Creative Automotive Design, a Perception of Quality!

by John Mellberg



“As a Creative Automotive Designer, I believe that ‘perceived quality’ is programmed into our DNA Code. It starts with a first sketch and ends with a developed and finished product. It’s the awareness of when something looks and feels right, satisfying the customers wants, needs and expectations. It fulfills design issues of style, comfort, safety, cost, emotions, feelings, passion and the identity of owner status associated with design quality—excellence! It too is the satisfying sum of the whole, parts, features and details (Exterior/Interior shape, form, line, attitude, proportion, stance colors—warm/cool, texture—smooth/rough/soft/hard, glossy/dull, voluptuous, sheer/crisp, etc.) working together to say appearance, function and performance, practical or extravagant, sport or luxury, affordable or expensive—we must have it—WOW! Of course, the effort to achieve this embraces a designers personal design instincts/awareness, creative and intuitive skills, hard work and teaming with other disciplines within an organization to realize production success. This is all very exciting and exactly what Creative Automotive Designers do best!

My involvement as Creative Automotive Design Specialist, a stand alone position at Thomas Built Buses, Inc., (a subsid. of DAIMLER Trucks North America LLC), provided an opportunity to influence, contribute to and change the design and enhance the perceived quality of a family of vehicles and an industry that has for years been blind to what design is and can do for a company and its products. School Bus vehicle design and construction is heavily regulated by both federal and state laws and standards, many if not all are creativity wise are challenging. Until recently, no one was willing to take a new look at what this conservative and complacent industry produced. Thomas Bus, DAIMLER Trucks North America management deemed it was time to change the old paradigms, replace outmoded manufacturing methods, materials and practices with more cost effective, state-of-the-art technologies. This decision opened up the door of opportunity for creative design change and product quality enhancements, the likes of which this industry had never seen before. It must be remembered that a school bus is purchased by the bid process and the low-bid gets the order! As such, these vehicles are built as cost effectively as the federal and state regulations will allow. A conventional Type ‘C’ school bus with seating for 84 passengers sells for about $60,000.00+. This clearly is a tremendous value for such a product!

It was under these constraints that formidable challenges were faced in efforts to achieve creative, innovative design change and product quality enhancements. We did however, realize objectives of evolutionary new product design development, enhanced ergonomics and safety, perceived quality improvement, cost reduction/savings, and as a result of these accomplishments, successfully increased product sales.

Provided with this descriptive are visual examples of this evolutionary product design improvement as pertains to Thomas Type ‘C,’ Type ‘D,’ and Type ‘A’ school bus vehicles during my 14+ year tenure at Thomas Built Buses, Inc. Design involvement also included researching and presenting methods, materials and practices, new to Thomas Bus and this industry, requiring fresh thinking, embracing new manufacturing facilities/processes and training of new employees to assemble Thomas vehicles.

Adhesive bonded structures, new flush bonded windshield glazing, near flush mounted drop-sash/side-lite window systems, state-of-the-art proprietary lighting systems, automotive quality injection molded plastic interior dash and trim parts (replacing vac-formed plastic and press brake formed steel parts), and enhanced vehicle driver workspace and ergonomics are all a part of our new C2 School Bus vehicles design and perceived quality initiative. The results of this provided a uniquely evolved new vehicle that clearly challenged competitors vehicles as being visually dated in their aesthetic design and perceived quality.

Also are included images of vehicles I’ve had design responsibility for while at previous employers, illustrating design initiatives for Emergency Rescue (Fire Fighting) Vehicles, Agricultural/Construction Vehicles and Automobiles. All of these have had creative design, ergonomic and perceived quality improvements that enhanced the companys image, its products brand identity, product reliability, sales and profitability. These other industries however, do not live under the extremely severe and often limiting cost constraints unique to the school bus Industry. Their product ‘life cycles’ are on the order of 3-5 year design change intervals, and their customer base is more receptive to creative design innovation and change in new products. School Bus ‘life cycles’ are much longer.

Creative design is a visual reality, where pictures clearly are worth a 1000 words. I would hope that these written insights and the accompanying folio of pictures visually portrays my diverse involvement with vehicle creative design, and its associated perception of quality, across a range of transportation industry vehicles that have benefited from this creative design input while giving credence to the scope of my professional background and experience.”

1983-1990 Director of Design, Vehicle Improvement Products

“When working at VIP, I consulted for Ford AG Tractors of England, Massey Ferguson Tractors (UK), both AG & CE vehicles, J.I. Case/CASE Corp., JCB/J.C. Bamford Company (CE-Construction Vehicles in UK), Harley Davidson (on an ‘all weather’ version of the Tri-Hawk that Dave Stollery had originally done), Allis Chalmers AG Tractors, Douglas Manufacturing, GKN Sankey (UK Cab manufacturer), CASE-David Brown Tractors (UK) and Mercury Marine to name but a few.”


1993-1997 Manager of Design, Emergency One, Inc.



1997–present Creative Automotive Design Specialist, Daimler Trucks, N.A.


League of Retired Automotive Designers



Model Making



“In the gallery is my 1:36 scale, 22′ long flying model of the Graf Zeppelin. The building of this model is what got Universal Studios/Robert Wise interested in my project, as they were planning to make the movie Hindenburg in the 1970s. I provided Wise and his team with drawings, photos, and contacts in Germany that would be helpful to their movie making research and their own scale model building of the D-LZ 129 Hindenburg.

I presently serve as Exhibits Design, Director at Large, with the Mitchell Gallery of Flight Museum, at General Billy Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hanging outside the Museum entrance is a 1:8th scale of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis that my father, Frank W. Mellberg made and flew as an RC model, and donated it to the Museum for display, along with a model of the Hamilton Aircraft, which he and modeler/friend, Joe Salentiny built for display in the museum.”


    I never had the opportunity to work with John. It appears he found his calling elsewhere than GM and had gone on to do a great job in the design field. Hey, Gary, you have done a great job as well and your Dean’s Garage is, in my opinion, possibly the best out there. Pete

  2. The second row of designs regarding “Emergency One” looks very much like the designs Mattel used for a series of futuristic Hot Wheels’ trucks that were available around 1969/70. I think Tonka may have had some similar designs. Any connection?

  3. Gary,
    Thank you for far exceeding my expectations for a ‘showing’ of some things I’ve been involved with during the course of my career. You did a great job putting parts 1 & 2 together! Hopefully this serves as an incentive to my fellow members of the Automotive Designers Guild, and non-members alike, to gather up examples of things they’ve done during their careers and send them to you for showing. It’s interesting to see the variety of work from individuals, and I’m still captivated by designer’s work shown before me. I’ve visit Pete Maier’s posting on several occasions, still amazed and in awe of his masterful works of art and creative design. Not knowing what your future showings will be is exciting unto itself, and perhaps the best is yet to come? I also want to say ‘thank you’ to the ‘responses’ received. I’m grateful to those who did so, and appreciate your kind and insightful comments. Humbly submitted, -John M.

  4. David Vittitow

    I had the privilege of working with John on the E-ONE project. He guided me through the building of the mockup cab. The picture of the unpainted cab has me inside working on the interior details. We had a good time on that project.

  5. John M. Mellberg

    To Dave Vittitow’s recent comments: The pleasure of working together was mutual, we were a team. Nothing I threw at Dave to fabricate daunted him, everything was possible to do, which really helped our E-One Daytona Emergency Rescue Vehicle
    become a reality. Dave was a skilled craftsman, talented and resourceful as a modeler, one of the best I’ve ever worked with, and a good friend too.

    John M. Mellberg

  6. Schalk

    I’m so glad this popped up again. I remember reading this a good while back, but this time I remembered having (at some point in school) figuring out why buses always looked dated and similar – made out of metal sheet cladding and that it must have had something to do with costs and parts available.

    By now I’d have seen tonnes of concept cars and even more than a handful of images showing fibreglass moulding for some concepts, kit cars or boats, but understood little yet of the process yet and I thought it was expensive.

    So, cool as concept cars might have been, when I saw some of these designs as a kid for buses and trucks I thought only one thing: THAT is impossibly cool!

    Amazing work John.

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