My Car Quest

May 30, 2024

The Triumph of A Minimalist Designer: Franz von Holzhausen

by Wallace Wyss –

One thing I relish in my role as automotive reporter is meeting car designers. Rarely have I met one coming closest to his dream than tall quiet Franz von Holzhausen.

He is the son of a designer so he grew up with dad’s drawing tools within reach. He first went to Syracuse University and graduated followed by going to the Art Center College. From there he went to work for VW where he was involved with the new Beetle, an iconic car, which I think captured the Zeitgeist of the original.

Franz von Holzhausen

From there it was on to Mazda where he did two concept cars and then GM where his designs for the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky were approved and produced. About that time, at an auto show, he met a fresh faced “boy wonder” from South Africa, a wanna-be car builder who hadn’t in fact at that point in time yet built a single car. He promised Franz his creations, in short order, would rule the electric car world.

He offered Franz the job of chief designer. One where he would be In on the Ground Floor so to speak (He didn’t tell Franz that the design office would be in a tent out in the parking lot of another business he owned).

Now Franz knew he could stay at GM and live a comfortable life but, truth be told, he was a tad miffed at GM, feeling the purity of some of his designs were compromised too much. To him, this new employer, Elon Musk, sounded like a guy who would give him free rein, let him develop his own designs without much interference. A place where he could try to see his minimalist designs come to fruition. (Minimalist meaning a pure shape, form follows function Bauhaus philosophy and all that).

The plan they came up with was a series of cars, all of which would keep the body shape constant but be updated in details only when necessary and maybe have newer or optional interiors. Fortunately for Franz, the wheeler dealer was not broke. His “side hustle” was building rockets. Not for the 4th of July, but rockets that could reach America’s space capsules.

Franz von Holzhausen Tesla

The first Tesla car was already designed by Lotus at the time Franz accepted the job, so he started designing a family car, the Model S. It was such a success, it made the company’s future and they are now the leading seller of cars in some countries like Norway. They have left GM’s electric car plans in the dust (Oh, GM had the Bolt but it’s in limbo, because of a tendency toward self-immolation…)

Tesla’s philosophy of minimalism, of giving a car only what it needs and not having year-by-year styling updates like GM’s planned obsolesce strategy from the Fifties is changing American auto history. No Tesla buyers are saying “But that’s a design over 10 years old. Instead they’re saying “I’ve been waiting two years–when am I going to get my car?”

In fact Franz was glad to see the fake grille he had designed on the first Model S disappear because it interfered with the purity of his design. The car potential buyers are waiting for now is the Tesla roadster, no longer a roadster, actually a targa coupe. It has been a prototype so long it had to be redesigned. It will be a car with performance that could put most Ferraris on the trailer (like 250 mph?). But meanwhile two of his other Tesla designs have to reach production first–the semi and the Cybertruck pickup. Those have also been promised for years. There are two more Tesla factories coming on line in 2022 in addition to the first two working 24 hours a day so maybe if the orders for the regular sedans can be filled, Tesla can finally turn to these specialty vehicles.

I read in a real estate column that Franz and his wife Vicki bought a Richard Neutra-designed house in Montecito, a prized specimen of the famous architect’s work, for $12 million. So now he’s collecting great architecture (this in addition to his $23.1 million dollar home in Malibu’s Encinal Bluffs neighborhood) so I am glad to see a designer being so adequately paid while still only two thirds of the way through his career. I feel he has changed the public’s view of planned obsolesce–I am afraid we, the American public, bought Harley Earl’s schtick long enough. Now we find that changing the height of the tailfins from year to year to make us dis-satisfied with “last year’s model” doesn’t matter anymore (though you have to admit Earl’s “Dagmar” bumpers on Cadillacs were fun…)

Pedal to the metal, Franz….. we got your back.

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss, author of 18 car histories, has been a guest lecturer at the Art Center College of Design.


Franz von Holzhausen

Tesla Semi Truck

The Triumph of A Minimalist Designer: Franz von Holzhausen
Article Name
The Triumph of A Minimalist Designer: Franz von Holzhausen
One thing I relish in my role as automotive reporter is meeting car designers. Rarely have I met one coming closest to his dream than tall quiet Franz von Holzhausen.

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