Dirk van Braeckel: "Bentley styling is a unique blend of luxury and effortless performance put in a timeless shape…"
At the 2008 Brussels Motor Show Dirk van Braeckel, (on the left) the Director of Styling and Concept Design at Bentley Motors, received the prestigious European Automotive Design Award by Designers (Europe), in partnership with FEBIAC, the Belgian automotive industry association, and this was more than reason enough for me to interview him at the Show. I would suggest, read further…
As a great admirer of the styling of the vintage and classic Bentleys through the decades, I asked him first which styling elements and icons of the "classic" Bentleys he wants to maintain and integrate in the shapes of the future Bentleys.
A: "The whole history of Bentley was an inspiration for me, and certainly the last 11 years of independence of the "Marque." In fact, it is the unique combination of luxury and (very) high performance, and also the effortless manner in which these performances are delivered that impressed me in the Bentley cars. To translate this typical character into forms and shapes was the guiding principle when drawing and styling the Continental GT.
The styling of the car had to make the statement that it was powerful and fast, but without having to prove this. So the shapes show this power, but at the same time exude an aura of retention, elegance, thereby also suggesting the utter effortlessness with which this power is delivered and the high performances are reached. Also the interior creates the ambiente of this effortless power and luxury. According to the specific model, one can create varying degrees or combinations between sports and luxury. Bentley can offer a truly very wide span here: in the same month in 2003, we delivered a state limousine to the British Queen and we raced and won in Le Mans.
You are the proud owner of an E-type, does this and other Bentley cars inspire you in styling the Bentleys?
A: If I restrict myself to the Bentleys, the R-type Continental was a great inspiration for me,
The 1953 R Type Continental...
as were the pre-war Bentley "Blowers", de Speed Six, but truly the Barnato "Blue Train" Bentley is for me an unbelievable car.
The Barnato "Blue Train" Bentley...
It is this unique feeling one has still today when standing eye to eye with these cars, that inspires me. It is this typical classic aura of these cars, which one can translate and reinvent again in the Bentley styling for the future. Also the whole interior and for example the shaping of the seats will always be with the eye on comfort and will have to retain and evoke the characteristics of a true "Grand Tourer" as the name "Continental" also suggests.
The present day Continental has retained the interior of a true Grand Tourer...
If we see the new Mazda concept cars of Laurens van den Acker, what do these new shapes tell you? How will you interpret these new shapes?
A: What Laurens has done in his recent show cars is of course inspiring, seen from a sculptural viewpoint his work is very good indeed. Also the details are worked out very well, and this is "an sich", in itself, already a source of inspiration. One can still go further, without leaving the Bentley style, one can re-think, and in the very execution of these ideas, which is the most important element, one can still take things further forward.
The revolutionary interior of the Mazda show car...
Also in the aerodynamic, "organic" shapes?
A: Aerodynamics will become even more important as it is already today, and this has to be incorporated efficiently in the future designs. But for Bentley, style is most important, and will always prevail over other practical aspects. We are a luxury product, and in the first place we have to inspire our clients, the Bentley design has to be seductive to them. When one sees the car for the first time, on a photograph or in reality, one builds an image which creates expectations which have to be met and confirmed when you sit in the car, behind the wheel or as a passenger, and when you drive (in) the car. When you can put the combination of these three elements succesfully together, you have a strong argument.
You work together with Raul Pires, head of Exterior Design and Robin Page, Interior Design Manager?
A: We work closely together, on the (clay) models, the sketches, have meetings, and I have to point out here that we started in 1999 with only 8 people, and in a relatively short time this grew to 35.
But today I have a design team with a staff of not less than 114. However, despite this growth, creativity is and still remains "king". I have every day a contact with the model(s), and this is very important. Of course we have a very good team spirit.
Do major trends in fashion, art, do changes in "Zeitgeist", the spirit of the times, have an influence on how you see and draw the future Bentleys?
A: These trends have an influence, but are not directly visible or reflected in Bentley design. We want to be modern in our design, but also we want to achieve a timeless character in our shapes, we want our cars to look still good in 20 years. We therefore design every detail, every element with the greatest care, pay also attention to its "feel" and touch, redesign and refine it more than other makes or brands would do, as we need to achieve this very timelessness in all the elements of the car. This is of course very labour intensive…
In our studio we use the latest computer techniques, but combine this with the traditional work methods using clay models. Going to and fro between the computer screen and the full size clay model produces the best results. One needs the clay model when you are working with shapes which are more than five metres long, and needs the efficiency of computer power when you are making many minute changes.
The Bentley "Heritage" in design... from the Speed Six and the R Type continental to the present day...
How do you create the typical Bentley "ambiente" or atmosphere?
A: The ambiente is the result of the materials, colours and shapes used. For example, if I would put the leather of our cars on the flat surface of this table, it would look hard and tough. But of I would wrap this leather along a rounded shape, the impression is different. The design of the forms and shapes has always to be done in function of the materials used in the objects.
You are working of course on a range of new projects?
A: Indeed, we have a staff of 114 people now working on the next generation(s) of models. As the development process of a new model takes almost two years, the design decision has to be taken some 3 years before the start of production. During this quite long period, were prototypes are built and are called upon to make (detail) changes to our design(s) and of course stay committed to the project throughout its development.
You work together with paint producers in the development of new colours, finishes? How is your dialogue?
A: We work closely together with our paint providers, of which the main one is BASF, and there are many clients with special wishes in terms of colour and finish, and this is a constant development. One must keep in mind that the development of a new colour to our quality standards takes two years!
Does European design still represent important values to the world?
A: This is certainly true for Bentley design. We stand for well-known values and we hold these (up) with both hands. This is also the reason why we are not directly influenced by new trends, and maybe this constitutes the unique character of Bentley.
When you see one of these big Bentley "specials" made in the fifties, what do you think?
A: These cars translate the passion people had for the "Marque", and it is this passion which made the make survive over decades….
We thank You for this interview.
Hans Knol ten Bensel
Dirk van Braeckel receives the award from the hands of her Royal Highness Princess Astrid of Belgium...
Attention to detail in the design creates the unique and timeless Bentley "ambiente" or aura, as is seen here...
with the Breitling watch set beautifully in the dashboard, and with
the gearlever, and even down to the lettering ald shape of the oil filler cap...