Automotive designer Carlos Salaff gets goosebumps just from looking into the analog cockpits of 1960s-era Formula 1 racecars. That raw excitement combined with the design of the machine inspires the art he strives to create.

By Michael Peters

Carlos Salaff

An unassuming metal building on the outskirts of Akron may not conjure up images of futuristic supercars, but don’t the best stories of American innovation somehow always start in a garage?

This particular garage houses one of the world’s most advanced 3D printers. It’s so big that it can print the body of a car – in this case, a supercar designed by Shaker Heights resident Carlos Salaff.

After a decade working on futuristic concepts and every-day vehicles for Mazda in California, Carlos relocated in 2013 to Shaker Heights with his wife Jennifer and two young children. But it wasn’t the 3D printer that brought him here; it was the suggestion of his parents who have been Shaker Heights residents for over two decades.

Creativity runs deep through the Salaff family, encouraged by Carlos’ grandfather, an engineer with a deep appreciation for the arts. His uncle is a metal sculptor and his aunt was Vera Neumann, known for her colorful textiles that hung in the Truman White House and scarves worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe. His father, Peter, is director of String Chamber Music Studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music and was a founding member of the Grammy-award winning Cleveland Quartet.

Carlos grew up in Rochester, New York, where his father taught at the Eastman School of Music. While it was not immediately clear how his own creativity would manifest itself, he knew that he was drawn to fast vehicles – rockets, airplanes, Formula 1 racecars – and the excitement of air travel with his family.

“As an elementary school kid I had the good fortune of traveling a lot with my father, a perk of his musical career,” he says. “We often flew over the Colorado Rockies in a Convair 580, headed to the Aspen music festival. I always asked to get a window seat overlooking the engines, so I could look at the turboprop engines – especially the propellers.”

Carlos built models of that plane every summer for several years. “I found the details of the machine itself absolutely beautiful. The louvers, the shape of the engine fairings, the propeller blades, the nose cones. In flight, that plane was so loud and violent that you could barely hear yourself speak. It rumbled and rattled. But it was so alive! That plane was the pinnacle of analog, mechanical. The cockpit was full of dials, knobs, and levers.

I get similar goosebumps peering into the cockpits of 1960s-era Formula 1 cars. Analog gauges, toggle switches, manual shifter. Total connection between pilot and machine. That raw, visceral excitement combined with the artistry of the machine inspires the art I strive to create.”

Hooked on Concept Cars

His travels also included spending his senior year of high school in France. This further expanded his exposure to art and design. As he explored opportunities on his return, he was encouraged to visit an automotive design show in Pasadena. There he saw how art is an integral part of the car design process, and soon after he enrolled in the ArtCenter College of Design, widely regarded as the top industrial design program in the U.S.

After internships at Mazda and BMW, he began his career as a full-time designer at Mazda Design America in Irvine, California. There he worked on several U.S.-specific designs as well as tailoring certain Japanese models for the U.S. market. He worked on the design of the 2017 MX-5 Miata and played an influential role in the design of the CX-7 crossover SUV.

Carlos Salaff

He also worked on the design team that won awards for the Mazda concept cars Ryuga, Kaan, and Nagare. Designing concept cars was his favorite activity – as he describes them, “living sculpture” or “dynamic architecture” both inside and out.

Concept cars capture the artistic spirit of car design and stoke excitement and passion among car enthusiasts. For designers, these projects are the ultimate opportunity to create an object that can be sleek, elegant, futuristic, artistic – a myriad of things – but nearly always “cool.”

As Carlos explains, “You don’t have to be a designer to know when a design is intrinsically cool – you may not be able to articulate why but you simply know it.”

But if you are in fact a designer then you have to justify why a design isn’t just cool, but will also sell a few hundred thousand cars. The hard reality of modern corporate culture can quickly turn a concept car into a family sedan with a slightly cool spoiler on the trunk.

Another reality of corporate life is that most positions are highly specialized by task: designers design, engineers engineer. And even within these silos there is further specialization, from the engine team to chassis team to body team. But if your passion is cars – cool cars – you don’t want to be in a silo, you want a hand in every part of the process from the shape of the door, to the dashboard knobs, to the number of cylinders up front. Or maybe mid-engine….

The Caden Collection

In 2012 Carlos had a chance to set out on his own to make those decisions, all of them. By the time he moved to Shaker in 2013 he had the design for the first in a series of what he calls “bespoke” cars, to be called the SALAFFDesign Caden Collection – real concept cars that would really be on the road. The first model, the Caden, or C1, celebrates vintage cars with a hand-formed aluminum skin and an analog, visceral driving experience.

As a prototype is meant to do, work on the C1 has helped to refine Carlos’ design and manufacturing approach. A second line, the C2, is designed for production by small batch manufacturers. It has an aluminum chassis, a 5.0-liter V10 engine, and carbon fiber and aluminum body panels. This model – street legal like all of the designs – can also be used for club racing. A third model, the C3, moves the engine to the front and is also designed for a V10.

Carlos Salaff

Work in progress on the SALAFFDesign C1 supercar.

And this is where the massive 3D printer re-enters the story.

While we think of our cars as being built by the likes of Mazda, BMW, and Ford, in reality these companies assemble
the car from components supplied by a number of vendors such as TRW, Bosch, and Eaton.

The largest of these components are the chassis and the body panels. These are often made by the car company because the testing, engineering, and regulatory considerations require a lot of attention, resources, and time.

A small manufacturer could purchase the components from a vendor like TRW, and could purchase the engine and chassis from a car company. But the body panels are not as easy. They are formed in stamping plants that require large presses and lots of labor. The presses are expensive to buy and operate, and the molds used in them are also expensive and unique to each body panel. So why not just buy these too?

For two related reasons. The first is that a small, innovative manufacturer’s goal is to build something new, different, and better. That would be impossible to do with the same front and rear ends of a car already in production. The second is that Ford or Ferrari don’t want anyone else to build their cars, which they also support with millions of dollars of advertising. So they are not typically willing to sell someone else their body panels.

Design sketch of the SALAFFDesign C1 supercar

Design sketch of the SALAFFDesign C1 supercar

The advent of rapid prototyping has spawned innovations like 3D printing. While originally limited to small parts and materials, the capabilities of these machines has expanded as costs have dropped. It is this disruptive innovation that now allows a determined designer like Carlos to pull all of the pieces together. He can custom 3D print the body panels in Akron, bring the chassis and engine from Europe, and source seats and knobs from any number of suppliers, many of which are in Ohio and Michigan.

Even highly custom parts, such as the hand-formed aluminum body panels for the C1, are being produced a short drive east of Shaker by Pete’s Custom Coachbuilding in Newbury Township. So while this process could conceivably be done anywhere, our region has an advantage due to our long history of automotive engineering and
manufacturing. It’s part of our culture.

Adaptable and Modular Designs

So in the future will you be able to choose from a portfolio of designs and have a car built to your specifications? Simply printed from a digital design and assembled in any number of micro-factories around the world?

That’s the concept behind SALAFFDesign. Carlos orchestrates the configuration, marketing, and sales of the portfolio of designs – the C1, C2, and C3 – and then each order, or batch of orders, is assigned to a carefully curated network of vendors.

Design sketch of the SALAFFDesign C3 supercar

Design sketch of the SALAFFDesign C3 supercar

The C2 will be the first model available, with the C1 following shortly due to its more complex design and engineering. The C3 will be developed in the longer term. You can follow @salaffdesign on Instagram for updates on all of the models. He is also on Facebook, and his website is salaff.com.

While not every car in the foreseeable future will have a 3D-printed body, Carlos says “it is a reality for those collectors who want to make a more artistic – and often more extreme – statement, who view a well-engineered vehicle as art, and who retain a fascination with highly mechanical objects.”

While still spending considerable time drawing and creating digital renderings of his designs, Carlos clearly enjoys orchestrating the larger process of creating a car from start to finish. His portfolio designs are adaptable and modular, allowing customers to swap out the V10 for an electric powertrain for example, while consistently exhibiting vintage values through a modern design.

When Carlos and his family moved to Shaker Heights, they found a welcoming and supportive environment for his work. Being an entrepreneur, he has tapped into the local community of those on a similar journey, and has found mentors from the automotive and manufacturing industries. “It’s been wonderful,” he says over tea at Juma. “We’ve met lots of people, love our neighbors, and have had a great experience with the Shaker schools. Our children have made great friends, and we feel like we belong. Shaker has embraced our madness.”

Originally published in Shaker Life, Summer 2017.