Interview with Peter Schreyer

Peter Schreyer is undoubtedly one of the industry’s most influential car designers. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London in 1980, he is best known for his work with Audi in the 1990s – notably on the TT, A6, A4 Avant and A3 – as well as various show cars for VW in the early 2000s including the 2003 Concept R and 2004 Concept C. In late 2006, in a surprise move, he joined Kia as head of design where he has already put his stamp on several concepts including the 2007 Kee and 2009 No.3. Guy Bird caught up with him at the Geneva Motor Show 2009 to talk about the need for green car design, the environmental impact of Bugatti and his appreciation of Miles Davis and the Porsche 911.

GCD : Is the green agenda really on Kia’s radar yet?

Schreyer : Oh yes, I think everybody in the car industry needs to somehow find an answer, ways to make cars more effective. We have some hybrids happening and mild hybrids in production already. There is also a big research centre in Korea combined with Hyundai building electric cars and fuel cell vehicles.

GCD : But do you get involved with that side much or is it more for the engineers?

Schreyer : Mainly it’s the engineers for now, but eventually we will discuss that [new car architectures] too. When they come up with new drivetrains that will change the layout of cars. At the moment you can see a development in the industry of going away from big and heavy cars.

GCD : Does Kia see a need to articulate this newfound eco agenda in its visual aesthetics?

Schreyer : If you drive a car like a Prius or maybe an Audi A2 it’s a kind of statement, so I think there is a certain importance to make that somehow visible or to make the customer aware of what they have through design. On the other hand, sooner or later I think eco cars will be a bit like flat screen TVs. A Long a time ago, when you bought a new TV people would say: ‘Is it black and white or colour?’ A little later of course it would be a colour TV so then they said: ‘Is it a flat screen or no? It’s a little bit the same with cars at the moment. Some cars are eco and some are not. Within a very short time, to have an eco car will be expected or normal, it will be kind of standard.

GCD : So do you think in the future there won’t be a need for a green car design language?

Schreyer : I don’t think it will split up between green cars and non-green cars. There might be a segment for a certain kind of people who maybe buy an electric vehicle as a second car to go to work in everyday. But if you want to drive to Italy you can’t use it.

GCD : So Kia won’t be trying to design an overtly green-looking range (even in the medium term), like Mercedes is with its forthcoming BlueZERO range for instance?

Schreyer : We are working on things like this but when or where we will show them I don’t know yet, I can’t tell you.

GCD : Are there technical changes regarding greener cars – like the ‘closed mouths’ of some EVs compared to the gapey grille of Audi say – that can lead to new design cues?

Schreyer : To me it’s a matter of the technology. Some of those cars don’t need as much air, and if you don’t need the air you don’t need a grille or an air intake, and then it’s obviously more aerodynamic too. We did that with the Audi A2 with its solid [plastic] grille, and it was for that reason. There was no cooler behind it [just an oil filler, dipstick and windscreen wash filler]. You could still open the bonnet but you didn’t need to, so we saved some weight through the lack of bonnet prop and other stuff too.

GCD : In terms of new recycled or lower weight material, is there anything Kia is looking at that other companies aren’t that you’re excited about?

Schreyer : Our advanced design studio in Korea works a lot with new materials but these things are not so easy, it’s very difficult to get them into production. We haven’t discovered a new type of lightweight aluminum for next year! [chuckles].

GCD : From a personal perspective is the eco agenda something you’re particularly interested in, or is it just something Kia is saying you must do? And do you think technology will solve the problem or do you think it needs to be pushed by legislation?

Schreyer : I think it needs to be pushed also. I think it needs the contribution of everybody, starting from the customer going back to the designers, engineers and marketing people. Everybody needs to go in the same direction.

GCD : In terms of brands who do you think is doing the greenest work – in reality – not just in marketing?

Schreyer : Bugatti maybe [laughs]? That’s because it only builds cars for ‘museums’. They don’t drive them. Some rich people buy them and put them in the garage and maybe drive down to the casino once a year.

GCD : So its whole-life carbon footprint is quite low?

Schreyer : Yes, and it creates a lot of employment too.

GCD : More seriously, what about mainstream brands?

Schreyer : Hard to say, I think, I can’t really tell. Everybody’s trying very hard and if you look through the exhibition here at Geneva on every stand you see a group of white cars with green graphics on them saying eco-something or other, and you never know: ‘Is that only the graphic or is the car really green?’

GCD : What else influences your designs?

Schreyer : People always say I got ‘this and that’ from a certain old car, but this is not really the point for me. I try to look at architecture and art and music, things like this. I like things that are not average, and people who follow their own vision – unfortunately some of them are already dead – people like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa. I’ve read his autobiography and went to many concerts of Miles Davis – in the last ten years before he died. He had real stage presence.

GCD : Can you bring some of that significance to car design or would you rather be a painter or some such?

Schreyer : If I could I would like to be a painter. I would love to do that if I had more time.

GCD : When will the first production car to truly bear your stamp arrive?

Schreyer : The replacement of the Sorento will have a lot more influence, it was in the very early phase when I arrived, then there’s a [Audi A6-sized] big sedan for US and Asia – it’s a cool car launching in 2009.

GCD : Which is the car you’d wished you’d designed?

Schreyer : I really like the Porsche 911. All of them, I like the 911 as an institution. Of course the original one but I like how the way Porsche evolved it and it’s still such a milestone today. It’s the icon of sportscars.

GCD : And a car you’re glad you didn’t?

Schreyer : [Laughs] Maybe quite a few. I don’t want to offend anybody but… [then after several days thinking about it by email] …It took me quite some time to think. But now I am pretty sure it’s the current Golf Variant.