By now, you’ve seen plenty of images of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, including our kudos on this site (here and here). This most powerful Corvette ever is widely admired for its 450-horsepower engine and under-four-second 0-to-60-mph time. It’s also expected to be the most fuel-efficient Corvette yet, trumping the EPA-estimated 26 mpg of the current model. When you open the doors, you’ll also admire the way it looks and feels inside, and that’s where Helen Emsley comes in.
She’s the director of interior design for performance cars, full-size trucks, and large crossovers for Chevrolet and GMC. I talked to her in New York City in January, where she was on hand at the introduction of the 2014 Corvette Stingray there at a celebration of the Vette’s sixtieth anniversary.
A native of Great Britain, Emsley has been with General Motors for twenty-three years. She started in college studying textile design, but her perspective changed after entering a competition at the Royal College of Art in London in which the challenge was to create a range of interior fabrics for an automobile.
“We were allowed to pick the company and product, so I picked the Ford Escort,” she says. Emsley won and was awarded a place in the master’s degree program for transport design.
The next big step was meeting General Motors design chief Wayne Cherry and getting a job at the Opel design studios in Russelsheim, Germany, in 1989. During her eleven-year position as a color and trim designer for GM Europe, Emsley contributed to many vehicles, including the Cadillac Catera and the Opel Astra and Vectra.
When Cherry asked Emsley to move to North America to manage GM’s color and trim studio in Warren, Michigan, she obliged. In 2006, she became GM’s global director of color and trim.
Did you originate the position of global director of color and trim?
Me being me, I went to see my boss, Ed Welburn [vice president of global design], and said, “We are telling everyone we are going global, and that is not happening on the color and trim side. We don’t want different whites or silvers. We need to appoint a global person over everyone.” He asked me, “Do you want it?” And I said, “Yes.”
When did you take over designing the interior of the 2014 Corvette Stingray?
Five years ago, [Welburn] called me into his office. He said he wanted to put me into the studios to head up the Corvette and Camaro trim and interior.
What were the expectations for this supercar?
We were given carte blanche. The big goal is that we wanted this cockpit, jet feel… Everyone loved having the cockpit wrapped around him or her. For me, it was important to have real aluminum, real carbon fiber. Our biggest issue was matching up surfaces. I didn't want to show any cutlines. Even the center-mounted eight-inch screen slides in the car into a cubbyhole. It’s pretty neat. And the co-driver has their own controls for heat and cooling and a grip handle that they can actually hold on to.
We wanted a really nice red that matches the red exterior, and we added a medium sandy beige and dark brown to our five interior colors. We also changed the carpet to looped pile. And notice the seats: they are not puffy. They are slimmer! Instead of hiding the airbags behind vinyl, we designed the shell backs right around the technology.
You say that you took a group approach to the design.
It’s easy to sketch something and pass it on to an engineer, but I got everyone together in the same room. We found out very quickly what would work. We built a full-size model and invited the plant manager in to the design process. I said, “I need your help. I want it to work!” Everyone was fantastic.
You are surrounded by men who are Corvette enthusiasts. How does that affect you?
[This was] my biggest hindrance with not growing up in this country: I did not have the connection to the Corvette. The guys around this car have known about it for a long time. I used not having the history to my advantage. I didn’t go in with the fear of changing something because I wasn’t afraid to push.
Did any of the men try to go up against your design ideas? This is a male-type car.
No one ever threw it to me on this vehicle. We were all after the same goals.