw that as a real opportunity to be part of the next chapter.

“The other part was that I was always very enthusiastic about the products Mazda had built in the past. They were sporty and youthful, and heavy on design.”

The Mazda studio is connected to a larger R&D facility, and both work with the company’s overall product planning in North America.

Jenkins heads a team of about 20 people, working on concept vehicles and on advanced production — the planning that goes into a vehicle before it can be ready for manufacturing. From there, the California designs must compete with those from Mazda’s studios in Germany and Japan, although Jenkins says the strength of the North American market often gives his team the advantage.

“Mazda’s fairly small in terms of volume, and we’re spread out between North and South America, Europe and Asia,” he says. “We really rely on that global network, where other Japanese brands have greater domestic volume that they specialize in. North America is still the highlight, and we carry a lot of influence. Our voice is somewhat stronger than the other regions at the moment.”

His team was instrumental in the front-end design seen on the all-new CX-5, which will be carried through to other products. The company’s previous signature style was frequently criticized for looking too much like the car was grinning.

“The prior ones had a more happy facial expression,” Jenkins says. “It was polarizing, to say the least. I don’t think it was necessarily perceived as negative to the brand, but the discussion was to make it more up-market and sophisticated.

“We wanted to hold onto the key traits, such as the shape of the grille, but we’ve moved it, repositioned it, and it diminishes the facial expression and gives it a more premium feel. We’re decidedly Japanese in our design and we don’t want to lose that quality, but if you look at cars that have a confident, upscale look, they don’t look like a face.”

Coming up with a signature design whose cues will be used on all models — a practice Jenkins says is more common with European manufacturers than Japanese ones — is far more difficult than it sounds. It must be adaptable to a wide range, from sports cars to SUVs, but still maintain its look.

“We do intermittent studies between models, to make sure we’re keeping a strong family face and linear quality throughout the lineup,” Jenkins says. “We need a family relationship without (the cars being) cookie-cutter. You have to study that up front, because it doesn’t happen by accident.”

Although he makes the final decisions in the department, he stresses that all cars are the work of many people, never just one.

“I love when you hear these stories of some guy who claims he drew a car like this, and the car company took the idea,” he says. “Anybody can do a ‘napkin sketch,’ but realizing a great design and producing it is a whole ’nother thing.”

  • Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda
  • Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda
  • Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda
  • Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda
  • Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda
  • Knocking the smile off the face of Mazda