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When the SoCal Region’s Ken Saward lines up to race his Spec Miata, he has something of a unique perspective. When he looks at the car in front of him, he might think how the license plate opening could be a little smaller or the curve on the decklid might look better if it were a little different.
Such is his plight. Saward is design manager for Mazda North American Operations, so when he lines up on grid, he is surrounded by cars he designed. As a creative person, he never stops thinking about how a design — especially one he had a hand in — could be improved.
Hired away from Chrysler in 1989 by Tom Matano, who designed the first-generation Miata, Saward was put on the MX-5 program and charged with updating the car for its second generation. No small charge given how well those cars were received. From 1989 to 1997, Mazda sold more than 200,000 first-generation Miatas, so the next one had to follow suit.
Saward had worked on projects of similar importance before. When he worked for Chrysler, he was tapped to work on a new car, something described as a modern-day Cobra. That car turned out to be the Dodge Viper, which debuted in 1991 and entered production in 1992.
“I kind of joked that I never designed a car with a roof,” Saward said. The two cars I had worked on, the Viper and the Miata were my first two major projects.”
The Viper started out as a show car, a concept, but when it came time to go into production, Chrysler went with Saward’s designs for the interior and those of his roommate for the exterior.
“I got the opportunity to be not the lead designer, because I was still too young at the time, but I was the key young designer on the project,” he said. “That was fun. I got to see how the car industry works, and understand how to put a car together and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes at advanced studios you don’t get that opportunity.”
Saward earned his design degree at Art Center College of Design after completing his prerequisites at a community college in his native New York. He had some nascent talent going in. After all, he had been drawing cars since he was a kid, knowing all along that he wanted to be a car designer. When he set to work on the second-generation Miata, the goal was simply to freshen up the existing car.
“The objective of the program was to make it a little bit more masculine and a little bit more familiar with the new RX-7 that was out, so it had more voluptuous surfacing than the first-gen car. From a regulations standpoint (pedestrian safety) and weight, we needed to get away from the pop-up headlights,” he said. “So that was the big driving force in doing it. Originally, we thought we could just graft a new front end on the car, but as we went through the process I started developing the fenders and putting more form in it and that kind of sold the program of going forward and doing all new sheet metal. So they decided to do an all new car.
“From a designer’s standpoint, the purest thing you can do is a production car. As a designer that’s your ultimate goal,” he added. “Doing the Miata, even though it was a few years back, was a great opportunity for me.”
At Mazda, he’s been part of some interesting projects, but the one he enjoyed most was the Furai concept, a racing car based on an LMP2 Courage chassis. It broke his heart when the car burned to the ground while Top Gear was filming it for a show.
“As far as the most fun project, I’d have to say it was the Furai concept we built, because that was a full-on, running, fire-breathing concept car that you could take on the track,” he said. “To me that was the most fun project I’ve worked on.”
As MNAO’s design manager, his days can include anything from sketching cars to managing budgets, show cars and clinics. Saward oversees all the factory cars for the SEMA show and was responsible for doing all the graphics work for the pace cars used at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the Grand Am GX-class diesel racecars campaigned by SpeedSource in 2013. He also worked on the three Mazda6 diesels used at the 2013 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The key to those projects was coming up with a graphics package that picked up a lot of the form and movement in the lines of the Mazda 6.
He differentiated the three cars by using different accent colors. Blue from the No. 56 car Mazda runs in the heritage series, orange from the Renown cars used at LeMans and chrome. Despite the number of late nights involved in the Thunderhill cars, Saward called it a labor of love, which says a great deal about him and his career.
“As with any job, you’re like, ‘Oh, man, this has been a rough day,’ but then we bring a tour in and a bunch of kids come through the studio,” he said. “Their eyes are wide open and they’re like, ‘This is the coolest job in the world. How do I do this?’ Then you come to realize at the end of the day that I’ve been pretty fortunate. It’s a pretty cool job. It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and honestly, I don’t think I could work for a better company than Mazda. We’re committed to the product. Everybody here is a car person, and as far as the company goes, they let us do what we want to do. Our senior management is very hands-off when it comes to design. They trust what we do and they let us kind of get on with the job, which is really cool.”
Of course even on grid before a race, he’s still thinking of ways to make his designs better.