RUSSELSHEIM - Hideo Kodama saw little opportunity to become a car designer in his native Japan in the mid-1960s, so he applied at General Motors and started work for Adam Opel in Germany.
He has never looked back. As design director for GM's Gamma small car platform, he is responsible for styling the successor to the globally popular Corsa.
Kodama was also chief designer on the current Corsa. That one became a world-car almost accidentally. When the Corsa was in development in the early 1990s, no one in top management predicted the global appeal the rounded and roomy little car would have. Ten years later, one million Corsas are sold each year around the world.
The car is now built in South America, South Africa, Mexico and Asia, as well as Europe. In Brazil GM even makes a tiny pickup version. But back then, Kodama was one of the few people who sensed how universally appealing the Corsa could be.
This time the new car will be designed and engineered to sell everywhere in the world except North America.
'It was surprising how things turned out,' says Kodama, sitting amid a jumble of sketches and car design posters in his glass-enclosed office. 'Corsa is a good product, ageless and timeless.'
The first Corsa, a boxy model introduced in 1982, could not compete with cars like the Peugeot 205, which women found especially appealing. Kodama knew what European buyers liked; Opel had shown a concept car called Junior in 1983 that hinted at the Corsa B's appearance.
'We took that design language,' Kodama says. 'We made a car that was `huggable'. We decided that, as an entry model, it had to appeal to young people and have a European and German essence.'
To give the Corsa a modern look, Kodama made it more aerodynamic and gave it more of Opel's traditional styling cues.
'Over the years Opel's designs changed quite a bit,' he said. 'But we didn't want to make small Chevrolets. We put more German flavor into our cars, made them more solid, more substantial.'
By the mid-1980s, critics said Opel lost the distinctive look it had in the 1970s -with three-dimensional headlamps - known as 'the Opel face.'
'A sedan or sports car had the same design language in the front, side and back. You could see it was an Opel product,' says Kodama.
The second-generation Corsa in 1993 revived the trend.
The replacement is due in two years. Kodama hinted that the car won't be a radical departure from today's model. 'You have to think about the customers,' he says, 'what they want and how they use the Corsa.'
Kodama still dreams about making 'more personal cars.'
'We have to build in big volumes. You have to sacrifice many things,' he says. 'But in the future we will need more niche and personal cars. This is where we can show our talents.'
A music and art lover, Kodama draws inspiration for designs from fashion, architecture, art, and competing cars. 'It's a mixture of influences.'
Living in Germany and working for a GM subsidiary also affects his work. 'You could put a different culture into our designs,' he says. 'But we work for Opel and the brand and image comes from being German.'
Kodama says he has lived in Europe so long that he notices the influence when he goes home to Japan to visit. 'I can see things more globally. Japan is getting more global. But if you look at car companies in Japan, they are still quite local.'