Online Extra: The Bentley of Car Designers?

In the Continental GT, Dirk van Braeckel created an accessible-feeling superluxury car that choked critics and revved up VW revenue

Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech had his eye on design ace Dirk van Braeckel for years as he penned winning new designs for VW units Audi and Skoda. Piech scored a major hit himself when he put the Belgian designer in charge of remaking Bentley Motors in 1999. VW had just bet big on taking over an ailing Bentley from Rolls Royce.

Sure that the investment would never pay off, analysts scoffed as VW sank $1.9 billion into the money-losing British icon. Van Braeckel, 51, saved the day, designing the Continental GT coupe -- a $160,000 car that took the market by storm, outstripping forecasts by 60% and selling nearly 6,000 cars in 2004.

The Continental GT also forged a new market sector for superluxury cars that surpass top-end Mercedes or BMWs but are more accessible than Rolls Royces or Bentley Arnages. Thanks to his accomplishment, van Braeckel has become one of the world's hottest design talents. His own car? Van Braeckel loves his 1963 E-type Jaguar, and says his designs are inspired by cubist architecture and classic cars, as well as Gucci (GUCG ) and Ralph Lauren. His bywords for design: simplicity and character.

Van Braeckel spoke with Gail Edmondson, BusinessWeek's Frankfurt-based senior correspondent. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What did Bentley's management ask you to do when you took over as head of design in 1999?


The clear task was to create not only a new Bentley but also the first Bentley in decades designed and built independently from Rolls Royce. The car I was to design was not just a new style or model for Bentley -- it represented the future of the company and had to make the right statement about Bentley's brand values.

Q: Did you look to older Bentley models for inspiration in designing the Continental GT?


The inspiration for the GT was the 1952 R-type Continental, which was meant to be a very limited series production. The new GT harks back to the early years of independence of Bentley and its racing heritage, which is what made the brand so exciting.

Q: Coming from Skoda, which is a lower-priced mass-market brand of Volkswagen, how did you prepare to build one of the most alluring luxury cars on the market?


First I wanted to understand what made Bentley cars so special -- I went back to the roots. I had to understand what Bentley customers like. And we had to achieve the "must-have" factor. When you are building cars for people who can afford everything, they have to look at the car and say, "I must have it."

Q: The Continental GT is a market knockout. Could you walk us through how you designed the car and the key elements of the car from a designer's perspective?


The most important thing is the engine and how it delivers power. The Continental GT has a lot of power and torque, but it delivers it in a relaxed way. There are high revs and low noise. That was important in inspiring the shape of the car.

The design is understatement. It's not in your face. The car looks very relaxed yet powerful. It's sculpted around the wheels, and there's a lot of tension in the surfaces and the lines where they connect. We went through a lot to achieve this combination of power and understatement. The car is not at all aggressive. It says, "I have speed, and I can use it if I want to." It's the silent sports car, as opposed to a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.

Q: How did you become a designer?


I was an electrical engineer until 1980, with a hobby of creating model cars from scratch. I would spend up to a year on each model, most of them replicas of racing cars -- and put them in exhibitions. Then I applied for a job at Ford's (F ) design studios in Cologne and discovered the world of car design. I saw people making drawings and defining what guys like me do. Ford sent me to London's Royal College of Art and turned my hobby into a profession.

Q: After graduating, you nabbed a job at Audi in Germany. How did your years at Audi shape your thinking as a designer?


What imprinted my design approach most, having started at Audi, was growing up in a small studio where there were only four external designers. That means the work you do has impact. We were striving to reshape the Audi brand and help bring it upmarket -- and were having impact. That gave me the confidence to take on a task like remaking Skoda's model lineup. Skoda was the second chance I had to do pioneering work, and Bentley was the third.

Q: Did Volkswagen's management or Bentley's give you specific marching orders in reinventing Bentley's look for the 21st century, or did you have a blank check?


They gave me a blank check. It was July or August, 1999, when we started and, by December, 1999, we had two full-sized clay models of the Continental GT for the first presentation to management. The moment [VW Chief Executive Ferdinand] Piech walked into the room, he veered to the right and walked all around the model and said, "This is a collector's item." That was it. He made the decision, and suddenly we knew we would build the car.

Edited by Rose Brady

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