Interview with Laurens van den Acker

“In hindsight I wasn’t at all ready for it, I was naïve. In a way it was like trying to compose without knowing how to play the piano.”

This is how Renault’s head of design Laurens van den Acker looks back on his involvement in Bugatti’s EB110 supercar. After senior designers fell out he was left as the only interior designer, and none other than Marcello Gandini took care of the exterior. With Volvo trucks the only other work in his portfolio, the monstrous Bugatti wasn’t a bad way to start a career as a car designer.

Fast forward twenty-two years and after stints at Audi, Ford and most recently Mazda he finds himself with the mission of engaging Renault with buyers on an emotional level again whilst managing the façade of their electric aspirations. That’s a big ask right now.

Renault’s Technocentre on the outskirts of Paris is not what you’d expect. Its cold, stepped concrete mass is a strange bastardisation of the carefree cars Renault have traditionally made – cars like the 5 and 4CV – but it’s nevertheless home to the company’s main design studio and, for now at least, Acker.

After driving through the night and battling truly malevolent Parisian rush hour traffic, Laurens’ warm, Zen-like office deep inside the Renault’s technological fortress was the perfect tonic and good setting to discuss Renault’s bohemian concept cars, the future of their electric strategy and what Laurens himself thinks of cars.

GCD: Obviously when you moved from Mazda to Renault they needed a change, and you came up with a strategy around the cycle of life. Where did the spark come from?

Laurens van den Acker: When the [Renault] management attracted me, they asked me to open up a new chapter for the brand in terms of design and design strategy. That’s the main reason I came, because it’s not very often that a big car company wants to start a design strategy with a blank sheet of paper. So I think it was key for me to first find out what this company was about, and I think the most important point was a time when Renault were designing ‘cars for living’ – like the Espace and Twingo - and this was their philosophy in the middle of the nineties when Renault were extremely strong.

I think Renault has always been a human-centric brand – not geared towards performance like the Germans, not geared towards improving cars but with a bit of an anonymous shape like the Japanese brands – but really centred around humans. So, ‘Cycle of Life’ (below) became the logical way to create a connection with all the different clients. We’re a generalist brand so we make crossovers, we make commercial vehicles and so many different types of vehicle, so how could I make sense of it?

I said, ‘Renault makes cars to fall in love with - like the Alpine or the first Twingo - we make familiy cars like the Scenic, we make commercial vehicles, we do Renaultsport – fun vehicles – and then we do EVs [electric vehicles], which are vehicles for ‘wisdom’, so there is link between the stages of life and the vehicles we make. It was a nice way to tie it all together in a simple way.

The Life Cycle: Ideas and realisation (the Dezir was, unsurprisingly, Love)

GCD: And which stage of the seven means the most to you?

LvdA: I think for me what was key was to make people fall in love again with the Renault brand. That was the first job that I had, because people can fall out of love and I felt that people had fallen out of love with Renault. There’s a lot of sympathy for the brand, but to a certain degree we had disappointed our customers. So my biggest job was to make people fall in love again, and I think the Dezir showed ambition and it was the first test – could we excite people again?

GCD: You mentioned the Japanese makers, how does the ethos differ from design studios in the Far East to here in Europe?

LvdA: When you leave one country and go to the next you find out what you’re made of. When I left Holland to go to Italy I found out I was Dutch, and going from Europe to the [United] States I found out I was European. And when you go from the States to Japan you find out that you’re Western. So, it was fun for me to come back to France because it was like a culture shock in reverse.

I think that the biggest difference is that in Japan the company is most important, then the team and then you. In a Western society you are most important, then your favourite football club and your family, and then maybe the company. This is an individual society, and in Japan there is a strong sense of unity. That means that when you come into a design studio the advantage is that I felt like I’d come to Mazda and landed into a Formula One seat – because if you know where to go everybody will support you to get there. People will say ‘You’re the new chief, tell us where to go, but make sure that whatever you do helps Mazda in the next ten years.’ The perspective was different – they were not interested in a quick fix, they wanted a long-term plan.

When I came back to Europe, people here are not willing to just follow and you have to inspire them, but if you can inspire them then you benefit from all of their character and individuality and creativity. You can steer things much more easily, so I think the challenge here is to inspire, but the challenge in Japan is to lead.

The Dezir led to the extrovert Alpine Concept that Alain Prost piloted at Goodwood

GCD: So which job is more pressurised?

LvdA: This one. Absolutely. I arrived in Japan on the heels of Moray Callum and Mazda had a very clear idea of what they wanted to be. They had come up with ‘Zoom zoom’ and had the MX-5, the RX-7 and of all the Japanese brands they were the lightest, the most sporty and most stylish. It was very clear, in terms of brands, what they were about.

When I came to Renault, I came to a company that was a bit lost for a couple of years, and desperately needed to find some direction quickly. I felt the pressure, as after Mazda it was like a second album, which has be on time and on budget.

GCD: J Mays is now operating with Ford’s global design policy. Does that sort of approach work – could it work for Renault?

LvdA: I learned a lot at Ford, because Ford had gone through a phase where we accumulated brands – Land Rover, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Volvo – so there was a strong need for brand management and I happened to be part of a group that was called the ‘brand imaging’ group and it helped J separate the brands. If you have seven brands you need to give them all an identity. Then Ford went through a downsizing phase, and now I think J is counting his blessings because life has become a lot easier. He can devote all his attention to Ford and Lincoln.

The reality is that you need to create a consistent image in the global market and the face plays a very strong role in this. When I came to Renault I think they needed to get more attractive cars in general, so I decided to do cars that were more human, more central, more warm, more simple, to be more Latin as I feel France is a Latin country – not cold like the Germans or hot like the Italians, it’s warm – and also find a place for Dacia so the two brands are complimentary. So I decided to stay Germanic and robust with Dacia.

The second thing that was important was to give Renault a face, but to let every car express its own identity. I think this is okay in France with 30% market share, but in other markets it’s important.

This is the interior of the recently realised Captur Concept

GCD: Renault has been very brave with its zero emissions vehicles, whilst everyone else has held back. In terms of brand and identity, how do you express ‘green’ in a vehicle?

LvdA: I think what’s good about the zero emissions strategy from Renault is that they realise we needed a breakthrough in terms of emissions – there might be a crisis now but we all know that the car market will double in the next twenty years. Hybridization is a more efficient way, but it’s only giving us the benefit of minus 10% or 20% [emissions] and it’s not enough to compensate for this doubling of car volumes. The management felt we needed a breakthrough, and the only one that is technically feasible at the moment is electric. They decided to do not just one car but a series, and our line-up of four cars shows what the opportunities are. You have the Kangoo, which is a light transport vehicle and it’s perfect for the post, for example, where you know they’re going to do 80km and come back every day. We have an elegant sedan in the Fluence, and the Zoe, which is a very contemporary car, and then the Twizy, which is a radical, revolutionary plaything. I think it shows the breadth of what you can achieve with electric vehicles, and I think what’s cool about the Twizy is the sympathy people feel towards it.

GCD: What do you think of the Twizy?

LvdA: I was amazed that Renault, in a time of crisis in 2008-or-so, decided nonetheless to push through, and still we see people see the Twizy on the stand they think it’s a concept car.

GCD: But would you have designed it differently from square one?

LvdA: I’m not sure. I just think it’s amazing that it exists. As I said, it’s like putting a concept car out on the road, and it’s not perfect, but we learn from every one that we sell and every experience that we have. I hope I get to do the second generation and really do something wild with it.

There are really few cars that put a smile on your face when you see them – you can’t help yourself, and when I drove it around Paris with my wife we just had so much fun because at every stop people – because it’s open – start chatting and taking pictures.

A new kind of 'halo' car: Zoe

GCD: So what’s the story with the Zoe? It suddenly came out of nowhere, and whilst all the other Renault ZE vehicles are quite docile the Zoe grabs your attention immediately with its stance and surfacing. What’s the thinking behind it?

LvdA: You’re absolutely right, the key is that the Fluence and Kangoo already existed and are being transformed [into electric cars], which is a band-aid type of approach to a certain degree - ‘Let’s just slap an electric motor it’. I felt that the company wanted to do a proper, 100% electric car that would become a little bit what Prius is for hybrids. I think what we’d like to achieve is that if we have an image car that can pull the whole company and can really put a halo on the rest of the company - the Zoe should be it. It’s found the right balance being progressive enough that you can tell it’s not your everyday vehicle. You can buy it because it looks great, but you can also buy it rationally because it’s a responsible car to own.

I think with the Twizy it was truly difficult to find this balance because people think very often ‘ok now we’re doing an electric car, let’s make it look incredibly radical’, like an iPod on wheels. But if you want to appeal to a very large market, then not everybody is going to interested in that extreme statement. It’s already a step for them to accept driving electric instead of petrol or diesel, so it needed to be advanced yet acceptable. That was a very fine line.

GCD: It’s funny because traditionally the halo model has always been the fastest, the biggest or the most expensive, and now Renault have a halo model that’s simply a C-segment car which is electric, which is considerable change of tack.

LvdA: I’m convinced, though, because if you look at Toyota but take away the Prius and the iQ, it becomes a benign company like anybody else. It’s on the strength of just one or two vehicles that they lift up the whole image of their brand. If you look at the role that the 500 plays for Fiat it’s just amazing, so it’s up to us to create these types of icons that really project us into the future. In the ‘50s and ‘60s cars were really a symbol of progress, and I think through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s cars kind of lost this image of optimism and progress, and what I hope is that a car like the Zoe will show that the industry can again produce solutions that are responsible, exciting and things that you would put aside your money for and that create a positive image. I hope Zoe will do that for us in a difficult time.

GCD: But it has to feel right as well, as people won’t compromise on both range and comfort. Maybe one, but not both - you must have driven it?

LvdA: Frankly, I was sold when I drove it, and what people don’t realise yet is the fluidity of the driving experience. The batteries are very low, the centre of gravity is perfect between the wheels, the pick-up is amazing and the torque is very good, and with the regenerative braking, you barely use the brakes – it’s like driving a bumper car. You come off the accelerator and if you’re good at anticipating then that’s all you have to do. If you then get back into a [conventional] car and it makes noise and it vibrates it suddenly seems unrefined.

GCD: Now that you’re essentially a manager, how do you manage your own creativity against what you have to deliver in terms of business?

LvdA: I think what I like about this job is the ‘do all’ side of it – the emotional and the rational, the hi-tech and the magic. In fact, you need a bit of magic and you need a bit of common sense. I realise that it is a business, too – just making nice cars isn’t sufficient, we need to make money, too, otherwise the business will fold. I keep in mind a famous line from Raymond Loewey, “The most beautiful line is the line of a rising sales chart”, and I keep that in the back of my mind whenever we have to make trade-offs.

It is a business of passion. I don’t think you can design cars if you’re not emotionally involved in it, and so beauty goes a long way but it needs to have some substance. With Dezir, in a sense, I wanted beauty with the brain by giving you a very seductive proposition, but it’s got an electric engine, it’s got clever seats – there’s some substance under the surface. If we can create products that have both – and Zoe’s another good example – I think then we start to have a winning formula. That’s what we’re focused on.

GCD: Which cars do you consider the most beautiful?

LvdA: In terms of concept cars there are three, in my view. There’s the Lancia Stratos Concept, the Vel Satis Concept and the Mazda Taiki.

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