Klaus Busse, head of interior design for the Chrysler Group, highlights changes in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Patriot in the product design center at the automaker's headquarters in Michigan. -AP PHOTO
Klaus Busse can laugh now about his first trip to the Texas State Fair in 2005 to study how pickup owners drove and worshiped their rigs.
The tall, skinny German was in charge of designing the interior for the 2009 Ram 1500.
"I thought I had seen it all," said Busse, who started his career designing the interiors of Mercedes-Benz models. "How difficult could
a truck be?" But he arrived wearing a pink Polo shirt and white tennis shoes - not exactly the kind of look that draws a "Howdy, cowboy" reaction.
Imagine a young man from Dallas showing up at Oktoberfest in cowboy boots and jeans instead of lederhosen.
"That changed my perspective on what trucks are," Busse said. "It was life-changing."
His colleagues still poke fun at his wardrobe choice that day, but not the final product. The redesigned 2009 Ram 1500 interior won awards, and Busse became known as one of Chrysler's most talented designers.
Some also questioned another, far more important, choice that Busse made. In 2007, he stayed at Chrysler after Daimler sold the company to Cerberus Capital Management instead of returning home to Germany.
"A lot of people thought I was flat-out stupid, including my wife's parents," Busse said. "Throwing away a career at Mercedes for what seemed to be a sinking ship here at Chrysler."
Busse had just spent three years working on the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Chrysler 300 and the Ram pickup. He wanted to see those projects through to completion. He also liked the open, collaborative corporate culture at Chrysler.
Today, Busse is head of interior design for Chrysler. After his boss, Ralph Gilles, Busse has become Chrysler's most highly regarded designer.
"In the last three to four years, Chrysler has turned out some of the best interiors it has ever made," said Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for Cars.com. "It is extraordinary how bad they were, and how good they now are."
Staying with Chrysler as it crashed through Chapter 11 bankruptcy was not a choice free of second thoughts. Yet fighting for survival changes one's outlook.
"You stop planning 10 years in advance, or even 10 months ahead," Busse said. "You start planning 10 weeks ahead."
Busse was named head of interior design in June 2009 just as Chrysler exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy. With Fiat in control of Chrysler, Busse and his interior team revamped the interiors of 16 cars and trucks in 18 months. There wasn't time for second-guessing.
People learned to trust their instincts and each other. "Going through the bankruptcy process is what enabled us to take on all the work that was ahead," Busse said.
Last year, industry analysts gave Busse's team high marks for the interior of the Dodge Dart, especially a distinctive seven-inch cluster to display speed, mileage, fuel levels and other information. Busse said a large, eggshaped cluster was possible because engineers were more willing to listen to designers.
"In the past we would get a black box and try to design around it, and it looks out of place," Busse said. "Now, technology is really part of the design."
More recently, the interior design crew tweaked the inside of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
SEE MORE REVIEWS ONLINE AT CARS.TIMESFREEPRESS.COM