10 car design leaders

I was asked my opinions on some current leaders in the world of car design. I actually checked up a little of each designers background, and decided to repeat my thoughts here for this blog. Mostly my educated guess about each person, with some anecdotal evidence. I also know a little more than I am allowed to share regarding some of the names, and I could ask for inside info on others- but I won’t because they have extremely demanding public images to uphold. They all thoroughly deserve their status of course, because none of these people made it to this level without enormous dedication and hard work. I can only imagine how all-consuming some of their careers have been.

1. Jean-Pierre Ploué (PSA) jean-pierre-plouc3a9-285x380-1

Ploué made his name in the industry with the first Renault Twingo. A landmark car of characterful but functional design. A truly French car from a truly French thinking designer- and this was exactly what Citroen needed after nearly 20 years of a Brit, then an American in charge. For the new millennium it was time to bring back French thinking. Jean-Pierre Ploué immediately hired some young talent from around the world, and nurtured that talent with a very relaxed attitude to creativity. A friend of mine worked there as a designer, and hadn’t done any work for weeks. Worried- he finally admitted this to Jean-Pierre, who shrugged and said “that’s ok, maybe inspiration will come soon”.  A great creative team manager, his people skills have enabled all PSA brands to continue to positively rejuvenate in design terms. 

2. Franz Von Holzhausen (Tesla)von-holzhausen_franz-uw6p7c

Musk grabbed Von Holzhausen from Mazda, when he became unhappy with Henrik Fisker’s outside consultancy design work. Franz was given the task of setting up an internal design studio and fixing what would become one of the 21st Centuries most important car designs, the Model S. Franz and his team (mostly poached from Mazda) decided to play it safe with the styling. Musk was a demanding boss and referenced his own Porsches as the standard to work towards. The foundation of Tesla was a familiar looking sedan, with groundbreaking technology. The recent Cybertruck is another PR masterstroke by Franz. This time there was no revolution in tech, so instead a completely unexpected and brutal design language got the truck noticed. The ripples from the Cybertruck will be seen in car styling for the next 20 years. 

REDACTED. Luc Donckerwolke (Hyundai, Genesis)luc-donckerwolke

Luc Donckerwolke is the definitive car designer. Dual nationality, speaking an astonishing array of languages his diversity of culture makes him a perfect recipe for global car design. Famous for re-establishing multiple brands for the VW group. A real darling of the VW board and a pioneering design manager, who established multiple internal design teams at Skoda and Lamborghini, ditching traditional techniques for modern digital methods. After taking over at Bentley there was a surprise desertion of the VW Group, to join Peter Schreyer in his mission to destroy the German dominance of the car industry on behalf of Korea. Luc uses his modernist digital design techniques to devastating effect, now rapidly overtaking the Germans in progressive quality design. His recent Hyundai Prophecy concept car was a very cheeky nod to past Germanic design themes (911 shaped!) but brilliantly moved into the 21st Century.

3. Gorden Wagener (Mercedes Benz)gorden-wagener

A company man with 23 years at Mercedes design and the result is total trust by the board. Some might say this trust is his downfall. Wagener often receives ridicule by other designers (not publicly, as that is dangerous to careers). His hyperbole speeches and grandiose influences are cliched and vague. As far as we know, Wagener has never actually designed any cars- but nurturing other talented designers he developed his “sensual purity” design language as a universal styling look, applied to every Mercedes at every price, and every segment – even commercial vehicles. Criticised for shallow, skin/deep only styling- but the sensual part is undeniable and Mercedes is now a strongly customer-led company. Buyers get exactly what they wish for, including strip-club like interiors, and the sales figures prove the methodology. He could be the designer at the helm when the ship sinks… and like the captain of the Titanic he will never abandon his ship. 

4. Klaus Bischoff (VW)db2018pa00039_overfull

Bischoff is another German company man who, like Wagener, has dedicated his life to one company: VW. Since 1989 he has designed only for VW group, and has had many management roles and mostly worked as an interior designer. His name was not widely known, so we can assume this is a modest designer perhaps. A true inside man. VW clearly have huge faith in Bischoff and the quality in the design language of VW brand in particular is mostly thanks to Klaus. VW generally manage to avoid fashion, or extreme design trends, but recently have become a little formulaic. Klaus and the VW board really believe in this formula, but corporate scandal has made things tough for the brand. Design must be even more conservative in order for customers to trust them again. 

5. Adrian van Hooydonk (BMW)adrian-van-hooydonk-3a8c391b-106e-4537-8966-4a9bfbfd918-resize-750

Once again we see the loyalty to German brands, but a Dutch designer this time who has been with BMW since 1992. Adrian made his mark with BMW in California, working for and eventually becoming president of DesignworksUSA. Thanks to his advanced work at Designworks, Von Hooydonk became the protege, and successor of Chris Bangle. Bangle revolutionised the very traditional BMW, and in turn shook up the entire car design business. Hooydunk was the driving force behind the design and styling ideas that Bangle made famous. Designworks laid a lot of the groundwork for BMW design as it is today. Unfortunately since Bangle’s departure, the strategic  management of BMW has been messy and design has suffered. Bangle dealt with this aspect well, Adrian does not. A true artist like Adrian just wants to create. Currently his handling of the BMW grille design, insisting Chinese customers demand it, seems lacking in vision. 

6. Thomas Ingenlath (Polestar)2017062101_robin_page-1

Volvo regrouped itself after Geely investment, and decided to take stock of what it wanted to be and what it didn’t want to be. Ingenlath is a great example of what can happen when taking a risk and changing company. A German designer, who worked for VW for 20 years and ranked very highly- he joined Volvo and eventually brought some of his VW friends along too. Volvo spent time to work on strategic design and research of their brand (from outside consultants) and this foundation work has been spectacular in its success. Ingenlath was allowed, as an outsider, to distill Swedish design principles and core Volvo corporate values such as safety and quality into a pure aesthetic depiction in 3D form and materials. This is high operating level, holistic vehicle design which only very few companies achieve. So far Volvo design strategy has been perfect. Now Ingenlath is concentrating on the EV and performance brand Polestar, which perhaps gives us a clue to his own thinking about the future of automotive transportation. 

7. Gerry McGovern (Land Rover)gerry

A very interesting and eccentric character… Gerry is an enigma of his own creation. Fantastically talented, but from a working class background in Coventry, it all seems so unlikely. Apparently his learning curve never ends, constantly intent on self-improvement, he now presides over a kingdom of his own creation. Famously blunt and sharp with employees, but ruthless in his passion for design. He only left Coventry briefly, in the late 90s, to show Lincoln exactly what they should be doing- then returned to continue his life’s work in Coventry. Along with Volvo design, Land Rover are leaders in consistent brand identity. Gerry became obsessed with mid century design during his time at Lincoln, and continues to pursue a minimalist and timeless aesthetic. There are aspects to McGoverns plutocratic management style that I cannot repeat, shared with me in confidence by insiders, but his troops are loyal and  you can be sure of one thing: that he will always push for absolutely the best quality of design in every detail. 

8. Ikuo Maeda (Mazda)maeda

The designer’s designer. Respected as an artist, and responsible for renaissance of beautiful emotional design. A strategy he implemented by returning to traditional artisan routes, using hand sculpted clay extensively again, just as other studios are abandoning it. The seeds of KODO design language began with Franz Von Holzhausen and his preceding Nagare design aesthetic, but Maeda has steered Mazda design to be more than surface styling. His aim was to bring life to industrial products, and he has succeeded in the ultimate vision of emotional automotive design. A stark contrast to functional product design which gives humble Mazda’s a value beyond their price. Who could’ve predicted 20 years ago that a Japanese company would be the one to keep the heart and soul of beautiful car design alive? Alfa Romeo and Mercedes design departments wish they could achieve this level of  sensual design. 

9. Flavio Manzoni (Ferrari)hublot-post8

An Italian car designer who interestingly worked for VW rather a lot, at a very high level running advanced creative design teams. The combination of his long experience in Italy for Lancia and Fiat, combined with extensive experience in the dominant VW group means that Manzoni was uniquely placed to bring Ferrari design into the 21st century by setting up an internal dedicated design team. Manzoni proved his abilities by developing the stunning La Ferrari production car. The sensational design, and more importantly the delicate design process that produced it, has let Ferrari controversially abandon its relationship with Pininfarina. Critics have argued that Ferrari in-house designs are unrefined- but the pace at which they are now being produced is the reason perhaps. The relentless product updates and modern sales tactics at Ferrari are generating profits, with cars that are exciting and dramatic in styling. In response to critics, Ferrari have even created a less flamboyant design with the new Roma model. Design strategy and future thinking is a core skill of Manzoni and we can be sure that his tactics have been well thought through. 

10. Laurens Van den Acker

edit: Luc Donckerwolke abruptly left Hyundai/Genesis in 2020, so this addition was drafted to replace him in the printed article.

Laurens Van den Acker is one of the world’s leading experts of advanced vehicle design. Laurens’ career took him from Europe to America and back. His experiences were transatlantic and international. Incredibly he has worked in Italy, Germany, USA and France. This global experience meant he became uniquely placed to understand a vast majority of the car buying planet, excepting perhaps Asia- but his long tenure at Mazda must have filled that gap quite well also. This moulded him into the global visionary he is now (despite working for a seemingly very French and European brand), and his time spent with J Mays at Ford clearly helped his genius to shine. Van den Acker came to fame with an astonishing series of concept cars, while working with J Mays. The Ford 24/7, 427, Model U and the Ford GloCar. These were all so ahead of their time in ideas concept and user sentiment, that any car company wishing to be successful in future clearly had to hunt down Laurens for their own good. That is exactly what Mazda and then Renault did. There is a connection here with Franz Von Holzhausen – for they both worked on the Nagare design language at Mazda, but those visionary Ford concepts were what caught the industry’s eye. The Ford 24/7 from 2000 was the key to Acker’s success. This car predicted the customisable App grid interface, 7 years before iPhone, and predicted user’s wishes for connectivity and configurable dashboard/screens that we see on every concept and future production car 20 years later. Van den Acker set the user template that the entire industry is working to now. 

Thanks to Hans Dierckx of Auto Wereld magazine, Belgium, for asking my opinion on 10 current car design leaders.

http://autowereld.be

Cyberuckus

Wired Magazine – CYBERTRUCK news article

Now that the hype, the hoopla, the circus, etc has died down… (do you see why Tesla did it?) what do you all think of the Tesla Cybertruck? WIRED Magazine called me on the day of the reveal, hours after seeing it- I had to give some kind of opinion- which wasn’t easy. A few days later the esteemed Eric Gallina wrote an insightful piece which almost nailed what most designers were thinking… and there were other thoughtful takes on it. The vehicle divided opinion, and certainly shocked everyone. Shock was the universal truth- and that is exactly as intended. Meanwhile… here’s the original Yankee-origami-wedge vehicle… (no not the DeLorean).

Form Trends article.

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1980 Vector W2 Twin Turbo concept

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#DesignTop5 4-door saloons

Thanks to a car designer named Matteo Licata I wanted to expand on another Twitter discussion. At this link Matteo complied a nice write up of his Top 5 saloon cars (with 4 doors). Since the first day I saw the Rover SD1 that my father bought from our neighbour (in 1987?) I have always preferred a more sleek silhouette to the 4 door 3 box type of car. As a family we grew up with hatchbacks, estates, and even that Rover fastback. At some point my dad was forced to drive company cars which included some saloons, such as a Sierra Sapphire (a comfortable little shed), and even a Ford Orion (not as bad as we expected it to be), but mostly given a choice we had hatchbacks. I’ve only ever owned one saloon car myself in 24 years, and that was a Hillman Avenger. Nevertheless I decided to choose my own favourite designs in this globally popular car shape. In no particular order…

Firstly I agree with Matteo that the Citroen DS is possibly the greatest “saloon” car ever designed. It looks nothing like a traditional 3 box saloon! It is so different I don’t even count it myself, it is just so far removed from all preceding or following designs. So that might be my no.1. and 5 runners up could be…

Mercedes W124

Surely the definitive Mercedes? Solid, but light, formal but elegant. Not too big, not too small. I’ve driven one briefly and it felt (and looked) like granit formed into a car shape, from exterior right through to it’s wonderful interior. Never to be bettered?

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Alfa Romeo 164

Yes the Alfa 156 is truly stunning. Beautiful and interesting at the same time. The 164 though, is outstandingly restrained and beautiful. Formal, and informal. Quite utilitarian looking for an Italian car, with its many plastic panels and rubbing strips- but at the same time it is elegant and sophisticated. Pure magic that only Italian designers can conjure up!

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Rover Sterling

Yes, I loved the SD1 and was amazed that Rover replaced it with a saloon (but rapidly added the fastback style too). I had a Matchbox model of this, and it predated the Alfa 164 with a similar look (two-tone body) by one year (1986, then 1987 for the Alfa). I loved this linear, modern high-tech look in my youth. It is so wonderfully 80s, but at the same time expertly executed in it’s design details. The original styling model is shown here, from 1983! Find out more from Keith Adams excellent website.

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Lincoln Continental 1961 – 1969

The definitive long, low, wide and truly American saloon car design. The Wachowskis new what car was needed to represent the peak of the 20th century in The Matrix, and it was this one (a 1963 model actually).

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Jaguar XJ40

Controversial, but again my love of rectangular saloon shapes means I genuinely prefer the XJ40 over the XJ series III that it was supposed to replace. The subtlety of this design is fantastic. It borrowed from global design trends then expertly mixed those with more traditional forms of Jaguar.

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Audi A6 (C5)

The design lecturers example. Perfect proportions, almost to the point of not knowing if it’s FWD, or RWD or perhaps AWD (Quattro as intended). The arc of the DLO and it’s perfectly balanced placement within the wheelbase, combined with the dangerously unadorned rear end (imagine a tow hook added, or an exhaust pipe!) this was the Apple iPhone of saloon cars.

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Skyline R32

An oddity. When I discovered these existed I was amazed. Did they design the 2 door first, then just extend it to be a saloon? Like coach built limousines. To see a sporty shape like this, as a core part of a saloon design (not bulged and added post-design) is unusual. Subaru used this theme on many saloons after, but Nissan did it first!

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Lagonda Taraf and Aston Martin Rapide

Declaring a personal interest here as quite a lot of my friends, and even family, work at Aston… but I really can’t help loving all the 4-doors they have produced over the last few years. The Rapide was a beautiful if somewhat impractical +2 development of the DB9 shape. Then later Lagonda was reborn with the astonishing low volume Taraf model. Enormously long, but aimed at giving a massive amount of rear passenger space, the shape reminds of the original William Towns Lagonda while also connecting with other Aston form language. This design might have inspired many other big saloon designs that have followed, such as the VW Arteon or the Mazda Vision Coupe. I’ve cheated a bit here including both, but there’s actually 7 cars mentioned in this post!

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Update: my inspiration for this post has now created a YouTube video showing his choices! Check it out, it’s fun! https://youtu.be/CcbLSEBHyNA

Lexus LS analysis

Well this debate began over on Twitter, with some other working car designers being quite vocal on how bad this new Lexus LS design is. I think it has problems, but I am willing to accept some progressive experimentation. Lexus in particular has been heavily experimenting in various styling and surfacing ideas, some good some bad. The LC coupe is particularly nice, but has gone through many iterations and concept cars to come out the other side. It still has some odd design details, but for a sportscar it is important to grab the viewers attention. The LS on the other hand, is intended as an executive model, with luxury in mind. It has traditionally appeared as quite a conservative design. The surfaces and design ideas are chaotic and a little messy, which is something designers have noted. The strangest thing is the proportions, with a great emphasis on cab-backward proportions. It is almost unique in the way that the peak of the side DLO is in the middle of the rear door. Similarities to other sedans (saloons) were noted, and similarity in supposed “bad” design. The new Civic sedan is something that I am not impressed by, for example. The most similar proportionally, and a possible clue to Toyotas intended rival and benchmark design, is the Tesla Model S. I decided to put together an image comparing lots of current sedans on sale now. Looking for that strange proportion (which must give great rear passenger headroom?). Maserati Ghibli seems a good candidate. Lexus LS-side-profileplusothers@0,75x

 

 

bonsai cactus

A few weeks ago I finally had the chance to check out the new Citroen C4 Cactus at a dealer. I sat in it and had a good look around. What an impressive car, truly excellent design from Citroen! I was shocked at just how small the car is from the outside. It really is tiny, smaller than even a standard C4 or DS4, but space inside is superb. The boot capacity is rather small thanks to a cute stubby rear overhang, and for my family it’s inadequate. The loading lip is very high and unsuitable for my dog. There are no rear quarter lights either. So maybe it’s not for me (shame because I really want to buy one) but it’s clearly one of the best new car designs for many years. The interior is truly special. The dealer I visited also sell Mercedes and I sat in the new GLA class crossover. Guess which car has more space and then guess which has the best quality interior materials and design? Yes the Citroen. Bravo! For less than half the price the little Citroen beats the Mercedes hands down. The door cards and door pulls on the Cactus are wonderful. The touchscreen centre console is much higher quality than the Mercedes. The front bench seat style cushion that stretches across the range topping Cactus I sat in feels so luxurious. I can’t praise this little car enough. Car of the year 2014 for me, without a doubt.

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