A couple weeks ago we had a chance to sit down with Adrian van Hooydonk, the Dutch-born designer who took over as head of BMW Group design last year when Chris Bangle announced his departure from the company. With almost a year under his belt in his new role, we let the 45-year-old design chief tell us a little about what’s happening not just at BMW design, but also with the future of automotive design as a whole.
KM- Last year you took over as head of BMW Group Design. What’s your single biggest mission in this role?
AvH- Well, it’s a big job of course. A lot of projects going on at the same time, and my key mission is to contribute to the future of all these brands. It’s a great job because they are great brands. For the BMW brand we are at the beginning of a big wave of new product launches. But I’ve already been responsible for BMW design for five years, so that is not so new to me.
Mini is also not entirely new to me because when I was still working as a designer a couple years ago, I designed a concept car for the Mini, the ACV30, which you may remember. It was the very first concept car we [BMW Group] showed after we bought Mini. But for Mini, of course, our goal is to grow the brand. Mini to me is very exciting at a time when people are talking about downsizing. I don’t think people want boring little cars. That has been tried before, and people don’t want that. They might want smaller cars, but they definitely want exciting cars, so I think we are very well positioned with the Mini brand to deliver that.
And then with Rolls-Royce, well, that [brand] of course is only sensational cars. It is the pinnacle of what automotive construction is. We’re just launching the Rolls-Royce Ghost, in which I was not involved. The design was already completed [when I entered this role], but I’m very happy to be a part of the launch because it’s just a phenomenal car, and I think it will also help grow the Rolls-Royce brand.
Motorcycles are another thing that I’m passionate about and that I’m also now responsible for. It’s also a very interesting time for BMW Motorcycles because we are developing that [brand] in a more sporty direction. I think you have probably seen the S1000RR, which is an extremely sporty bike with a lot of technology.
For me it’s a great time to be able to step into this role, it’s all exciting stuff.
KM- You mentioned motorcycles. Is it necessary for BMW cars and bikes to share a common design language?
AvH- Well, they are two very different animals. I don’t think you can translate car design directly onto a motorcycle, or vice versa. The BMW Motorcycle brand is developing in a more sporty way. Before, BMW motorcycles were more about touring, long-distance riding – and we will still offer products that will allow you to do that – but now the majority of the BMW motorcycles are very sporty bikes. With that comes a change in design, and what you will see is a little bit more sharpness in the lines. Sharpness can convey a bit more dynamic look as well as precision. And that’s something you see on BMW cars as well. We have sharp lines on the cars and they are also an expression of engineering and precision.
KM- How will we remember the “van Hooydonk” era?
AvH- It’s too early to say. Plus, my mission is not to create a van Hooydonk era. I work for BMW, and I want to do good BMWs, good Minis, good Rolls-Royces. That’s my goal; history is written later.
KM- Which production car best exemplifies your design ethos?
AvH- I would say the new 5 Series is a good example. We are about to launch it soon; in Geneva we will show the car. The 5 Series is a very important car for BMW. It is bought by people who drive long distances, so they know what it means to drive a BMW; they like sporty driving. The 5 Series needs to express all of that, and it is really the 120% BMW. It’s what the brand stands for.
I think the design team did a good job on that car. We developed it in a way that is more elegant and more sporty at the same time. That is the essence of the BMW brand. Elegance combined with sportiness. It’s quite difficult to develop both of them. Sometimes you cam make a car more elegant but then it becomes less sporty, or you make it more sporty and it becomes less elegant. I think in the 5 Series we were able to do both.
KM- In the last decade, the designs of BMW cars have moved from simple and classic to a little more daring and controversial. Has the controversy paid off?
AvH- I think so, yes. But let me say that we didn’t aim to be controversial; we aimed to make a change. When we started that change ten years ago – rather when Chris Bangle initiated that change ten years ago – our brand was doing well, but we knew that we were going to expand the model lineup dramatically. And now we have. So the change that we started allowed us to launch all these different cars, make them recognizable as BMWs, but at the same time give them more breathing space. So each BMW now is still recognizable as such, but it has some character of its own.
This is important also in family members; you’ll see it in real life. You see a family resemblance, but each family member has a character trait of his own. That’s exactly what we wanted to create, and it has actually allowed us to grow the brand. So I think yes, it has paid off. Like I said, controversy was something that happened, but that was not our aim. Now I don’t think we have that controversy any more, and I don’t think we need it either. It’s good.
KM- Have cars always been your primary passion?
AvH- Cars and design, I would say. As a kid I always liked to draw and sketch. I was always doing that. As a young boy I was also very interested in cars, of course. But more [interested] in how they look, so I was sketching cars. And then I learned about industrial design and I studied that. And now I count myself very lucky because I was able to turn my personal interest – my hobby – into my profession.
KM- You have a very prestigious job. Do you still have time for any personal pursuits? And what are those?
AvH- Well, you know, it’s funny; that is maybe one of the downsides of [my job]. My hobby is my work. Therefore, the work is not something that I consider a 9-to-5 thing; well, anyway, it’s more 5-to-9 than 9-to-5. But it sort of continues. Sometimes when I’m at home or on a plane I’m doing small sketches.
But I have interests of course outside of car design. I am still interested in design as a whole: furniture design, fashion design, architecture. I like traveling. So, I do look at other things beyond car design. And it’s also necessary in this job nowadays.
KM- What’s your favorite era in car design?
AvH- The Future. Because that’s what I’m constantly working on.
KM- What one car is still on your personal wish list to own?
AvH- An M1, I would say. Or a BMW 3.0SCSL, the batmobile I would say. At the moment I have a 2002, so I’m starting small. Maybe I can work my way up.
KM- As a designer, what construction material is your favorite?
AvH- Actually, I’m quite open to that. I’ve learned over time that our engineers are very good. I don’t tend to tell them what kind of material they should construct the car in; if I don’t do that, they don’t tell me what the cars should look like. So that’s a pretty good deal we have going there, and I like to stick to that.
I remember from the design phase of the [E63] 6 Series – I personally designed that car, as you probably know – the front fender is injection-molded thermoplastic, the hood is aluminum, the door is aluminum, the rear fender is steel, the trunk lid is SMC, also a plastic. It shows that our engineers can work with many different materials. And they do it to get the weight balance just right. BMW is very meticulous about handling and roadholding. A key to that is weight distribution of 50:50. And that’s why we have this material mix on the 6 Series.
Initially I was a little bit worried about that because I was only concerned about my design lines. I know that in aluminum, you cannot do lines that are as sharp as in steel and plastic. But we managed to work all this stuff out, and now I’m quite open to these materials. In the future lightweight is going to be key, so we’ll probably see a lot more advanced materials in the future.
KM- It’s already becoming clear that lightweight is the future of performance. What challenge does that present as a designer?
AvH- It’s not really a challenge, I see that as an opportunity. More interesting materials. In thermoplastics or lets say, other exotic materials like carbon fiber, you can do very sharp lines. So I’m not really worried about that.
What could be [a challenge] is if we go to lighter materials, to get the same stiffness and torsional rigidity, you need bigger cross sections, and that could take up some space. So that would be something that could be a challenge for us.
I think lightweight is the way to go, because cars probably shouldn’t get much bigger than they are today, and they certainly shouldn’t get heavier. Our engineers are doing a great job also on the engine side. Each engine is getting more powerful and using less fuel. That is quite good, and part of that comes from lighter weight. Our contribution in design is also the aerodynamics, and that is becoming even more important as well.
KM- Do you think we’re at a pinnacle in terms of size and weight?
AvH- I think so, yes.
KM- Have we reached a plateau with wheel diameters too?
AvH- Wait and see. As designers, of course, we think proportions are very important. You cannot do a good design over bad proportions. So I think as a company, there’s no other company that puts a greater effort into getting the proportions right – wheels–to-height and wheels-to-length ratios. So yes, big wheels are something we like to see as designers.
It’s always a tradeoff. A bigger wheel may be heavier, and that’s unsprung weight. We have to be a little bit careful there. And it shouldn’t be ridiculous, because if you get the proportions wrong, if the wheel is very big, on a small car it starts to look like a toy. So we can’t overdo it. But I’m very happy that we’ve moved away from the sixteens.
KM- What’s the next major movement in design?
AvH- I’m sure as everyone knows, we’re going to see different drivetrains; we’re moving toward an era of electric mobility. Not everywhere, and not for everyone; it’s probably more for the urban environment, where it makes sense.
I guess what everyone is worried about is will these cars still be fun to drive? And will they be interesting to look at, will they be attractive, will they be emotional? And I think the answer to both of those questions can be “yes” and “yes.”
We showed the first vision of that in Frankfurt with our concept car, Vision EfficientDynamics. Performance like an M3 with the possibility of zero emissions if you choose in fully electric mode. I think it was a highly emotional, interesting-looking car. So I think it is possible. And I think that is the next frontier. If we are able to make these new drivetrains look so exciting that people absolutely want them, then maybe we can change the world a little bit.
KM- Do you think it’s necessary for cars with alternative drivetrains to project that visually?
AvH- I think so, but it should be exciting. It should be emotional. Just being different is not enough. Right now maybe we’re still in a time where just looking different is good enough, because everyone will say, “Ah yes, that must be that whatever car. I don’t like the look of it, but it’s good for emissions.”
That cannot be where we’re headed with the whole industry. That would be sad. I think in the future success will come to those who are able to combine emotion and desirability with “green.”
KM- Any advice for the car designers of the future?
AvH- If you love what you do, if you love sketching, if you have a very open mind, if you have a great interest in and pay attention to what happens in other areas of design and architecture, then you have a very good chance of being successful as a car designer. The other aspect that is getting more and more important is that you have to be able to communicate well. Not just to be able to talk to journalists; not every designer has to be good at that. But when you develop a car together with the engineers, you have to be able to convince them. You have to be able to get those engineers involved and get them excited about what you’re trying to do. It’s having an open-mindedness, you have to love sketching, because you do it day and night. You have to wake up and sketch right away. And you have to be good at communicating. You do that and I think you’re on your way.