INTERVIEW: CARLOS SALAFF

Carlos-Salaff-Profile

It’s not everyday that you get to meet someone building their first production car. However that is exactly what Carlos Salaff is doing with his latest venture Project Caden. A veteran of the automotive design industry, Carlos was kind enough to give us a preview and some insight into what we can expect.


Who are you and where are you originally from?

I am dreamer and a maker. I don’t think that’s an accident. I grew up in a quiet suburb in Rochester, New York. As a young boy, my father often brought our family on trips around the world when he was touring as a violinist with the Cleveland Quartet. The eclectic experiences my parents exposed us to through travel shaped who I am and opened my eyes. I am so grateful to them.

The arts are a strong legacy in my family. My aunt Vera Salaff Neumann was a celebrated textile designer, my uncle is a metal sculptor, my brother is an animator, my wife is a writer. I have always been surrounded by a passion for the arts and by parents who encouraged me to follow my dreams.

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Prior to working as an automotive designer, what path did you initially take to get there?

As a young child, I spent a lot of time drawing and making things. I always felt that If I had an idea, there was some way that I could build it. I became deeply interested in flying model rockets and radio-controlled airplanes and cars. One of my most empowering childhood experiences was building and flying my first R/C airplane.

In high school I became very interested in skateboarding, hip-hop and electronic music. Those are deeply artistic cultures and being from an artistic family, I felt compelled toward the arts.

I eventually discovered the Industrial Design field and learned that there is a large artistic element in car design. I was smitten after visiting Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California — a school famous for its Automotive Design program. I enrolled in the fall of 1998 and made the move across the United States to start my new life as a car designer.


You got to work on some very interesting concept cars in the past, particularly the Mazda Furai. Was there any specific project that was the final motivation to take your concept into production? Or was this a master plan with each step being a natural progression? 

I found concept cars to be the most exhilarating things to work on. They were the purest form of artistic expression. That said, I also felt unfulfilled by the brevity of their existence. I poured heart and soul into those projects, only to see them fade away from memory after the auto show circuit.

Seeing the Furai come alive and tear around Laguna Seca, hearing its howl, and being a passenger in the car for a lap, was pivotal for me. It was a wild dream that had become reality! That was also the end of 2007 and I started to notice big advances in electric cars. I was drawn to their power and simplicity. I started dreaming of something wild, high performance and electric, but wasn’t able to pursue that dream until 2012.

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You mentioned that you are not just reproducing a retro object but a seamless merge of old and new. What aspects in particular will be an ode to the past and a wave to the future?

SALAFF Cars is about telling stories from the past and writing stories for the future. I believe how my cars are created and who they are created by is important. The aluminum body of Project Caden is being handcrafted by artisans at Pete’s Custom Coachbuilding, a vintage car restoration shop outside Cleveland. They bring with them personal experiences from artfully recreating sports and racing cars from the heyday of European design. They use tools and techniques that reach back to the days of coachbuilding. My chassis builder, Metcalf Racing, is a Texas-based specialist in restoring and racing vintage race cars from F1 to Indy. Metcalf is building the chassis using many of the same methods used to create classic racing machines.

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In contrast, I embrace the modern concepts of rapid prototyping and manufacturing. I designed Project Caden digitally in 3D on my laptop. It was developed over a period of two years with a computer and a sketch pad, without the need to cut one piece of metal. From the computer model I create patterns and plans that are then used by my hand craftsmen. Many details will be CNC machined out of aluminum.  These tools make the design and manufacture of very complex goods possible on a small scale.

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Can you give us some insight into what we can expect? Overall specs, engine, colors?
Every aspect of Project Caden is intended to create a direct man-to-machine connection. The appearance of the car is part 60s F1 car, part Group C car, and part spaceship! The finish will be naked, brushed aluminum. Compact in size, with a midship layout. The chassis is comprised of a riveted and bonded aluminum monocoque tub. I could have used carbon fiber for everything, but aluminum and rivets tell a different story. The suspension is more modern F1-style inboard dampers and pushrods. The chassis will be on display, a part of the visual design. The center-mounted driver’s seat, toggle switches, analog gauges and manual shifting will engage all of the senses. I’m hesitant to dispense specific performance figures before testing, but it will be light and fast!
In a modern twist, a hybrid petrol/ electric drivetrain will power Caden. I wish to highlight the mechanical beauty of these two machines in concert.  The engine will be naturally aspirated and provide a great soundtrack, and the motor wonderful, instant torque.

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Project Caden is an ambitious but worthwhile endeavor. Overall what are your plans for this car after it’s complete and the Salaff car company?

Project Caden is a prototype and will become the first production car for SALAFF. I wish to continue producing Caden but on a small scale with a complete focus on artistry and quality.


What are your thoughts on the current automotive and racing industry?

The car business is very slow moving compared to most other industries. Small variations in styling, but no substantial advances in engineering or future vision. The exceptions are Tesla, Google and to some extent, BMW (with a likely entry by Apple on the horizon). I believe automated, mobile architectural spaces are the future of cars. That said, I hope there will always be a place to drive cars and connect with them as interactive mechanical art forms.

In racing, Formula E is developing into something exciting and new. In general, I would love to see radical experimentation again. Like yesterday’s Chaparral 2J, Brabham BT46 fan car and Indy STP-Paxton Turbine.


What advice would you give to other designers and car enthusiasts that are dreaming of starting their own project?

Great question. One of my hopes is that others will be inspired to follow their dreams after seeing what i’m up to.

Don’t wait for a perfect situation, or to have all of the answers before making your move. There will always be an element of uncertainty and risk when going into uncharted territory, but your inner voice and your dreams should not be ignored. Go on faith and learn what to do along the way. We live in a great time in history. Great tools and resources are more accessible than ever. More often than not people will want to help you after you get the ball rolling. Just get started!


For more information and updates on Project Caden go to:

Instagram @carlos_salaff

Carlos Website – Click Here

Article and interview by: Kevin Murray | Motor Heist

Photos by: Carlos Salaff

Articles by the Motor Heist Team

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