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A person with goals in life knows no obstacles.
I unknowingly embraced my career with intention in elementary school, when I started drawing horses with great passion (I competed in equitation tournaments for years, starting at age 10). That passion for horses was surpassed only by my passion for cars, when I built one in high school with my father. By mixing my love for both drawing and cars, my life was catapulted into a completely unknown profession called car design.
At age 16, I discovered a poster of a spectacularly futuristic car, which changed my life. With no Google back in 1972, I had to search many public libraries to find out it was called the Lancia Stratos Prototype Zero, designed by Bertone, in Torino, Italy. This tiny window into Italian car design opened a giant world for me, which became the catalyst for my entire career.
Over and above the beauty of that Stratos, the one thing stuck in my mind was the door. The 83cm tall, radical wedge shaped car used the windshield as a door, which opened like a crocodile! I discovered in that one magic moment, that rules could be broken, and I started dreaming.
I played basketball for the University of Washington, where I learned many things about extreme competition and teamwork. College degrees in fine arts and industrial design, plus a disappointing summer internship at the Ford Design Center in Dearborn, Michigan helped me understand a bit more about the American car design world.
The day after graduation, I left for Europe, but before arriving in Torino, Italy, home of Italian car design, I decided it would be a good idea to interview at every single car design center in Europe. Italy was my last stop on this 6-month tour, because that is where I had set my sights as a 16 year old. Once I set foot in Italy, I felt everything was so chaotic, so wonderfully energetic, and I knew I had reached my first milestone. A piece of my dream had come true.
But no one ever tells you about the pain of adapting to a new country, new language, and new culture. I spoke no Italian, and had no money. My first job paid $250 per month, and I stopped eating the last few days of every month for lack of money, but I didn’t care. I was finally doing exactly what I had been dreaming about for years.
I changed jobs often, including working freelance, and finally designed my first concept car (inside and out) for Ghia, 5 years after arriving in Italy, at age 28. At age 40, I was promoted as Design Director at the Lancia Design Center (the same brand on the poster car I discovered as a boy), so I had reached another milestone in my dream.
My new, talented young designers at Lancia were all surprisingly depressed and demotivated. I couldn’t believe it! I was sky high! My first thought was to show them my 24-year dream! I had a friend at Bertone bring the “poster car” Lancia Stratos Zero to my new design center, and I had every designer drive it. They were shocked! I told them I wanted every project we do to have this level of passion.
They caught on quickly, and created a world-leading concept car called the Lancia Dialogos, one of the very first autonomous cars in the world, presented in 1998. The Dialogos was then transformed into the Lancia Thesis production sedan, and the Lancia Giubileo, Pope John Paul II’s personal limousine.
I learned that it was possible to approach my role within a giant corporation as an internal entrepreneur, offering proactive suggestions instead of simply obeying orders from above. Top executives are all humans, who must listen to those around them, and make decisions depending on their gut reactions. Motivating execs to change their mind means breaking the rules, (and taking risks), but the alternative is leading a “couch potato” career, with nothing lost, and nothing gained.
My final milestone was achieved when I became the Design Director at Bertone (where the Stratos Zero was designed), and I too became part of history, designing many extremely innovative cars for Bertone.
During my 39 years in Italy, I have been fired 5 times! I believe in staying true to what you believe in, even if it is unpopular, even if it gets you fired. It takes a tremendous effort to get back up on your horse after falling off, and continue your journey/career, time after time. Some people are more diplomatic, and obtain more than I have in my career, but we all pay a price for our intentions, or lack thereof.
I believe the automobile world is a better place thanks to my contribution, thanks to my intentions, from my school days to my upcoming retirement.
My suggestion to others is: to keep your feet solidly on the ground (hard work), and your eyes on the horizon (Christopher Columbus style). The waves of life will inevitably knock you off your planned course from time to time, but if we stay focused on our dreams, true to our intentions, they will eventually become realities, and hopefully change the world.
Mike is still designing cars and can be reached via email.