Interview with Gilles Vidal

Gilles Vidal is unusually young to be Design Director at a company like Peugeot, but the company's projects during his tenure speak volumes about his ability. Concepts like the SR1 and BB1 had us begging for a production homologation and at this year's Paris Motor Show Peugeot unveiled the latest in a long line of salacious supercars - the copper-clad Onyx Concept, through which Peugeot's redundant 908 Le Mans Prototype lives on. Egg-boxes, newspapers and a chameleon's what Gilles had to say.

Green Car Design: It’s a quite amazing and very unusual car, what are you most proud of?

Gilles Vidal: Well obviously it’s a supercar, so everything is somehow stunning about it – it’s radical. My favourite aspect was the approach we had with materials. It’s very easy to design a low, wide supercar but it’s very difficult to design a good-looking MPV, so what’s really interesting with this concept car, beyond the looks, is the conception and the approach to materials. In the interior, what we have is a very different approach to high-end materials.

Normally in a supercar interior you would find hyper-processed materials, with lots of stitches everywhere and lots of bits put together – it’s very beautiful but it’s very complicated and what we want to do is exactly the opposite; to have very pure, basic materials and only the way we shape them and put them together brings an atmosphere of ‘high-end’. This approach leads to a very environmental result. Basically, the simple processing of an interior, the short build time, is by definition less polluting and consumes less energy. If you take only 20% of the entire time to build an interior, then that’s it – you’ve saved energy, time and the all the related pollution that goes with it. When we built the 208, for example, we work on it’s life with the client, but we also work on its building time and also the recycling, and when you use raw, very simple materials you can recycle them straight away. When you stitch everything together it’s hard to recycle because you have to take everything apart.

GCD: So you’re partially applying a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ philosophy?

GV: Exactly, you push the first domino and then everything becomes helpful in the process. That’s the idea, so okay, on the exterior, we use a lot of carbon fibre and copper, and that’s not very light, but what we would have done was to apply a microscopic layer of copper on the carbon fibre to have the visual effect [without the weight], and combine a very hi-tech material with craftsmanship; the copper is actually hand-beaten. So it’s a mix of hi-end craftsmanship and hi-tech solutions.

We wanted to play with that and also greatly contrast the two materials with the matte black and glossy polished copper. In the end that’s what we are trying to reach – to produce high-end interiors and redefine the luxury approach to materials to keep them super simple. Obviously it’s a concept car so maybe we won’t use those materials in future production cars but we’ll try others if needed. Felt, which is compressed wool, is easy to create from used wool and easy to recycle. It’s the newspaper wood that’s the most exciting, though. It’s the ultimate recycling of paper. You glue together used or unread newspapers for instance, and compress all the pages together to create logs of paper wood from which you can mill or sculpt new pieces (the dashboard).

GCD: Is this something that Peugeot have come up with itself?

GV: No, two Dutch designers that we met at the Milan Furniture Fair the year before had created this principle, so we had them recreate it. They were very happy to do it with a car.

GCD: That sounds like something you could apply to a production car, how durable is it?

GV: There’s a trick, basically. What we want to do with this car is to let the materials live through time. The copper, for example, of course we polish it every day at the show, but we don’t want to. We want to keep it raw and let it oxidise, so after the motor show we’ll just leave it be and it will turn dark orange and dark red in areas and eventually green at some point, and we want that to happen. It’s like the newspaper wood - we want it to have it’s own life and evolve naturally with time. Of course, that’s not very production or client friendly but it’s a concept car. For production cars we find materials that are more resistant.

GCD: Obviously it’s currently impossible to make a production car’s interior entirely recyclable, but do you think it’s something companies like Peugeot can work towards?

GV: We’ve got to try and go as far as we can anyway, and we are researching that right now, and the goal is to really make it happen in production cars.

GCD: So you think you can build on what you’ve learnt from developing the Onyx?

GV: It’s actually the ideal object on which to experiment a lot of things. On the chassis, also, there’s a lot of experimentation with composite materials beyond carbon fibre. We are experimenting with a lot of different things – aesthetics and materials – and there’s a lot we learn when we do that, for production.

GCD: Conversely, you’ve clearly taken interior design cues from the humble 208.

GV: Yes, like in the 208 you see the instrument panel above the steering wheel and we have a smaller steering wheel underneath the IP which floats above part of the dashboard. You belong to the car in the lower part [of the cabin] but the upper part is quite thin with a lot a space. Peugeots are still dynamic cars, so you want to feel what you drive and your driving experience, and that’s in your butt and legs, so the lower part needs to be around your body but the upper part needs to be clear.

GCD: Talking of the driving experience, I can see the stains around the sextuple exhausts, so this is obviously a fully-running prototype?

GV: Yes, it’s got the V8 HDI hybrid engine from the Le Mans series, so it’s got 600bhp and it’s loud.

GCD: Have you driven it?

GV: We have, I was behind it once, before we shot the movie, just to make sure everything was fine. So we ran it on one of our private tracks with the drivers from Peugeot Sport - I followed in a different car. The driver went slowly at first so I could follow, but he went for it and was gone! He went to 180km/h, which is not a lot compared to what it can do, and he stopped and said, “Oh, I was only in second gear.” He went into third gear, but said it was revving too low. I thought, “Oh my God, it has six gears."

GCD: And have the designers worked on the car’s aerodynamic properties?

GV: We did go into the wind tunnel and did various simulations to make sure it could drive at speed and would have enough downforce as well. Actually, it has a huge wing on the back that pops out for downforce but when you brake it becomes an air-brake.

*The Onyx’s doors are very unusual. When they open the ‘skin’ of the car separates, hinge-like, from the door itself and this mechanism was developed to accommodate the very long door panels that were designed to push the shut line between the door and the front wheel arch panel much further forward.

GCD: And the car’s comfortable to sit inside?

GV:It’s a bit hard as it’s a super low supercar, but whilst the felt on the seat is on carbon, on the backrest it’s soft.

GCD: It’s probably more comfortable than a lot of road-legal supercars. Is it true that Julien [Cueff] took his inspiration for the interior from an egg-box?

GV: Yes, somehow. It’s a funny story actually, an interesting story as well. The egg box is an ideal protection for its contents. It’s only paper, it’s recyclable – it’s mashed paper, pretty much – and just its shape, its design, is ‘good’ enough to avoid breaking eggs, which is amazing. It’s clever packaging, and it’s an inspiration for an interior of a car to protect its occupants, and the values of the material are interesting. It’s super light and you can recycle it yourself. Of course, our interior is not an egg box.

GCD: Obviously the Onyx is the showstopper here, but what do you personally take inspiration from?

GV: It’s funny because unlike in industrial design studios, cars are always cars but there’s a lot to do with a car. In an industrial studio we’ll do a coffee machine on one day and then an iPad on another and the next day maybe a pen, but here we are always with cars. We still have to innovate. It’s a very tight business in that everybody has to create cars that seat two, or four, or six people inside with four wheels – it’s somehow always the same story. All car manufacturers share the same constraints that, with regulations, get stronger and stronger.

And yet, more than ever, car companies have to find their own path and their own design DNA, brand philosophies and brand values, and then show them in terms of aesthetic and design. The playground is tight but very interesting. But then there’s also a lot of potential innovation – we talked about materials and that’s attainable, but there are more revolutions coming as well and it’s honestly super exciting. For example, rapid prototyping and stereolithography and techniques like that. The machines are too slow at the moment to mass-produce pieces but soon they’ll be able to produce quickly and with the right properties for the material – resistance and so on. Suddenly, there will be a revolution in shapes; the freedom of forms will be amazing. At the moment pieces are made in a mould and the limitations are huge. So there’s a lot to do still in this tight little world of cars and in terms of inspiration, everything is an inspiration. You go to the [Milan] Furniture Fair, some contemporary art show, or a fashion show during fashion week in Paris – everything is amazing and feeds designers.

Peugeot BB1

GCD: Exactly – the ‘car’ hasn’t really changed for fifty or sixty years, some would say eighty years, and now we’re getting electric cars and all sorts of new propulsion technologies, so isn’t this an opportunity for designers to completely change the status quo?

GV: There is an opportunity, obviously, and it’s tricky but, yes, it’s a huge opportunity. The key is whether the client is ready to accept something, and as long as the ‘story’ is coherent and makes sense then you can go quite far. Obviously there’s no reason why an electric car should look like a normal car, because you don’t have an engine in the front, you don’t need a bonnet and so on. We did the little BB1 concept car- basically there’s no front and no rear, the batteries are under the seats, the motors are in the wheels, so there are four seats in 2.5 metres. BB1 is an example of a silhouette that’s completely different from what you know thanks to its technology.

We wanted to show something different anyway so it all goes together. And sometimes you can stick a battery and motor in a normal car and the client is happy to have that, too, but you’re right, in terms of new technologies – the way you put different elements in the car allows you to design cars differently so we should get rid of preconceived ideas because when the first cars were built they took the shape they had because of the technology – what you had to ‘skin’. We could have a huge talk about the evolution of car design, and the dashboards, for instance, at first it was just a piece of metal from the chassis with holes and dials in it and that was it. Later there were more electronic components to put in, and now it is a piece in a car that contains air conditioning and a lot more.

GCD: But do you think that car interiors are becoming more digitalised and complicated and that maybe less is more?

GV: I think that we should keep them simple to understand and simple to read. When we do this IP above the steering wheel (Onyx), it’s higher because then your sight accommodation between road and instrument is easier, and don’t have to ‘fetch’ the information from inside of a steering wheel, for example.

GCD: The smaller steering wheel in the 208 has had a lot of good feedback. Are we going to see it maybe in bigger saloons and right across the Peugeot range?

GV: It’s a good question. We need to test that concept on different sized cars and whether it suits the spirit of ‘this or that’ car, but surely we’ll see it again.

GCD: And I can’t help but ask, what’s your favourite car ever?

GV: Bugatti Atlantic

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