The Designers: At Honda, it's a labour of love for Dave Marek
Honda's North American design chief always seeks to push the envelope.
Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background
Dave Marek is anything but reserved when it comes to describing his life’s passion. “I’m described as a car fanatic,” he says. “It isn’t that I like cars. I’m obsessed with them.”
That enthusiasm serves him well in his job as senior chief designer, and director of auto design at Honda R&D Americas in Los Angeles. He oversees every Honda and Acura design done in the U.S., and advises on projects done globally.
He wanted to study history in school, but his teachers noticed he spent most of his time drawing cars. “The art teachers would ask me to do artwork for them, and I played sports so I drew the signs for our teams,” Marek says. “I never took art classes in high school or college, but every time I strayed (from drawing), my dad kept pushing me.”
He believes his talent is genetic. His mother was a senator, and she hoped Marek would go into politics. But Marek had been adopted, and both his birth parents were artists. “I did not know that, but my father knew,” he says. “He kept encouraging the artistic side of things. He tried to get me to visit the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena because it was known as the car design school, but I thought that wasn’t a real job. Of course, now I know it’s more than a real job. It’s the most awesome thing in the world.”
When he was 25 — already married and working — he gave in to his father and visited the school. “You drive up this majestic drive and here’s this modern, high-tech building,” he says. “The minute I walked in I thought, ‘Why did I wait?’ I knew I was home and that was it. I enrolled and went through.”
He graduated in 1987 and went straight to Honda, where he’s been ever since. “Honda has embraced me, and not tried to make me something else,” he says. “If you work hard and you do good work, you grow up in the company. Then you permeate it back to the people who work for you. You trust them and let them do what they do.
“I don’t want to hire a bunch of people and tell them what to do. I want them to create what they want to create, and I will guide them. Otherwise, every car would be mine, and what’s the point of that?”
His first design project was the 1994 Accord Wagon. “I’m always fond of that, because it was going from being in school to doing a real car,” Marek says. “Subsequently, I’ve had at least a part in all the things to come out of the California studio.” This included the Honda Element and Ridgeline, and the Acura CL and TL.
Some designs have been controversial, and Marek has learned to roll with any criticism. “When the Element came out, we totally believed in it and thought it was cool,” he says. “When you talk to Element buyers, they love their cars so much. Some people don’t get it, but that’s OK. We did it for those people who adore their car.
“If you get bad press on a design, I won’t say it’s not tough, but there’s enough gratification from the customers that you can weigh it back and forth. I’ve read things about myself personally that I didn’t like, but it’s kind of humorous that someone would take the time to blog something like that. Design is subjective, and going into the career, you have to know that.”
Making the design practical is always a challenge. “You have to fit people in it, and that’s probably the biggest issue,” he says. “You can pinch the roof down and make it lower, and every car designer wants to do that, but people are in there and you can’t compromise them. Then there are safety regulations and manufacturing techniques. You’re always trying to push the envelope. It’s a challenge, but not an obstacle.”
As if work isn’t enough, Marek’s often busier after quitting time. Every Saturday, he teaches a transportation workshop at the Art Center. After a session with his personal trainer on Sunday mornings, he’s usually found at sporting events, or designing graphics for race car teams.
And then, come Monday morning, it’s back to the studio. “The Honda customer is extremely loyal and proud of the car, and I am too,” he says. “We’re all aiming at one goal, and that’s to do great cars for great people.”