Bentley Motors' new Continental GT coupe was the auto industry's runaway success of 2004. Those who can swing the car's $160,000 price tag must suffer a yearlong wait to get their hands on a freshly minted model. The hero behind the car's inimitable allure: 47-year-old Belgian auto designer Dirk van Braeckel.
Van Braeckel's triumph is powerful yet understated. Bentley's chief designer says he sculpted the car around the wheels, to emphasize thrust without flashiness. "The lines of the car say, 'I have the speed and I can use it if I want to,"' says van Braeckel. A 560-horsepower, twin turbo-charged engine makes the Continental GT the fastest coupe in the world, topping out at 198 mph.
After a stint as an apprentice at Ford (F), van Braeckel studied at the Royal College of Art, one of the first schools to specialize in car design. He then joined Volkswagen unit Audi in 1984. VW boss Ferdinand Piech drafted him in 1993 for the top design job at VW's new Czech unit Skoda, where he redid the entire model lineup. When VW nabbed ailing Bentley in 1998, Piech again made van Braeckel chief designer. The challenge: to build a second car for the superluxury brand that could sell in higher volumes than the $240,000 Arnage limo. When clay models of the Continental GT were ready in late 1999, VW's entire board visited Bentley's home office in Crewe, Britain. Piech at once declared the model "a collector's item."
Thanks to the GT and the Continental Flying Spur, a sedan launched this spring, Bentley sales are defying skeptics who said VW's $1.9 billion investment wouldn't pay off. Bentley sold 5,983 GTs in 2004, exceeding forecasts by 62%. Van Braeckel's eye-catching design buffed up Bentley's bottom line, which Chairman and CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen insists is now in the black. Van Braeckel says more new models are on the drawing board. This designer is sure to surprise again.
By Gail Edmondson