Corvette designer Helen Emsley (GM).
Helen Emsley says she has been designing interiors for General Motors vehicles for nearly 20 years, first in Europe for GM's Opel (in Europe) and Holden (in Australia) brands, and for the last 14 years in Detroit.

Still, it was a surprise when her boss put her in charge of the redesign of the all-new, seventh generation 2014 Corvette Stingray, the most powerful standard Corvette ever, with 450 horsepower that launches the car 0-60 in just under four seconds.

It wasn't so much because she's a woman, since there are many female engineers and designers in Detroit, but because "I'm British, so I have no history with an American icon" she says with a laugh.

She admits she was worried the headline would be "British woman kills Corvette," when the redesign was introduced, but says not having pre-conceived notions about a sports car purchased overwhelmingly by men actually worked to her advantage.

There's nothing feminine about the new Corvette's interior, and nothing faux, either. Emsley pushed for real materials, so if it looks like leather, carbon fiber or hand stitching, that's what it is, including door inserts, dashboard and steering wheel.

Emsley supervised a staff of more than 30 interior designers, working with a team of around the same size designing the exterior. She took her team to Bowling Green to actually work the Corvette production line, to see how the current pieces fit together, and find out from the line workers what they thought the new design needed.

"My team are young guys, so it was like working with your father or brother in the garage," she says. The experience was so successful that she's planning to do the same for her next interior redesign projects, SUVs and large trucks.

There also were more traditional focus groups with Corvette owners and buyers of competitor sports-cars. All loved the new jet fighter cockpit design, which curves around the driver. Emsley wanted the driver to feel "embraced" by the controls and technology, but she also did not want a passenger, or "co-driver" left out of the experience.

Emsley moved some passenger controls from the center console to just above the glove-box. That resolved both the potential safety issue of the co-driver reaching over the stick shift to adjust temperature, and balanced what she calls "jewelry" on both sides of the interior.

Emsley's team also took design cues from the racetrack and from meetings with the GM racing team. The new steering wheel is smaller than in past Corvettes, for more precise steering adjustments, more like racecar drivers make. Seats are deeper and more bolstered.

Emsley was a textile designer working on her masters at the Royal College of Art when a professor suggested she apply for a job at GM in London to design "color and trim", which includes seat fabrics, carpeting and headliners.

She was hired by Wayne Cherry, head of Opel at the time. When he was transferred back to the US as GM design chief, he asked her to move to Detroit with him. "It was supposed to be for three years. That was 14 years ago".

Since Cherry's retirement, Emsley's boss is Ed Welburn, vice president of GM Design North America.

When she arrived in Detroit, she noticed that each GM brand had its own colors and fabrics. "There were two exterior reds so close you couldn't tell the difference, and so many different leathers and carpets," she says. Unifying colors and fabrics across Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC has saved GM $1.2 million a year just in North America.

"Now black is the same color everywhere in the world," she says, which is saving GM even more millions as it expands globally.

Emsley feels strongly about telling young women about opportunities in the automotive design process, including art, textile, even computer animation, and speaks at schools around the world. "All companies look for young talent," she says.

The new Stingray is available in black, with an elegant and sporty black and Kalahari sand interior. When the Corvette was introduced in 1953, it was available only in white with a red interior.

Emsley has created a new red color exclusive to the new Stingray, with exterior paint and interior leather matching precisely for a totally unified look. It's called Adrenalin Red, an ideal name for an adrenalin-charged ride.

The 2014 Corvette Stingray goes on sale in fall 2013. No price has been announced yet, and is unlikely to match the $1.05 million for the very first one produced, at the recent Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona.

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