Moonraker Malibu: Volkswagen’s new laboratory

Far from their German factory, Volkswagen engineers created a Bug using available materials on a Catalina Beach. Jens Berger of Moonraker

A secretive project based in Malibu, called Moonraker, holds clues to the future of Volkswagen and global brands.

By Max Taves / Special to The Malibu Times

Surfing in Malibu on a weekday would probably not be the first thing that Volkswagen AG would have expected from its engineers. But times are changing.

For the past nine months, a group of 23 engineers, marketers and designers have been living and working (and surfing and dirt-biking) in a Malibu mansion above the beach, and sending detailed bimonthly updates of their cultural immersion to Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

The carmaker has lost a significant share of the American market to hipper and less expensive Japanese and Korean competitors over the past decade. With little more than one percent of the country’s automobile revenues, Volkswagen’s director for Project Strategy, Stefan Liske, envisioned a solution: Moonraker.

Think NASA, not James Bond.

Named after the space agency’s attempt to create a lunar vehicle, Liske thought the Euro-centric company needed to dramatically reevaluate the way it understood American consumers. In Liske’s words, Volkswagen required Americanizing its cars without losing its European core.

With the company’s blessing, the 30-something team composed of 18 Europeans and five Americans made Malibu their home base. An intern from Pepperdine University has also been with the team since the beginning. Eleven people sleep in the 12,000-square-foot house, while other members have rented apartments in the area.

While the Moonraker team has spent weeks traveling and studying vast swaths of the country, Malibu-its residents and its environmentalists-is likely to shape the way future Volkswagens are created.

In fact, it already has. At this month’s L.A. Auto Show, Moonraker exhibited the GX3, becoming, perhaps, the first car conceived, designed and tested here.

“The GX3 is really a product of Malibu,” Liske said. “It was created hereā€¦ We had the canyon roads in mind when we created [it].”

The low, fast and fuel-efficient three-wheel car might enter production as early as next year. A cross between a motorcycle and a sports car, it would sell for less than $17,000.

“Malibu has been a source of creativity and inspiration for us,” said Alex Nolte, Moonraker’s marketing specialist. “You step out of the door, [and] get inspiration, [and] go back to a meeting. After that [you] run in the mountains [and] run on the beach and then you have the next work session.”

Many members have become fully immersed in the city’s lifestyle. Several begin the day surfing longboards at County Line. Eight regularly exercise at a Malibu gym, and others play beach volleyball. They celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with a Malibu family. On Super Bowl Sunday, friends from the community will teach the Moonraker team the rules of American football before the televised game begins.

One of many trips to the Dume Room revealed a key lesson on American inhibition for Nolte.

“There was this karaoke thing going on,” he said. “Europeans would be very reluctant to go on the stage, but here no one cares.”

In a synergy that Liske had no doubt anticipated, these seemingly pedestrian activities become purposeful-and even profitable. Participating in Malibu life translates into a useful understanding of the consumer.

Weekly visits to the playground at Cross Creek yield insight for Volkswagen on children and cars.

“There is a whole family life going on there on Saturday mornings [and] kids are treated like kings,” Nolte said.

The team foresees making cars that better understand American parents and children. Future Volkswagens might include drivers’ personalized photos on onscreen computers, a special mirror for parents to see children in the rear seat, a DVD player with educational programs and a rear bench that could move in between the driver and passenger seats.

Frequent trips to Malibu boutiques might inform the fabric and texture of Volkswagen interiors. The team found inspiration from Planet Blue and Life Nature Love, and future cars might reflect the group’s fondness for these stores.

When team members rode with local drivers to observe their daily chores, a shopping trip to Costco sent a clear message to Moonraker.

“If you compare an American mom who goes shopping with a European mom-especially, a German mom-the purchase she’s doing is four times bigger! The depth of the trunk is absolutely crucial here, so this influences the car design right away,” Liske said.

Liske credits Malibu residents Doug Busch and Rod Campbell with extensively shaping the group’s understanding of art and automotive trends, respectively.

Because Malibu could not be a proxy for all of America and its consumers, it frequently meant creative-and sometimes painful -excursions beyond the city.

As part of the team’s quest to understand American society, all 23 members spent three days walking the 50 miles between Long Beach and Hollywood. Guided by architects, urban planners and marketing experts, the group saw urban sprawl in slow motion.

While backpacking through Watts, the team aroused suspicion. Police interrogated the team and directed them on the quickest route out of town.

When the project ends in June, Moonraker might be responsible for numerous changes at Volkswagen: more biodiesel cars might be made. Customers might have a large selection of individualized body panels and rims, and the air conditioning system will likely be strengthened.

The most significant legacy of Moonraker, however, might be in the way that global brands are created. Liske anticipates that the growing diversity of tastes across countries might mean an end to the concept of a global car. Gone will be the days when the same Jetta, Passat or Bug can be bought in Europe, America or Asia.

Perhaps as a sign of the project’s success, Moonraker has been institutionalized and replicated. Approximately three members will continue to scout for insight and trends in the area. Also, Volkswagen has already begun similar projects in China and India. A Russian project begins in April. Foreign car companies have asked Liske to replicate the project for them.

Malibu’s influence on future Volkswagens is unlikely to wane. Liske recently signed a contract to work in the company’s Santa Monica design studio, but he will continue live in Malibu.