Interview with Adrian van Hooydonk

Dutch designer Adrian van Hooydonk leads the design teams for not only BMW, but also for MINI and Rolls Royce. All bases covered, then. Right now it’s BMW that we’re most interested in, with two daring electric ‘i’ concepts nearing production and a new, front-wheel drive, plug-in hybrid. So how does van Hooydonk feel about electric luxury, arrogant designers, and the public’s ability to assimilate electric vehicles into their lifestyles?

Green Car Design: Do you think that cars are becoming too ‘over-designed’?

Adrian van Hooydonk: It’s a good question because, without talking about specific products, I think the times we live in are interesting. On the one hand, the customers want more and more – more space, more details, more chrome and there seems to be a bit of competition going on between the manufacturers. Then, I think there is a trend towards more individuality, and possibly MINI started that because, if you look at MINI, it started with different coloured roofs and then stickers and a lot more on the interior. I think it is fair to say that ten years after the restart of MINI, there are a lot of companies that are implementing such things.

At the same time there is this ‘new mobility’, these zero-emission drivetrains and whole new layouts, and I see this as an opportunity. Maybe this will lead to a completely new design direction – at least that is our take, because if you look at BMW’s ‘i’ products, the layouts are new; the proportions are new, but we also decided to develop a new form language. That form language should communicate what is underneath. Since the cars are so clean we wanted the cars to look clean. So, in a way, with the design of the i3 and i8, especially in the interiors, you’ll find that the design looks clean and almost reduced. Calm, if you will, but still luxurious.

I think there are two things going on right now in the world of car design. One is that luxury is provided by ‘more’, and then in the ‘i’ products we are going to offer something that we call “next premium”, which is something of a recalibration. I think it is possible to make premium products that look very clean. Almost simple, but still engaging and emotional. I think the i3 and the i8 are going to do that. Time will tell where the whole industry will go, but this is what we’re trying to do here at BMW Group.

GCD: So this is how BMW turn ‘electric’ into ‘luxury’, by removing superfluous details and allowing them to engage with the fundamental design?

AvH: Yes, when we started these products we knew full well that people's ideas a couple of years back about electric mobility were probably not very emotional – they probably couldn’t imagine that it could be emotionally engaging. The whole idea behind the i3 and i8 concepts is to show that electric mobility will be fun to drive and that electric cars are not slow. The production cars are around the corner, and they will be very close to the concept cars that you see here. Some people have put down deposits for the i8 – they don’t know when it will come or how much it will cost, but they want one.

GCD: And who’s really pushing ‘green’ design at BMW; is it the designers or the engineers or marketing; who?

AvH: The whole company, and our CEO, has said that in the future ‘premium’, which is what BMW offer, will be more and more defined by sustainability. At first, it will be something new, but over ten or fifteen years from now it will be expected and if you don’t have it you can no longer be a premium brand. So, for us, it is of strategic importance. In the design department, we wanted to give it a creative spin. On a rational level, everyone knows that zero-emissions is probably a good thing. If you ask a man if the street he says, “Yes, that’s good”, but if you ask if whether he’s going to buy one he’ll say, “I don’t know, it depends what it looks like”. That’s the story, so it’s our job to make sure that it looks desirable and that people will want it. One day it will be normal.

GCD: The ‘i’ cars will become part of a lifestyle, then?

AvH: I don’t know, it’s hard to say because they’re not on sale yet, but I think that it’s a mental attitude or an attitude to life. What we’ve found out is that you can’t really pinpoint potential customers for these kind of brands. There are all sorts of people from different walks of life that care about the environment, but they express it in different ways. They don’t necessarily have to be loud about it, but they want to express it, and maybe so far they haven’t found a car that will allow them to do both. I think these products are going to appeal to many people and it will be interesting to see how many people are willing to make that switch.

GCD: Have you driven the i8 yourself?

AvH: I have, but in a very early stage, and right now there are prototypes being tested all around the world and every month it’s improving. We compared it to some, shall we say, ‘normal’ sports cars and they couldn’t keep up with it.

GCD: That’s not surprising, but having built hatchback and sportscar ‘i’ models, there’s surely room for more variants in the range. What’s next?

AvH: We do think that there’s room for more, but we also think that there’s a bit of time before we have to answer that question. As you can imagine, developing two cars like that, that are so radically new, simultaneously, takes quite an effort. We’re talking about drive trains that are completely new, battery technology that is new and a carbon fibre chassis which, let’s not forget, is something that nobody has done in larger scale production. Both cars being in the test phase keeps us quite busy, and we’re aiming towards market launch sometime next year and then we’ll have to see. We believe that by 2020, 10-15% of vehicles that we sell will be hybrid or electric, but this kind of thing is really hard to predict. At the moment, this combination of ‘emotion’, ‘premium’, and ‘sustainable’ is not yet available on the market – we might not be the only ones in a couple of years – but we feel that the world won’t change overnight.

GCD: So what would you, personally, like to design next, and how autonomous are BMW’s designers?

AvH: Actually, typically my wishes come true. In terms of design at least- not in everything. As a design department, we're working on successor products to cars and motorcycles you see here – that’s the main job. We are also tasked with thinking up new concepts and we actually get some freedom from the company to develop completely new ideas. Not all of them will be produced but, in a sense, we are very free to offer ideas to the company. I believe we need to have more ideas than the company can produce – it would be very bad the other way round.

GCD: Obviously you’ve just launched the Active Tourer concept, what are you most satisfied about?

AvH: I think that, judging from the reactions we’ve had, it seems to have been accepted as a ‘good’ BMW. That was our main objective. It’s a car that we have never done before - there is no predecessor model – and this always makes the design project a bit more exciting because there’s no reference point in our history. Then the front-wheel drive is new to BMW and that leads to new proportions and a new architecture, a monovolume architecture, which we never before used, and all of this makes it exciting. People seem to recognise it as a BMW, even with these proportions and with front-wheel drive – I think that was the main objective.

There are other front-wheel drive cars on the market, but what we think we can offer is the ‘joy of driving’ in the segment. MINI has shown that it can be fun to drive around a corner in a front-wheel drive car – our engineers know how to do that – and the design shows where we are going with BMW. The car looks likes like it’s moving even where it’s standing still and that is crucial for any BMW.

GCD: There’s definitely a balance between the harder edges and soft lines that you don’t always get with German cars, and the transversely mounted 3-cylinder engine allows you to taper the nose more than ever.

AvH: Every drivetrain presents its own opportunities and if you want to do a car with good interior space and variability then front-wheel drive offers some advantages. You get the flat floor, you don’t get the tunnel coming through, so you can offer quite a lot of space and a relatively small footprint, and then it’s maybe a bit more challenging with a shorter car to make it look fast or dynamic and elegant. With a 5 or 7 Series you can make a line run for over five meters, and that makes it easier. It’s harder to do on a shorter car; I think that our design team have managed to do a good job with that. The car that you see is here is very close to the production car that will come.

GCD: And what is it that makes your design team special?

AvH: It’s a difficult question, but I think that they all have the same mentality, we are always looking towards the future and we don’t have any designers that are going to lean back. It doesn’t work like that, as a designer you always think that you can do better. You’re always thinking that the next car is going to be even better. I would say that all of my team is motivated; I never have to come in on Monday morning and do a motivational speech. They love cars and motorcycles, they love driving, and they love design. I think it shows in every detail. I think over the years that we’ve managed to recruit some of the best designers in the world but we have no prima donnas. For me, the atmosphere in the team is extremely important, you probably know that design is developed in competition, so each designer competes with his or her colleagues, anybody can win, and this could lead to an awful atmosphere, but in our team it doesn’t. I think the competitions are run very fairly, but the designers also help and motivate each other. This, to me, has become key. I will never hire a designer, even if he or she is very good, if they are arrogant. One person like that in the team can ruin everything.

GCD: Finally, what’s your company car?

AvH: At the moment I drive an M3, but in a couple of weeks I’ll get a MINI Paceman, which I’m very much looking forward to.

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