Interview with Murat Günak

Murat Günak, a name some of you might have heard of a name you should know.  Turkish by birth and upbringing Günak started his career after he graduated from his Ford sponsored degree of Master of Automotive Design by the Royal College of Art in London in 1983.  He moved to Cologne with Ford where he worked for 2 years before moving on to Mercedes - there he was to stay for the longest time in his career for 8 years and designed the first C-Class and SLK

Then came his big break, he became Head of Design at Peugeot in 1994 and this is when his relationship began with his future colleagues at Heuliez.  From Peugeot and models such as the 206 CC, 307, and 607 Günak kept gaining ground until he made made it back to Mercedes in 1998 as Head of Design of Mercedes Passenger Cars, Maybach and SLR at DaimlerChrysler AG!  However, when he moved to VW in 2004 the seed for what he wanted to really be doing had been planted.  So much so that only 3 years later in 2007 he had his ‘ahah’ moment, he realised that he had to design and make green cars.

Günak disappeared off the automotive map for a while and amid gossip and hearsay it emerged that he was designing an all-new electric vehicle called the Mindset.  He was in Switzerland and together with his old school friend from RCA, David Wilkie, and Professor Tumminelli they were building a dream.  Mindset didn’t really work out the way they had planned but on the way he returned to Heuliez and when the company was going bankrupt he found a buyer for a new dream…for the Mia-Electric.  Now that he has arrived at his destination, we ask him a few questions of what its like to come full circle back to where we sat and interviewed him in Mia headquarters in Cerizay, France.  Imagine, if you will, a Turkish gentleman with a French-German accent and plenty of passion.

Green Car Design : How did you get to Mia-Electric?

Murat Günak : It’s a long story, I know Heuliez since I was working at Peugeot.  We have always worked together, Heuliez did the Mindset prototype and during this time this (Mia) project started.  We have been working on the Mia cars since summer 2009.  Then Professor Kohl founded Mia summer 2010, one year ago.

The story of Mr. Kohl is very interesting because I know Mr. Kohl as a friend and he wanted actually just to buy a Mia, Mias, for his company, for his stageres (interns).  He wanted to give them free mobility when they come to work for him.  Then he was impatient waiting for the car and when he read in the newspaper that there was all the financial problems he decided to take over.  From the beginning he was very convinced about the Mia project.

GCD : Does Mr. Kohl have an interest in green technology?

MG : Yes, he is very dedicated to green technology, in fact our ambition driven by Mr. Kohl is to become a green company.  The Mia is our product but our vision is that the Mia company will become a green company from A to Z.

GCD : You seem very happy about this dream…is it good?

MG : I am very happy for many things.  First of all I really love this region and the people here.  While we were working on the Mia project I lived the difficult time of the people here, they were really suffering for months.  They had no prospective; it was the first time in my life that I lived a situation like this.  We all suffered but everybody believed in this project, nobody made strike, everybody was sad, but everybody worked.  So the satisfaction when we see this (opens arms to studio) its ah…one year ago this factory was empty, you know, so what we have created as a team is not only a product, it’s a brand, a factory, a company, you know.  And this for me is the miracle.  A pioneer’s story.

GCD : Does it feel good to do it with your friend?

MG : Sure, without David it would not have been possible. 

GCD : Where did you meet David?

MG : It’s a funny story.  I know David from RCA.  And we did everything together.  Then when I went to work for a big company I told him to come with me but he said no.  He went to Ghia.  Then when I went to Mercedes I asked him to come and interview…and he said no.  And so it went until the Mindset project and he is still working with me today.

GCD : You have known the people for a long time?

MG : Yes, I know because I had to get a French driving license, I can remember when I came here. I came to work for Peugeot and then, yeah 1995 (looks at the license)…June 1995.  It’s a great story, I just started at Peugeot as Director of Design and we were just working on the 206 and because the car was prepared for production some suppliers got the data of the car.  So as a supplier Heuliez also got the data, and I was not really settled, there was a lot of poliitcs, it was a difficult job…and my secretary says there is a visitor.  A man called Mr. Gerard Queveau, the former CEO of Heuliez, an old gentleman comes with a paper like this and they had taken the pieces of the data and had transformed it into a coupé cabriolet you know? Like an amateur, he went (he slams the table) “you have to make this car!”. It was a great idea.  Before then I was at Mercedes we developed the SLK so I knew what to do.  I said is it expensive? and he said ‘no I can do it!’  So I said lets do it! Just like this, it was really cool and a big success.  It all happened right here.

GCD : So you have come full circle?

MG : Its true, very funny…life.

GCD : When did you change your mind about cars and the environment?

MG : 2007…the only thing which I believed if you look carefully to the environment and you start thinking about it any normal person comes to the conclusion, probably, that the car is not the most efficient in this context.  But we live all in the world where we try to deny it, because I love cars, we love cars, lots of people love cars.  So, there is no other solution.  Even to get the petrol from Arabia to Germany to change (tapping and pointing on the table) blah blah blah until it gets into my car half of it is burnt already!  Its un-efficient mobility system…but there is not alternative.  And the traffic, the noise, the city…if you take all this away and you look at it on a purely efficient way it is so un-efficient to get petrol from the other side of the world to feed your car. 

I had the chance to work always in big companies and a couple of cars.  I have to say, I provoked a lot of discussion, every company, its not to blame, has maybe a thousand engineers or five thousand engineers and maybe a couple hundred designers and why not use a little percentage of these people would dedicate themselves to new mobility?  It would not harm anything, instead of that for a new car they work for years on a new door handle, another plastic piece.  Not only do they work on it they get stomach problems, they get upset, they stress…for what?  Its useless!  You have to remember that in 2007 nobody was really thinking about green mobility, not really.  Electrical car nobody wanted to hear about, only people who hated cars anyhow.  So…it was just a lifetime decision.  If I can do something for the environment, the only thing I can do is cars (shrugs shoulders as if its obvious), so if I want to do something, I have to do it.  They were not interested in the big company so I had to do it on a small scale.

GCD : There was more response there?

MG : Yeah, because to basically create an electrical as a concept is very easy. You have no complicated engine, you don’t go fast, you don’t need sufficient suspension, so basically its very simple.  But, you need the will to do, the determination, and at the end you need a factory…the big asset, the REAL big asset of the Mia is the factory.  The factory is the key to our success.

GCD : Your ability to go to market depends on it?

MG : The price of the car is incredible, 1 euro per 100 km approximately and emission free, and cool maybe (smiles).  It’s a new statement, it’s a start of a new mobility, but not of making finger pointing, its just a cool nice project, just a cool car.

GCD : How did you become a car designer?

MG : It was very complicated, I have to find the simple answer…I always draw cars (laughs!).  You know I am Turkish, I grew up in Turkey. To do something with cars was so far away, almost impossible.  As every young boy I wanted to have my own car, dream car, or sports car, something like that.  I was drawing all the time…and by big big big chance I got contact to Monteverdi, you remember Monteverdi? (not really) so I worked there a little bit and got training first at Monteverdi.  Then I studied design in Germany, University of Kassel, then I finished my diploma as a stage designer, I worked for the Opera as a stage designer and then I hear Ford was giving scholarships for the RCA for talented people.  At that time RCA was the dream of people and it was very expensive so I took the work I had done and it was Patrick Le Quement who said I had talent and would send me to RCA. 

Courtesy of © Royal College of Art

GCD : What is your title?

MG : I have no real title?  But everybody says I need a title…at the moment Head of Corporate Strategy.  Because I cannot be a designer anymore, its David.  David is Head of Design!

GCD : You daughter is called Mia?

MG : Yeah, but this was not the reason.  The reason was when we were looking for a name we wanted to have a non technocratic name for the company.  We are not a technocratic company, and we are not a classical car company, you know, we are producing a product for daily life. 

GCD : You are happy to say that it is a product?

MG : It is a product, we were looking for a name, yes it is the name of my daughter but the reason it is a girls name is the Mia is a feminine product…I insist on that.  It’s a girls name and Mia is an international name, it’s the same everywhere France, Germany, its very easy to recognise, its very simple to write and then we found the logo (points to flower motif).  We were looking for a logo which also was not technic, everyone can remember but hard to copy, you remember but its not so easy to make.  The logo is the frame you see…

GCD : What is your favorite thing about the car?

MG : That it exists!

GCD : Since your journey as a designer has been a bit of an adventure, are you where you want to be now?

MG : I think so, I hope so.  You never know.  Honestly, I think what this team is creating is really pioneer work because the car design has come to a position where it is really a trap.  Today when designers start to design, and specially car designers, they start with the same manières, same process, they take the paper (he takes a paper) and they go wan wan (he draws sweeping lines) and voom voom (more speedy lines) you know…its always for go faster lines.  Speed, dynamism, wheels, aggressive…basic that is what car designers and the people who chose the design are basically thinking the same and the design schools unfortunately are teaching always the same stuff.  It is because in the studios there is a certain façon (way), to choose the design work.  What is the best, WOW (big gesture), everyone wants to win so they do WOW, and this is very disciplined work, not necessarily creative. 

First discipline then creative to make a car like the Mia.  You have to get rid of all these clichés of car design, get rid of them, reduce them, make a product simple. The Mia appeals not by the normal way and we talk about this often.  Its feminine, don’t get me wrong, I am not sexist…but its like a woman without maquillage, makeup, its very pure.  It does not want to be more than it is, so you like it or you don’t like it but it is a very honest product.  And this what is so difficult to design.

GCD : Can simple designs happen by chance?

MG : Non, the Mia did not happen by chance.  The Mia started by the concept not the design.  3 places, sliding doors, and light…the secret is the lightness, 750 kilos!  A Turkish friend told me this, ‘your car is good’, I asked why?  ‘Because it is different if I look to a small car I think Ha Ha! when I look at you car I think Ahah!'