Acura design chief Dave Marek; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

Click here to see more of Dave Marek’s Hot Rod art

More hot rod art by other artists can be seen here

At first meeting, Acura’s Chief Designer Dave Marek seems an unlikely automotive executive. What you notice are the ponytail (you read that right), the big smile, the casual style, and his willingness to talk enthusiastically about cars of any type, manufacture and vintage.

True, Acuras and Hondas feature prominently in that discussion. You can’t stay with a car manufacturer for almost 20 years, rising to Chief Designer and Senior Manager of the Auto Styling Group at Honda Research and Development, Americas, without knowing how to balance your passion for cars with the demands of the corporate world.

Big Gasser
His & Hearse
Cop Out 2
Dave Marek’s hot rod designs: Big Gasser (top), His & Hearse (middle) and Cop Out 2; images courtesy Dave Marek and Click image to enlarge

But replace Marek’s business suit with a Hawaiian shirt, so to speak, and he transforms from designer of mainstream luxury performance vehicles like the Acura TL and RDX, to bona-fide California hot-rod guru, creator of the Big Gasser, Sweet Sixteen, His and Hearse and Cop Out 2.

“Oh, yeah, it’s a definite yin and yang thing with me,” said Marek. “That’s exactly it, and it’s because I totally love cars: all kinds, always have.”

Dave Marek started drawing cars at the age of three. When he was a child and teenager in Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, his neighbours were hot rod legends Dick Bertilucci and Don Tognotti, both of whom worked with California custom car icons George and Sam Barris.

“It was my dad who told me about the Art Center College of Design in
Pasedena, and kind of nudged me towards it,” Marek explained. “Once I got in it was like, ‘I’m home.'”

Marek’s celebrated automotive fine art, custom model building, vast scale-model collection (he has 1,500 die-cast and about 3,000 plastic models), production of graphics for C.A.R.T. and American Le Mans racing cars – including the Honda and Acura team graphics – are, he says, exercises in pure fun.

In contrast, his “day job” for Acura and Honda requires approximately 100 employees divided into specialist teams, with work proceeding through planned stages from flights of fancy, to mainstream cars for suburban driveways.

Acura RDX design sketch
Acura RDX design sketch
Acura RDX design sketch; images courtesy Acura. Click image to enlarge

“Like the hot rods, designs for Acura can start out real wild, but you soon rein in the urge to get crazy,” said Marek. “Still, I want Acura to have more of its own identity and distinctiveness.”

To that end, Honda’s January 2006 announcement of a dedicated Acura design studio to be built next to Honda R&D Americas’ headquarters in Torrance, California, should further differentiate Acura from Honda. The initiative coincides with Acura’s expansion from a North American division of Honda, to a global brand.

As Design Chief at the new facility, Marek will oversee a design environment where new directions for the Acura marque can be explored. That doesn’t mean hot rod hood scoops, or chopped and channelled bodywork for Acuras, but this is not a man short of novel ideas.

2007 Acura RDX
2007 Acura RDX; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The 2007 Acura RDX sport utility is a case in point. It’s the first turbocharged North American Honda product, and its development reveals the design sequence behind the scenes at Honda R&D Americas, and is an indication of Acura’s look for the future.

“We start with its stance,” Mr. Marek explained, “And build up from there. Just like building a house, you start with the foundation.”

From sketches on paper to 3D modelling software to a full-size scale model, the design team develops a concept version, which is initially hand-built and shown on the auto show circuit. The RD-X (note the hyphen designating the vehicle as a concept) was first displayed at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit way back in 2002. Targetted at “youthful, urban professionals,” the production RDX was always imagined as rugged- but-elegant urban transportation, and a weekend sport machine. But the first version was a wild Acura, all bulging fender flares, big wheels, stealth panels and dramatic glass.

“With a concept, the designer has to push the envelope,” explained Marek. “We’re not doing our job if we play it safe in the initial creative stages, but we know that ultimately it’s going to get toned down.”

Acura RD-X concept
Acura RD-X concept
Acura RD-X concept
Acura RD-X concept; photos courtesy Acura. Click image to enlarge

So it was that in 2005, Acura presented the second iteration of the RD-X in Detroit. It still looked dramatic and distinctive – especially with the tangerine-coloured, crocodile-embossed leather interior, rosewood floor and cool blue instrumentation – but after meetings in California and Japan, and numerous focus groups, this RD-X was much closer to being “market ready.” Finally, at the 2006 NAIAS, the 2007 Acura RDX Prototype debuted.

“It’s still got the big 19-inch wheels, the tight gaps between the wheels and fenders, the tough feel,” says Marek. “And it’s got that central, chiselled, line from the TSX. As far as the surfaces go, we’re looking at where the sun hits the car; what kind of highlights does it produce; where are the shadows?”

According to Marek, the grille is the strongest identifier for any brand. The headlights add character, he says, but, “The grille is the money shot.” To that end, all Acuras have the pentagram grille, typically with a centre break, but it doesn’t have to be the same in every model.

2007 Acura RDX - grille detail
2007 Acura RDX – grille detail; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

“Don’t laugh,” says Marek, “But at one point we thought of actually exposing the turbocharger through the hood, so you could see the all the cool technology that’s hidden from view.”

Although that wasn’t practical, if you take a look at the front of the RDX, you’ll see a clever compromise, where simulated vortex diffusers in the Acura grille suggest the airflow that leads directly to the turbocharger’s intercooler.

“It’s kind of like a hood scoop, really. It’s just built into the Acura grille!” Marek explains.

Maybe an Acura hot rod isn’t that far away, after all. Look for the Acura design studio to open in early 2007.

Connect with