Mazda HQ in Irvine Spectrum

Auto companies enjoy the ride in Irvine

by Preston Lerner

Technically, the Mazda Miata – the best-selling sports car of all time – is a Japanese product. But it was designed in Irvine, and it flourished only because it was rooted in Southern California.

“No other country could have come up with something like that,” says Tom Matano, a Japanese-born transplant who ran Mazda’s design studio in Irvine when the Miata was created in 1989. “Southern California had the car culture and the car clubs. That’s where the trends got started.”

The hot rod was born in Southern California. Ditto for the custom car. The sports car movement took off out here, and this used to be a mecca for the racing industry. So in 1973, when Toyota was trying to find a foothold in the U.S. market, it created its Calty design studio near LAX to tap into the unique SoCal zeitgeist.

Over the next two decades, virtually every carmaker with an American presence followed suit, from Volvo in Camarillo to Nissan in San Diego. Although a few studios have closed since then, there are still more than a dozen facilities in Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Irvine remains the epicenter of the design studio landscape. The manufacturers represented here include Mazda, Ford, Hyundai and Kia, as well as EV upstarts Rivian and Karma. It’s no coincidence that this is also the home of three of the biggest players in the car prototyping business – Aria, Sivax and Phiaro.

Ken Saward grew up in New York City and worked in suburban Detroit before moving to Irvine and designing the second-generation Miata in 1999. As soon as he got here, he understood why Mazda had chosen to locate its stateside design operation in Irvine.

Proximity to Japan was one reason. The gargantuan size of the California car market was another. But Irvine’s appeal went deeper than the bottom line. As Saward puts it: “There’s something about the light in Southern California. Cars just sparkle out here.”

Preston Lerner is an automotive writer who also contributes to Motor Trend, Road & Track and The New York Times Magazine.


Irvine’s Auto Industry

These major companies have their headquarters, corporate or design operations in Irvine, providing thousands of high-wage jobs.

  • Ford
  • Karma
  • Kia
  • Neuron EV
  • Mazda
  • Lexus
  • Mercedes-Benz Daimler
  • Hyundai
  • Rivian
  • Toyota
  • Volvo