Interview with Jason Castriota – Part 1

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend a bit of time on the phone with Saab’s new design chief, Jason Castriota. The conversation was split over two sessions. We first spoke on September 8, a conversation that was cut short due to unforeseen circumstances. We finished things off on October 15.

In between those dates, Jason had the unveiling of the SSC Ultimate Aero, which he designed, as well as the Paris Motor Show and a bunch of Saab-related interviews with various members of the motoring press.

My thanks to Jason for picking up the phone and having a chat. As you’ll see below, he likes to talk, which makes for a great interview.

We skipped the stuff about him drawing cars when he was five years old, etc, and got straight into the Saab questions, many of which were posed in comments by SU readers prior to Jason and I talking.

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Swade: You and Victor Muller seem pretty similar. You’ve both got pretty fine tastes and you seem to have ended up at events that suit your similar nature, places like Pebble Beach, etc. When did you guys first meet and did you hit it off straight away?

Jason Castriota: Yeah, we really did hit it off straight away and I have to say that with Victor, I really do have a partner in crime. I really love his gregarious nature. He’s a bit bold, a bit brash and he’s managed to be so successful being blunt and honest, true to the point. I’ve really prided myself on being that way in my career as well, and that can make you some friends but it can also work against you sometimes as people don’t expect such blunt answers. But I think, from a designer’s point of view, that you have to be very assertive and I like the fact that Victor’s very assertive as well.

We actually met in 2006 at the Geneva Auto Show and we really hit it off right away. He was very complimentary of the things I was working but aside from that, sometimes you just find that when you meet someone and start talking to them, that you have very similar tastes. You have a fun, vibrant conversation that just moves forward by itself and next thing you know, you’ve lost 30 minutes. That’s kind of how it was with Victor and I.

Over the years we just kept running into each other at auto shows, events and various car-oriented and enthusiast-oriented events and we always agreed it would be really cool to do something together some day but we never really new when that day would come. I didn’t know if it would ever come, to be honest, because you hear that sort of thing a lot in the industry, but with Victor I always felt it probably would.

I ran into him again at Geneva this year and he immediately asked me “What are you doing?” And he called me over to the Spyker stand and asked me again – ‘what are you doing?”. I told him I was running my own consultancy. I was enjoying being master of my own destiny, etc. He said “that’s great, but you have to come and be director at Saab”.

I said “I don’t know” (laughs).

I really wasn’t so convinced at first. He said “tomorrow, you come over to the Saab stand and meet Jan-Ake, you’re going to love him and you and Jan-Ake can talk a little…… we’re going to figure this all out.”

And that’s literally what happened. I met Jan-Ake and we spoke privately for around an hour. Victor came in and out of the conversation every now and then but it was mainly Jan-Ake and I. I think he found it interesting to hear my viewpoint on Saab as an outsider looking in and for me, to hear what had happened with Saab straight from the horse’s mouth…. the problems they faced and why … I think he was impressed that I understood some of why they were suffering.

I’ve worked for a lot of different companies and a lot of different brands and I see some of the falls, when they have something really distinctive and then they become part of a bigger company. Unfortunately, there can be a watering down, a dilution of that character. It can occur so easily. Clearly, that was what happened with Saab at the hands of GM. Not that GM didn’t want well for Saab, it’s just that GM are this giant machine and they’re very successful at doing certain things and they just pushed Saab ahead thinking it would just be successful, with their shared platforms and other things. Unfortunately, it just really wasn’t the case, it wasn’t the best for Saab. I can understand GM’s point of view: they’re a company that make nearly 10 million cars a year and Saab were such a miniscule part of that, obviously they weren’t about to prioritise things for Saab.

I guess that in the end, it was a marriage that just didn’t work out well for either company. But something good came out of it – the 9-5 is here, Saab now have their independence and the core people who are there live, breathe and eat Saab. With the combination of them, and Victor’s will to drive this, it’s a dream for me. Victor’s a car guy and I’m used to sometimes working with senior personnel who are more like money guys. There are other car guys out there as well and I’ve had the benefit of working with them, too, particularly in Italy, with their famous sports car companies – those are run by car guys and they produce this emotional, functional art.

And that’s one reason why I think Saab is so interesting, because you guys (i.e. the Saab community) are so passionate about it….

SW: Just a little bit….

JC: Yeah, and that’s great. It was so refreshing for me to see. I’d heard a little but about what you guys were doing and how you were really taking up the fight for Saab, and it was just great to see people rally behind this company. You could tell that there really was a human factor in play here.

Over the last few years, Saab has been viewed from the outside as being a bit more cold, a little removed, it didn’t seem to have that passion. But then you go to the museum and meet a guy like Peter (Backstrom, Saab museum director), for instance, and it’s just a total different image from what you expect.

SW: You mentioned Victor and his personality…. How do you cope with his intensity, because they guy doesn’t have an off switch…

JC: No, he doesn’t (laughs)…

SW: And one of his big interests is design, given that he did most of the design work on his own (Spyker) cars. So how do you cope with that sort of intensity, especially when it’s leveled at your area?

JC: Well, first of all, I thought I was intense and a pretty busy guy, until I met Victor (laughs). My friends in college used to say that I was an “11”. You know the old joke about turning it up to 11 (from Spinal Tap, the movie). Well, Victor’s a 12.

But here’s the thing about Victor – he’s super passionate and it brings such an amazing energy to everybody. You want to work for this guy. You want to do good for this guy because he’s just so excited about it, so excited about doing cool stuff.

I think that contrary to what a lot of people thought, he’s actually very hands-off when it comes to design. All of the observations he has made have been in parallel – and without any prior conversations between the two of them – with Jan-Ake. I think that’s great, I think it really shows that those two guys are really aligned in terms of what they want with product and brand.

When we’ve had discussions around design it’s really been very superficial stuff, which for me, is great. As a designer, I want to be able to sketch some big macro strokes and make sure that the key ideas – the proportion, the volume, the stance, how the car sits – are OK. Then we can sit down and talk about the grille details, the light details etc until the cows come home. That stuff, in terms of being a designer is literally the icing on the cake. I want the cake to be right first because if it’s not right, then you can put all the icing you want on it, but it’s not going to be right…

SW: Lipstick on a pig?

JC: Yeah, right.

Victor and Jan-Ake make such a great team. The really are the ying/yang. You’ve met them both so you’ve seen what I mean. They really balance each other well. It’s a lot of fun to work with those guys because they’re both very funny and they just play off each other so well. I call them Clark Kent and Superman, though, because they’re quite often not in the same place at the same time. They’re both so busy, out there beating the pavement, doing interviews and meeting with dealers, meeting with other companies about strategic alliances – they’re out there. Spreading the word that we’re here to stay, that we’re going to do great stuff etc. You’ve got to take your hat off to those two guys. They are the heart and soul of this company now.

They call themselves the dog and pony show and I like to joke that I’m the dancing monkey in the background. (laughs)

SW: I like that. I’ve got this vision of them building a travelling circus, just adding different performers over time. And it’s not too long a stretch to see Victor wearing one of those circus-style candystripe suits….

JC: He’s definitely wearing the top hat, I’m sure of that. He’s the ringleader.

SW: There’s a reasonable amount of interest in the nature of your appointment. It’s a fairly unusual arrangement, where you keep your own company running and you’re the director of Saab design at the same time.

JC: Yeah, it is an unusual arrangement, but the thing to understand here is that I (i.e. Castriota Design) don’t compete in the Saab space and to be honest, 99% of my time now is with Saab.

The building of the design company is really about branching out with my team into other fields as well. We have some other ongoing industrial design projects, we’ve had another car project that you’ve recently seen, the SSC project, and some other small consultancy jobs. So we couldn’t just leave that stuff hanging, we had contractual obligations and I wanted to be able to have that freedom to take on pet projects in my spare time because, much to the chagrin of my family, I’m a workaholic. My work is my passion and I’m really fortunate that I can work on some fun stuff. It gives me extra creativity because it lets me stretch my legs and my imagination in a different way.

Victor understood that, and the strong ties I have in the sports car world and he didn’t have a problem with it. He said “It doesn’t interfere and your #1 priority is here, as long that stuff is not done on our clock, I understand. It’s part of your career, part of your image as a growing designer.”

I would be foolish to think that I could take on much more. I can’t. We’ve had to work overtime just to close out our existing commissions because this Saab deal is all-encompassing.

So, if anything, the arrangement mainly allows for me to split time between Sweden and New York, which is where my family is, and that’s important just for personal reasons.

But it was clear that I had to become director, not just a consultant because they need a face, somebody who’s going to go out there with them and promote this company in the right way and be dedicated to it, and I am. I’m not going to run through a laundry list of car companies I can’t work for now, but there’s quite a few. So the commitment is there. It’s a special relationship. You might see some small products or things popping up that I’m associated with over the next few years and the SSC story will continue (though my work is basically done on that) but as that car comes to market over the next 18 months or so, you’ll hear my name in relation to it.

SW: Is the relationship – and I might be delving deeper than I’m allowed to here – but is the relationship set for a specific time period, or at each other’s leisure?

JC: It’s a fairly long-term deal. We’re basically set up do the whole new generation of vehicles, which will take “X” amount of years. It’s everybody’s intention to make sure this thing is a success and quite frankly, I’d like to do the next three generations of vehicles. We have a lot of flexibility in terms of how long it can go for. Right now, though, everything hinges on what we’re doing today.

The replacement for the 9-3 – please note there hasn’t been a name chosen for that car yet – that’s the bread and butter. It’s the car that has to make Saab profitable. It has to make our future. No matter how good the 9-5 does and no matter how good the 9-4x does, those two cars together will probably not reach 65% of the volume of the 9-3 replacement.

If we don’t make the right product now, if we don’t reach our goals now, then we’re all going to be looking for other things to do.

But that’s not going to be the case. We’re going to make this car happen. We’re going to do what people internally are calling the best Saab ever with unsurpassed content, great build quality, a lot of technological breakthroughs, and then there’s the new agreement with BMW for the 1.6T motor. It’s going to be a) a true Saab in the truest sense because Saab’s an independent company again, which is allowing us to push and do something different, and b) it’ll be true to the company’s roots and we’re very excited about that.

SW: That leads me to my next question, and I know we’ve covered it off in our open letters to one another – and thanks very much for the reply, by the way, because it was totally unexpected and it was in-depth, honest and thankfully, it received the level of interest and responsiveness that it deserved.

Note: Back in August 2010, I wrote an open letter to Jason Castriota, which you can read here. You can read Jason’s response to that letter here.

JC: I appreciate that. You know, I read your open letter and I was reading through some of the comments and I said to myself “well, OK, these guys don’t really know me and that’s OK. I get that”. There’s a cross section, some people saying “he just did this Mantide thing” and others noting that I worked for Pininfarina. Others saying it’s all sports cars. There was a lack of – and this is OK because it’s not in your field of interest – but there was a lack real understanding about my career, where I’ve come from and my experiences. So I figured that seeing we’re a different kind of company and seeing as how you’d had Jan-Ake and Victor respond to different things, we’ll do this in a really 21st century way. Why not have a dialogue?

And it’s been interesting because a lot of people in the industry, when my letter came out and got picked up by more mainstream blogs and sites, my colleagues started sending me emails saying “Wow, that’s crazy!” and “I can’t believe you did that, but it’s so cool” and they all thought it really took some courage to respond. I figured that you guys had some concerns and you’re the brand’s core. The last thing you want to do is alienate your core, so let’s get some things straight and then you can make your judgement.

SW: Well it was good, because what GM were very good at was holding people at arms length and what happens in that situation is that the questions – and sometimes the criticisms – just persist because you can’t get an honest answer out of anybody. So that dialogue is really valuable and there isn’t a lot of a car companies that do it. I think Saab are in a fairly unique position to be able to do that, given that they’re so small now. So thanks again for that.

JC: I couldn’t have asked for a better response. It was really satisfying.

SW: One of the things we covered in that exchange is something I thought I’d ask again now because you’re a few more weeks down the rabbit hole now. You touched on it a minute ago, but the weight of expectation around the 9-3 replacement vehicle – is that something that your eyes are more open to now?

JC: Victor and Jan-Ake, they didn’t pull any punches when they asked me to come on board. They made it very clear: this car makes or breaks us. And it’s something that Victor reiterates weekly. If this car isn’t right, we’re all gone.

I don’t think everybody wants that kind of responsibility, frankly, but it’s a responsibility that I cherish and I’m proud to take on, because I like having that kind of weight on my shoulders and I want to be successful with that.

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At this point, my dog went nuts and as it happened, there was a medical emergency at Jason’s place that necessitated him being away from the phone as well.

We got back in touch around five weeks later, on October 15, but you’ll have to wait for parts 2 and 3 for that. Coming soon.

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