While other big design chiefs have been shedding brands (Ed Welburn at General Motors and J Mays at Ford), de’Silva — as the top designer at the acquisitive VW Group — has been busy adding them, the latest being Porsche. This brings his tally to eight consumer marques — Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, Seat, Skoda, and VW — representing some 6.3 million sales in 2009.
De’Silva made his name with Alfa Romeo and the beautifully proportioned 156 sedan and Sportwagon of the late 1990s, with their simple curves and hidden rear door handles. Switching to the VW Group in 1999, he added excitement to Spanish brand Seat with the Salsa and Tango concepts and the production Leon and Altea before bringing Audi more curves, fuller volumes, and gapey-grilled “emotional design” starting in 2002. The current TT, A5, A6, and R8 are his work, and all have been critical and commercial successes.
As head of VW Group design since 2007, de’Silva has turned his attention to overhauling the VW brand and replacing its rather clumsy, chrome-faced, large grilles with slimmer, subtler ones, epitomized by the new Jetta and the Scirocco (which is not sold in the States). The only blip in his track record was the weakly retro 2006 Lamborghini Miura tribute concept. That aside, the breadth of designs, brands, segments, consistent sales, and internal and external influence has been astonishing. As auto analyst Max Warburton puts it, “Investors are increasingly trying to determine which company is going to be the most consistent at delivering hit products.” In de’Silva, the VW Group has found its hit machine.
Nakamura is the man who put Japanese car design on the map after decades of copycat designs. Headhunted from under-the-radar Isuzu in 1999, he oversaw an onslaught of radical concepts and high-selling production cars as part of Carlos Ghosn’s Nissan Revival Plan. Included in the list are, from Nissan, the Cube, the 350Z, the Murano, the Juke, and, in Europe, various Micras and the Qashqai, as well as the FX45 and the Essence concept for Infiniti. Key to his success is not only his ability and work ethic — he allegedly often works twelve hours per day from a chauffeur-driven GT-R — but also his skill and willingness to communicate his designs’ relevance internally and externally and his global experience (he studied at Art Center in the United States and has worked in Europe and Japan). Bonus fun fact: Nakamura was a jazz bass player before embarking on his career in the car industry.
A BMW man through and through, van Hooydonk joined the company in 1992 and was thoroughly involved with Chris Bangle and his highly controversial, but also very influential, flame-surfacing design language. Busier and more complex exterior surfacing has cropped up across the car industry since their work first appeared and remains prevalent today. He followed in Bangle’s footsteps to become BMW’s design director in 2004 and became head of Group design, including Mini and Rolls-Royce, when his mentor stepped down in 2009. Beyond cars, van Hooydonk “gets” the bigger design picture — he was director of BMW’s product consultancy, DesignworksUSA in California, for three years. BMW’s current mainstream car designs have been toned down under his watch, but this brand and designer have a very bright future and are still capable of producing stunning cars like the Z4 and the Vision EfficientDynamics concept.
Ten years ago, Mays was responsible for eight brands: Aston Martin, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercury, and Volvo. With Volvo’s sale to Geely earlier this year and Mercury’s announced demise, the only brands left are Ford and Lincoln. Still, those two marques represent some 4.5 million vehicles annually, and globally Ford is in better overall design shape than it’s been for decades, due in no small part to Mays’s direction and execution of the One Ford global policy — the acclaimed European Fiesta’s entry into the U.S. market is just one example. Add in his legacy of successful concepts — the 1991 Audi Avus led to the TT and the 1994 VW Concept 1 to the new VW Beetle — his ability to nurture (and poach) design talent to work with him (Martin Smith, Freeman Thomas, Peter Horbury, Laurens van den Acker), plus thoroughbred production-car designs like the Land Rover LR3 and the Aston Martin DB9, and you have a man who still wields heavyweight clout.
Welburn is only the sixth person to serve as head of design in the history of General Motors and, in 2005, he became the first to hold the newly created position of global design VP. Five years later, he oversees ten design centers in eight countries and a team of some 1500 people. GM’s brand portfolio may have shrunk in 2009, but Welburn has marshaled significant changes in aesthetics and quality for the brands that are left in America, with Buick (Enclave, LaCrosse), Cadillac (CTS), Chevrolet (Malibu, Camaro), and even GMC (Granite concept), plus others around the world. Before all this, he also led the excellent GM Autonomy and Hy-wire fuel-cell projects as director of advanced design. Big job, (relatively) low profile.
Ramaciotti was coaxed out of retirement to take on the newly created role of head of Fiat Group design in 2007, including responsibility for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Abarth, and Maserati. From 1973 to 2005, he was with Pininfarina, where he was in charge of countless vehicle projects that included standout Ferraris like the 456GT, Enzo, 550 Maranello, and 360 Modena, plus the Maserati Quattroporte and GranTurismo, as well as more accessible cars like the 1995 Alfa GTV and the stunning Peugeot 406 coupe. He has a pedigree-filled track record, but his influence at Fiat has yet to be fully felt.
Giugiaro is the living legend behind more than 200 vehicles, with worldwide production numbers equating to 60 million cars, from the everyman Fiat Panda and the more recent Grande Punto to supercars like the Lotus Esprit and the Maserati Bora. He makes this list courtesy of Volkswagen’s recent purchase of his company, which should secure its future and could yet return the septuagenarian to the spotlight.
8. WOLFGANG EGGER (47, German)
Head of design, Audi Group
Key cars: 2002 Seat Ibiza, Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione
The most Italian German you’ll ever meet, Egger studied in Milan and helped Italian Walter de’Silva (now VW Group design boss) “bring the emotion” at Alfa Romeo on the 156, 166, 147, and 8C. He followed de’Silva to Seat and then again to Audi as Group design boss (responsible for Audi and Lamborghini). As a result, he shades Audi brand design chief Stefan Sielaff for influence. A good egg.
9. MARTIN SMITH (61, British)
Executive design director, Ford Europe, Asia Pacific, and Africa
Key cars: Audi Avus, 2006 Opel Corsa, Ford Iosis and 2009 Fiesta
Smith’s career has been central to many key design trends of the last thirty-plus years. At Audi from the late ’70s to the ’90s, he helped develop the brand’s clean lines on the Audi 4000, 5000, Avus concept, and TT (with J Mays). At GM’s European operation from 1997 to 2004, Smith influenced the future of Opel/Vauxhall with the 2003 Insignia concept. He then moved to Ford of Europe, where he has been instrumental in its dynamic “kinetic design” (think Fiesta and new Focus), which is now key to the company’s One Ford global policy. In 2006, he added Asia Pacific and Africa to his job responsibilities. Massively influential, with sales hits to match.
An unsung legend and longtime J Mays collaborator, Thomas has been behind a wide variety of cars, from the Audi TT and VW Beetle concepts to the wonderfully nut-job 500-hp Dodge Tomahawk show bike, the Chrysler 300C, and the future-facing 2010 Ford Start concept. Visionary.
11. JEAN-PIERRE PLOUE (47, French)
Group design director, PSA Peugeot Citroen
Key cars: Renault Argos, Citroen C4 Picasso
Ploue started at Renault on the acclaimed original Twingo (with Patrick le Quement as chief designer) and then the 1994 Argos — Renault’s TT. In eight years as Citroen’s design director, he added flair (C2, current C3, C4, C4 Picasso, and C6) where once there was despair (Xsara, Xantia, etc.). He’s been in overall charge of Peugeot and Citroen since 2008. French design future looks bright.
12. LOWIE VERMEERSCH (36, Belgian)
Design director, Pininfarina
Key cars: Nido, Maserati Birdcage 75th, Ferrari 458 Italia
Rising to director of the revered Italian design house in 2007 at just 33, Vermeersch has been involved in stunning production Ferraris, awesome concepts (Nido, Sintesi, 2uettottanta), mainstream cars for emerging brands (Brilliance, Chery, and Tata), plus confidential work for established carmakers. As Vermeersch puts it, he acts “as a sparring partner to give new ideas and an outside view.” Vital.
13. LAURENS VAN DEN ACKER (45, Dutch)
VP corporate design, Renault
Key cars: 2001 Ford Escape, Mazda Nagare and Ryuga
Having gained global experience from a series of superb concepts for Mazda and Ford, van den Acker had some big shoes to fill in 2009 when he took over for Patrick le Quement, who had been at Renault for twenty-two years. Reporting directly to chief operating officer Patrick Pelata, van den Acker is now in charge of the Renault and Dacia brands and has some 460 staff spread across three continents. He has been tasked by Pelata to make “great cars.” Improving on current dull Renaults shouldn’t be hard, but being allowed to vent his full design creativity within a business needing surefire sales hits might be.
Ebisawa doesn’t play the flamboyant designer role — he’s more white lab coat, shirt, and tie (he’s also the managing director of R&D). But, since 2009, he’s had overall responsibility for the look of nearly four million Hondas every year. After joining the company back in 1977, he worked through Honda’s early ’80s “man maximum, machine minimum” design phase. Post-2000, the firm added a more emotional dimension, as witnessed in the superbly packaged Fit minicar, the radical European Civic hatchback, the aerodynamic FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle, and the wedgy CR-Z. In all, he’s behind more independent-thinking, functional, and dynamic design than he is sometimes given credit for.
Like some musicians, there are car designers who have only one or two styles in them. Callum’s not one of them, with a diversity and breadth of brands and great-looking cars from hot superminis to luxury sedans and supercars. He made Jag relevant again.
Schreyer made his name at Audi in the ’90s on the less-is-more first-generation A6, A4 Avant, A3, and TT, which are much admired and since copied. After working for VW in the early ’00s, his move to head Kia design in 2006 shocked many, but the formerly unloved brand is already gaining sales and design flair. Schreyer is far more influential than his Korean counterpart at Hyundai, Oh Suk-geun.
After short stints at VW, Opel, and Mazda, Wagener became a Mercedes career man who, since 1997, has been involved in almost all of the brand’s key cars. Since being named head of design in 2008, he’s championed the SLS along with the F800 and Shooting Break concepts, which are all examples of a more fluid future direction that should banish the brutal angularity of some of the current range. Naysayers may claim that Mercedes hasn’t recaptured its mojo since the departure of Bruno Sacco, but its design influence is still huge.
18. ROBERTO GIOLITO (47, Italian)
Design director, Fiat
Key cars: 1998 Multipla and 2008 Fiat 500
Giolito’s new 500 made the world love Fiat again (and has contributed greatly to its profits and brand equity). He was also responsible for the first modern-day Multipla — a people mover that was harder to love from the outside but featured fantastic interior packaging.
19. GILLES VIDAL (37, French)
Director of style, Peugeot
Key cars: Citroen C-Metisse and GT, Peugeot BB1
He only got the top job in January 2010, but Vidal had already changed the game when he was head of concepts in 2009, with the BB1 scooter-car concept (set for production) and, before that, a host of Citroen concepts and production cars. One to watch.
20. LUC DONCKERWOLKE (45, Belgian)
Design director, Seat
Key cars: Lamborghini Murcielago and Gallardo, 2008 Seat Ibiza
Donckerwolke speaks seven languages (including Swahili), has a fondness for weaponry design (his dad was a hunter), and made Lamborghini great again before joining Seat in 2005. The current Ibiza shows a new approach, and there’s plenty more in the pipeline. A dangerously good designer.
Who? Uchiyamada is a relative unknown within car-design circles because he’s an engineer who also serves as the head of Toyota’s design operations. His big break was becoming chief engineer of the first-generation Prius (the really ugly one, pictured at left), and, according to his resume, he’s big on NVH reduction. Great engineering credentials aside, can he really have the vision required to stimulate the creation of beautiful, relevant cars? Uchiyamada makes this list because he has the power to influence how some nine million vehicles per year look. Toyota used to have a de facto design boss, Wahei Hirai, but didn’t directly replace his position when he vacated it in 2009. A worry?
22. IKUO MAEDA (51, Japanese)
General manager, Mazda design division
Key cars: Mazda RX-8 and 2007 Mazda 2
Maeda has been a Mazda man since 1982 — other than a brief stint with Ford in 1999 — which is appropriate given that his surname is just one letter away from “Mazda.” With the production RX-8, he brought suicide doors (safely) back into fashion, and he became overall design boss in 2009.
23. RALPH GILLES (40, American)
Senior VP of design, Chrysler Group
Key cars: 2005 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum
Gilles replaced Brit Trevor Creed in autumn 2008 to oversee nearly two million annual Chryslers, Jeeps, and Dodges. Expect vastly improved quality and style, with the 2011 Grand Cherokee as a first taste. Also president of the Dodge brand, Gilles reports directly to Sergio Marchionne, so there will be no Fiat design filter.
24. KLAUS BISCHOFF (48, German)
Head of design, Volkswagen
Key cars: VW Polo and Up!
A Volkswagen design veteran since 1989, Bischoff worked his way up from interior designer to head of VW brand design by 2007. He had his paws in most key VW-badged projects during that period as well as the interior of the Bugatti Veyron. Consistent.
25. MAREK REICHMAN (44, British)
Design director, Aston Martin
Key vehicles: Aston Martin Rapide and DBS
Industry insiders may argue about just how much Reichman has achieved since taking over at Aston Martin in 2005 — one critic accused the Rapide of being “only a long-wheelbase DB9” — but stewardship of the world’s most beautiful sports car brand isn’t easy. For evidence, just compare the Rapide to the Porsche Panamera.