In any roomful of Detroit auto executives, the man most responsible for the dramatic interior improvements of Chrysler Group’s vehicles stands out dramatically.
Klaus Busse is tall and lanky with giant hands and an outsized smile. His standard attire is a light-gray windbreaker worn over a faded T-shirt and jeans. The 43-year-old’s spiky hair and soul patch–the small square of brown whiskers between his lower lip and pointed chin–are as distinctive to his outsized persona as is his still-strong German accent.
But the attribute that makes Chrysler’s head of interior design really stand out is that he chose to stay in Detroit for a trip through bankruptcy hell so he could help with the automaker’s resurrection.
A designer and top manager for former Chrysler owner Daimler AG, Busse volunteered to come to Chrysler in 2005 with his wife, Anja, and young sons, Paul and Oskar, for a two-year stint under an executive exchange program.
When his countrymen washed their hands of Daimler’s Chrysler experiment in 2007 and sold it to Cerberus Capital Management, Busse chose to stay in Detroit.
“It wasn’t Chrysler that gave up on Mercedes,” says Busse, who started his career in Stuttgart with a pair of Daimler internships. “It was Mercedes that gave up on Chrysler.”
Busse became a proud ex-pat, happier with the outsized contribution he makes here than with the promise of career security in Germany.
“If I had gone back to Mercedes, I could have probably contributed to Mercedes picking up another 2 percent improvement in their interiors, or something like that,” Busse says. “But I felt like I just had put in three years of my life here at Chrysler, and worked on all this new product and I wanted to see it come to market. I wanted to be part of this underdog turnaround.”
Busse says his interior design team’s close-up view of Chrysler’s near-death in 2009 and subsequent revival now inspires them to push every design envelope, taking no component for granted.
“It creates a work environment where you just hunker down,” Busse explained after showing off the luxurious leather interior of the 2013 SRT Viper. “It creates this special team spirit because everyone wants you to fail, and you’re clearly marked as the underdog–maybe worse than the underdog–and you think: ‘You know what? We’re going to show you.'”
Chrysler has ticked off 31 consecutive months of year-over-year sales gains with a lineup that looks little changed from early 2009, at least on paper. For Chrysler and its dealers, the biggest differences between its lineups in 2009 and today come down to two upgrades: improved quality and vastly improved interiors.
The company’s initial warranty claims have dropped by 60 percent since 2007. And Truecar.com analyst Jesse Toprak says upgraded Chrysler Group interiors are driving higher sales.
“If you look at Chrysler’s interiors prior to their latest models, they lagged virtually every automaker, including the other domestics,” Toprak says. But improved designs and upgraded materials “have not only brought more domestic conquests but also some import buyers that used to never give Chrysler a chance.”
Chrysler’s improved quality has many parents: a better trained work force, better supplier relations and a sound financial footing. But the company’s single-minded focus to improve the cabins of its vehicles came primarily from design chief Ralph Gilles and Busse, his chief interior lieutenant, when the two men were working on what would become the highly regarded re-engineer of the 2009 Dodge Ram.
“Ralph wanted to change interiors, and he wanted to change it on the pickup truck,” Busse says. Chrysler had just been stung by a Wall Street Journal review of the 2008 Chrysler Sebring that called the car “a veritable chalice of wretchedness … all cast in plastic worthy of a Chinese water pistol.”
Top executives, including former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, endorsed Gilles’ radical plan to have a design team that specialized solely on interiors. Most automakers have multiple design teams, many of which view exteriors as the ultimate creative expression and interiors as leftover work.
Gilles turned to the lanky German–whom he called “one of the best designers in the world”–to lead the effort, even as the old Chrysler grew sicker every day in 2008 and early 2009. Busse kept the interiors job even as Cerberus took Chrysler into bankruptcy in April 2009 and new owner Fiat S.p.A. came onto the scene two months later in June.
Chrysler’s push to dramatically improve its interiors started with the redesigned 2009 Dodge Ram pickup.
“We had to beef up the steering wheel to make it bigger and wrap it in fine leather. It’s the one piece that you hold all the time, so that’s where we spend our money,” Busse says, his long fingers wrapping around an imaginary circle in front of his chest. “The instrument cluster’s very important to us, too, because that’s where we show that we’re an American brand. And the materials have really been upgraded–the really fine leathers, the open-grained wood.”
The plastic is still there, Busse says. The difference is that now Chrysler’s designers pour effort into every component, even a small black mat in the Viper’s center stack.
“Plastic is plastic, and it’s the same price if I put in a design or I just make it flat. And you’ll see with the cars that are about to come out, you’ll see the attention to detail even in the plastic,” Busse says.
The Viper’s mat contains a molded image of the Laguna Seca racetrack, a Mecca for Viper owners, which cost Chrysler the same as if the mat was plain.
“One thing is just a flat black piece of plastic; one is a work of art,” Busse says. “That’s the interiors team that I’m happy to be the face of, the team that comes up with ideas and says, ‘You know, we can do better.'”
Look closely: That’s the Laguna Seca track molded into the SRT Viper’s storage bin mat.
The attitude that allows designers to mold a famous raceway into a storage bin or to hide a tiny military vehicle in the tint strip of a Jeep’s windshield comes from the freedom of past failures, Busse explains.
His interiors team “has the confidence to go after things that we wouldn’t have done before,” he says. Their 80-hour workweeks in 2009 and 2010 for Chrysler Group’s freshening of 16 models “was all about materials, and now we’re able to start having more fun with these designs.”
The hardest thing now is maintaining the culture that sprouted as Daimler and Cerberus and even bankruptcy gave way to current corporate parent Fiat S.p.A.
“A lot of my energy, and Ralph’s, too, goes into making sure that the culture that we created in those dark days, that we don’t lose that,” Busse says. “The worst thing that could happen is a person gets cocky and arrogant. It’s our job and my job to make sure no one forgets what we’ve gone through, and stay humble.”