Creativity Crushed?

When two of the most prominent car designers recently left their posts, each left a ‘legacy’ awkward SUV model behind. Coincidence?

Two awkward SUVs, photos (c)

Most commentators were astonished when Luc Donckerwolke, one of the most high-profile design directors at Volkswagen Group, decided to leave the German giant behind and join Hyundai’s nascent Genesis brand. Was it the allure of receiving the call of his former boss, Peter Schreyer, that made him leave his post as Bentley’s chief designer and depart for South Korea? Or was it simply a matter of giant paycheques changing hands?

Luc Donckerwolke, not looking very happy, Photo (c)

Most recently, it was Anders Warming’s turn to raise eyebrows when he decided to call it a day and pack his belongings at BMW’s Mini branch’s Munich studios. The Dane left with arguably the most impressive CV of any designer then working at the Bavarian giant, what with him having been involved in not just the first-generation BMW Z4’s styling (arguably the most significant of the Bangle-era BMWs), but also the GINA and Mille Miglia concept cars. That a young man of his reputation would choose to follow the example set by his predecessor as head of Mini design, Gert Hildebrandt, and join a Chinese upstart manufacturer (Borgward in Warming’s case), rather than, say, Apple’s automotive project, came as a bit of a surprise to many.

Anders Warming in celebratory mood, Photo (c) Borgward

As it turns out, the cars unveiled either immediately before or straight after they’d left their former jobs were SUVs – Bentley’s Bentayga and the Mk2 Mini Countryman, respectively. Neither of which, to put it diplomatically, could be described as an aesthetic success. Does this prove that both these designers were being criminally overrated? Or do these cars exemplify why they’d decide to seek a new challenge, rather then having to come up with products of this kind?

Both the Countryman and the Bentayga smack of compromise of the smelly kind. It doesn’t take an awful lot of imagination to come up with images of endless presentations to the marketing department and the board, in turn leading to an even greater number of redesigns, changes and last-minute amendments, before the green light is eventually flashed.

As a consequence, it isn’t terribly surprising that these cars don’t betray any kind of clear vision. One doesn’t even need to go as far as to call them cynical, for their unclear, unconfident nature is there for all to see. These cars were made because the market demanded them, but to come up with a an inspiring solution to satisfy this demand obviously eluded Messrs Warming and Donckerwolke.

Either that, or they were being led and constricted in such a way that a satisfying creative process and corresponding results were being foiled. It can be argued that this kind of frustration was all the motivation a productive designer with certain standards would need when being presented with the blank sheet and copious resources the likes of Genesis and Borgward constitute.

The Bentayga and Countryman Mk2 are frustrating cars – they stand for the malaise of the motorcar in this day and age, and yet they aren’t exceptional enough to leave much of a mark in the bigger scheme of things (which arguably renders them even less enamouring than truly ugly cars à la Ssangyong Rodius). So while it is most likely that Luc Donckerwolke and Anders Warming are being paid top won/yuan, the urge to be in control creatively was likely to be just as tempting. Let’s see what they do with this kind of freedom – if the results turn out to be humdrum SUVs, we’ll know their true colours once and for all.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

13 thoughts on “Creativity Crushed?”

  1. To be fair to Donckerwolke and Warming, they are mostly nozzles on the meat mincer. They must make what they can of the stuff that goes into the machine. Their creative freedom is limited; they argue for variations in small parameters not gross-level elements. Those are produced by others in the management group. They’ll be similarly constrained at their new desks even if they feel it less.
    I saw a Bentayga in Dublin over Christmas. It’s big and shiny yet it does not seem to differ qualiatively from an E-class. If you parked a Bentley T-type or a Flaminia coupe next to it they would outshine the Bentayga.

    1. The Bentayga is truly awful. There is one that occasionally parks close to my home. Its rear wheelarch is incredibly clumsy.

    2. One doesn’t even need to put the Bentayga next to one of JP Blatchley’s or Pinin Farina’s finest to demonstrate its clumsiness – even the current Range Rover (which isn’t as good as its immediate predecessor) is a much more confident and consistent piece of design.

      Whenever I see a Bentayga (which is far too frequently the case), all I can think of is the endless row of board meetings, which finally came to an end after about the 16th attempt to get the car right, by which point everybody just wanted to be done with it.

  2. Even allowing for the fact that a MINI must always look in some grotesque, mutant, inbred way like a Mini, I find the designs done under Warming’s watch disappointing since his BMW work was so good. But in Warming’s favour, he seems to lack the vanity to police his Wikipedia entry. It consists of a very scant CV and the introductory paragraph spends most time laying into his ‘fish mouth’ MINIs.

    Modern Borgward is a bit of a mystery to me. For me the only interesting thing about it is that it got up and running. Probably SUVs were the best thing to start with but, unless they intend to diversify, I can’t see it being that satisfying a creative position.

    1. As for Donckerwolke, I guess he had Peter Schreyer’s example to judge how much freedom he’d be getting, assuming he inherits that job as suggested. He has some decent cars on his CV too but, as for the Bentayga, it’s one of those cars I’ve not really bothered looking at. But now that I do it looks a bit like a Cayenne with fussy lumps stuck on to it. A Porsche with Bentley bits. What’s not to like?

      Before he left, Donckerwolke laid into Lincoln for ripping off Bentley’s designs for its Continental proposal. There’s probably some justification but, slightly ungainly FWD proportions apart, might his displeasure also be because Lincoln actually did Bentley better that he had?

    2. I always believed that Donckerwolke was not the right man for Bentley. That Aston Clone Concept, the Continental GT facelift (‘oh, look, the put a Lamborghini’s front skirt onto it!’), the Bentayga and probably the all-new Continental did little to change my mind on that front. Mind you, his Lamborghinis never really set my heart on fire either, and his stint at Seat proved to garner rather insipid cars. But the cars he did at VW under Hartmut Warkuß were very fine indeed, so his excellent reputation will not be without reason.

      As for Warming, I’ll admit that I like the current Clubman and was really fond of the roadster concept unveiled a few years ago, also because he didn’t just plough on with the style that had served him so well at BMW, but adapted to the requirements of Mini (while trying to move the brands stuff forward). But the Countryman is an unmitigated disappointment.
      It should be interesting to see how his successor does at Mini – once he’s been appointed, that is.

    3. Kris: I agree, Donckerwolke was not a good fit for Bentley. His work for Lamborghini and Seat was good, but it seems his drawing table lacked a French curve.

  3. You only have to look at the CUV/SUVs of prestige marques to see what a tough job they can be. The first Porsche Cayenne was not well received, for example; the second is an improvement, but hardly handsome. BMW made a very good job of the first X5, but the styling of later versions has not been as successful. And the less said about Mercedes’ recent crop of faux-by-fours the better.

    SUVs tend to work best when their utility is reflected in functional styling. Landrover are the absolute masters of this, their vehicles being honest boxes and happily so. Unfortunately this utilitarian styling ethos runs contrary to the current trend of throwing graphics on amorphous shapes, then using fiddly fillet panels to stitch it all together. This approach might work on small hatchbacks, which are largely a jumble of contradictory forms and difficult to read at the best of times, but the same concept cannot apply when the vehicle is pro’ed up in size.

    The exception to the rule is Mazda. Their styling language is graphical, yet their CUV line up looks both consistent and consistently good from small to large. They deserve kudos for pulling that off, when other marques with far greater resources so obviously struggle.

    1. In both the case of the Bentayga and Countryman, one of the many compromises foisted upon their designers was that of heritage. All those recognisable cues that say this is a Bentley/MINI which would be insisted upon by the product strategy teams. Better by far to start with a clean sheet, since neither ‘marque’ has any backstory in this sector, but that’s far too risky. Couple to that the problem of where the Bentayga sits in the model range. It must look important, be recognisably a Bentley (in the contemporary idiom at least, God help us), yet not embarrass or emasculate anyone paying far, far more for a Mulsanne. What we end up with is perhaps the silliest vehicle currently available for purchase. Imagine spending all that money on something that looks like a random collection of styling tropes in desperate search of a theme.

      The great Rover engineer, (and father of the Range Rover) Spen King once said something along the lines that when you try to make a car look important rather than good, you’ve lost it. He was right then and here’s your proof.

    2. The Countryman should have been the easiest: after all, flush side glass and a floating roof are tropes Landrover already carries off with aplomb. And yet the Mini studios are struggling to replicate the tightness of design that characterised the J Mays original, not only on their CUV but for any car in the range. As for the Bent-tiger, Bentley have fallen into the classic trap of trying to apply car cues to an SUV shape. Porsche did exactly that, and yet despite the result being awkward at best the Cayenne sold like gangbusters. Perhaps nobody in VAG pointed that out; maybe they just did not care.

  4. The problem with the Bentley is that they are tied to the VAG-architecture, because it looks exactly like what it actually is, an Audi in a Bentley suit. One doesn’t simply walk into Mordor, and you can’t make it a Bentley by just throwing random design cues on it to see what sticks. But I guess it doesn’t matter, because it well sell like fake Louis Vuitton to people who can’t make the difference anyway.

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