Dirk’s Demise vs Luc’s Lamento

Bentley’s Bentayga SUV turned out to be an instant smash sales success. Yet the car that was intended to preview it was not only met with fright – it also cost its chief designer his job. 

Dirk’s swansong, photo (c) Car and Driver

Dirk van Braeckel’s career at Volkswagen had been one of sustained corporate ladder climbing. Having joined VAG’s Audi branch in 1984, he rose through the ranks at Ingolstadt, before being chosen to help re-launch the much-maligned Škoda brand. He did as he was asked with some aplomb, leading to a generation of Škodas that were not just competently styled, but, more importantly, conveyed a sense of thorough quality.

With hindsight, this first generation of VAG-engineered Octavia, Fabia and Superb models must be considered as conservative, competent, long-lasting pieces of design which stood the test of time without anyone really noticing.

Dirk van Braeckel, trying to hide some sketches, photo (c) Classic Driver

The quality of work van Braeckel and his team at Mlada Boleslav created didn’t go unnoticed by the powers that be at Wolfsburg, who consequently handed the Belgian the gig of a lifetime. This time, it was no less covetable a brand than Bentley that was in need of reinvention. Again, van Braeckel did as he was told, delivering well-considered facelifts of the existing Arnage saloon first, before facing the daunting task of re-establishing Bentley with what eventually became the Continental GT.

An enormous sales success that catapulted Bentley into an altogether different league (for better or worse), the Continental GT was seen as an unmitigated triumph by corporate circles, as well as many (though not all)enthusiasts of the marque. The Arnage’s successor, called Mulsanne, however suffered from an unbecoming front aspect, not to mention being overshadowed by the eminent boldness of its only proper competitor, the Rolls-Royce Phantom VII. Regardless of this minor slip-up, van Braeckel was still considered a safe pair of hands.

At which point he was tasked with mastering yet another challenge: marrying the stature, gravitas and quality that embody Bentley with the demands of a modern Sports Utility Vehicle. This was the task that would prove to be the merited chief designer’s undoing.

Trying to escape from the crime scene, photo (c) Autoblog

The resultant Bentley EXP 9 F concept car was met with vile disgust by the press upon its unveiling at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show. Like the Aston Martin Lagonda SUV three years previously, the EXP 9 F was viewed as a caricature, an abominable attempt at pushing and squeezing the form language of a respected brand until it just about fitted the SUV mould.

Once the vitriol had truly sunk in, Volkswagen Group’s chief designer, Walter de’ Silva came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much the task itself that was to blame, but the man who was charged with executing it. Starting in January 2013, van Braeckel’s new job title was that of Audi’s Design Manager Motorsports & Special Vehicles Projects.

In his place, VAG stalwart designer, Luc Donckerwolke was put in charge of somehow saving EXP 9 F. The result of his efforts, of course, came to market as the Bentley Bentayga. Which has since proven to be Bentley’s most successful model launch since the Continental GT, casting aside any memories of Crewe’s brush with opprobrium a few years earlier.

Luc Donckerwolke, at a time when he went to the same tailor and coiffeur as Kevin Howe, photo (c) TodoAutos

So common wisdom holds the Bentayga is a resounding success, whereas EXP 9 F is an almost forgotten laughing stock. Which means it’s about time we compared the two cars.

Neither car, it must be said, has a good stance or a truly homogenous appearance. Unlike the Range Rover and Mercedes G-Models, neither Bentley can pretend their proportions are really suited to the form language of the brand. A Continental GT, what with its short bonnet and long front overhang, looks like a thoroughbred by comparison.

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But is the EXP (you must excuse the omission of the 9 F henceforth) really that much worse than the ‘tayga? The EXP’s main failings are its crassly oversized wheels, the resultant tiptoe stance and the vulgar chrome brightwork framing its side windows. The small mesh slivers next to the Bentley grille are also slightly clumsy, but the more upright, regal appearance of the EXP’s front end is surprisingly coherent, once one decides to look beyond the other aesthetic shortcomings.

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Both the Bentayga and the EXP share an extremely pronounced rear haunch that doesn’t gel well with the rest of the bodywork and features a clumsily placed door handle. Surprisingly, it’s the SUV Bentley likes to forget about that’s slightly more refined in this area. The same could also be said about the rear, which is more formal and graphically coherent on the EXP – if only the rear window wasn’t at such a fast angle.

This results in an awkward, almost triangular eightlight that’s utterly at odds with other efforts intended to lend the EXP a stately appearance. This flaw is all the more regrettable, as the EXP’s two-part boot lid with integrated rear lights is a good deal more appealing than the Bentayga’s utterly generic derrière (despite the comically incorporated B’s in the lamps’ graphics).

The biggest surprise awaits inside both SUVs’ interiors though. For here the EXP is the undeniably more convincing piece of design. In addition to all the expected wood and leather, van Braeckel’s SUV features a much cleaner layout than Donckerwolke’s effort. Where the Bentayga wholeheartedly mimics the Continental’s ‘wing’ motif design, the EXP aims for a more classical dashboard, albeit supplemented by a monitor that’s on top of a ‘floating’ centre console that arises from the transmission tunnel, flanked by a handrail on either side.

Where Bentayga goes for a generic (VAG) Bentley style, EXP tried to be both more traditional (plane dashboard) and more advanced (‘floating’ centre console), while paying tribute to this particular Bentley’s supposed off-road traits. The EXP can therefore be considered the more convincing automobile, as far as the cabin design is concerned.

But Walter de’ Silva, Luc Donckerwolke et al can’t all be wrong, can they? The EXP is undoubtedly a clumsy thing, but Bentayga’s biggest benefactor hasn’t been its supposed stylistic superiority, but time. For in the intervening years since the EXP’s contentious unveiling, we’ve become used to clumsily SUV-ified shapes.

Anyone who claims that a Maserati Levante or Mercedes GLE Coupé are automobiles that appear to be comfortable in their own sheet metal must be under the spell of marketing poetry. Yet oversized wheels, awkward metal-to-glass ratios and clumsy silhouettes are now with us on such a scale that they constitute a new norm. Down, if you will, is the new up.

What Donckerwolke and his team have done differently to van Braeckel is that they’ve played their SUV’s design extremely safe. The Bentayga is nothing other than a Continental that’s been stretched and pushed to fit an Audi Q7’s basic structure. So even though the fast front end and DLO shape may be at odds with any supposed utilitarian character, they are applied nonetheless. For this reason, no other Bentley has ever felt as badge-engineered as Bentayga.

Yet above all other concerns, what’s most frustrating is that Bentayga is so utterly uncreative. One could even be led to assume that Luc Donckerwolke clandestinely harbours similar feelings, for he decided to leave Crewe soon after the SUV’s unveiling. If he truly is as creatively driven a person as a designer of his status ought to be, this move would be completely understandable.

Dirk van Braeckel’s EXP 9 F won’t ever be considered one of the great missed opportunities in automotive history. But some of the basic ideas, such as to use some of the more stately cues of traditional Bentleys over the Continental GT’s form language, are worthy of a second assessment, even though many aspects of their execution left rather a lot to be desired.

Looking at the Bentayga now, one wonders what all the fuss was about. It’s not much better and no worse to look at than its ridiculed predecessor. So why go to the hire-and-fire trouble?

At the end of the day, neither SUV did their respective creators many favours. And why would they? Designing a city car-sized Range Rover or a Jeep supercar doesn’t sound like oodles of joy, either. Some cars just aren’t meant to be.

And some assignments are just an awful lot more difficult than others.

The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com


Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

17 thoughts on “Dirk’s Demise vs Luc’s Lamento”

  1. Donckerwolke, Bentayga, EXP and van Braeckel. It’s a muddle of similar things. In hindsight, the EXP doesn’t seem so bad and the Bentayga has justified itself by dint of sales. However, familiarity mustn’t breed content (so to speak). The EXP really is still so far from good that merey being accustomed to it shouldn’t mean it’s now got a pass. The same goes for the ‘tayga – which also had a uniquely grotesque interior up until the new GT appeared in my sights. Both vehicles are glitter-rolled, Chanel-drenched turds. Vehicles like this are more interesting and alarming for the window they open on the values of their customers. With aesthetic judgements come moral ones. The Bentayga interior is kitsch because it’s not sincere. The material and finish aren’t anchored to the requirements of the object – to need to show off wealth isn’t an intrinsic requirement, I’d argue.

    1. I might be wrong, but showing off the vulgar taste of their owners effectively seems to be the main requirement for this class of vehicles.

    2. “Vehicles like this are more interesting and alarming for the window they open on the values of their customers.”
      I couldn’t have said it better myself, Richard. Thank you!

    3. Roberto: thanks. Ferrari and Lamborghini have been prey to this bad taste for quite some time. Their sporting heritage militated against the steam punk Victoriana that Bentley has decided to develop. This leaves Rolls Royce as sole purveyors of aristocratic good taste – or Toyota with their service-minded Century. Evidently I am imprisoned by my middle-class values. If I showed up at Bilderberg in my top-spec Ford or Opel I´d be mistaken for the taxi man coming to collect the assistant of the helper to some elephant-hunting, Brylcreemed potentate.

    4. I’m sure oligarchs from Moscow or Kiev like it.
      They’ve got the money, so aren’t they right?

      Imagine half a dozen of those painted black with completely blacked windows on steam roller tyres blasting along an autobahn at impossible speed in close contact wearing number plates from RUS or UA.
      Looks even more imposing than the usual Range Rovers or Q7s…

  2. Autocropley drove the new Continental GT which is paired with the Porsche Panamera now. The interior is as far to the top of the scale as it can go (until the next offense against taste). If I can exaggerate slightly, the designers at Bentley now have the means to go the extremes that Cadillac wanted to in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of plastic and velour and fake wood, everything is is real and is really horrible. Their moodboards must have showed images of Dubai nine -star hotels and cuts-out from the FT How to Spend it magazine. It´s Louis the XV all over again.

  3. There’s two layers to these two cars’ stories.

    On one side, it’s baffling how much effort went into ‘correcting’ EXP 9’s faults and how minuscule the differences in design quality between EXP and ‘tayga turned out to be.

    On the other side it’s important to realise how our aesthetic calibration has changed over the course of just five years. We’re now s0 accustomed to what we once perceived to be ‘challenging’ design that the crass and vulgar has become the norm on a way, certainly in this sector of the market.

    In this day and age, I even find myself appreciating the Porsche Macan for its ‘moderate’ size, decent proportions and clean details. Oh my…

  4. Bentayga is an embarrassment and any custodian of a brand as storied and (once) valued as Bentley should not have contemplated such a move without the greatest care. The cynically minded could be forgiven for postulating that the EXP prototype was in fact a softening up exercise, never intended for production. But then why was van Braeckel so unceremoniously shunted sideways? Whichever way in which one chooses to view matters, the EXP by comparison (and only by comparison I stress) now seems far less egregious a sin than the flaccid, overbodied vulgarity which entered production.

    I recently saw one of these parked up straddling two parking bays, which about sums up the target owner’s sensibilities and belief in their own entitlement. But we haven’t seen anything yet friends. We are only days away from the official reveal for the related Lamborghini Urus. I confidently expect this to utterly redefine the notion of crass, vulgar, needlessly aggressive etc…

  5. Neither of the cars have anything to do in the Bentley line up, it’s a very crass and cynic sell out, and they’re probably gonna sell twenty thousand of them per year to the real soccer moms, footballers wifes. And nothing they could ever do will devalue the brand any harder than this piece of crap.

    1. As Dave pointed out, they probably appeal to people with questionable income streams. This isn’t new. I remember a chap from Ferrari acknowledging the brand’s dependence on drug dealers.
      I don’t think industrial design can be held responsible for bad people with bad taste. However, designers don’t have to work for Bentley (or Ferrari or Lamborghini). Collectively these high end firms might want to think carefully about whether making sales to people with lax attitudes about the rule of law (or who seem to have such attitudes) is really worth it.

  6. As the page loaded, I thought I was seeing the new Lincoln Nautilus from the L A Auto show currently under way. But no, it was the EXP 9 F. These two box crossovers all look about the same anyway although that really is one ungainly beast from the side view.

    What I can say is that Lincoln tidied the EXP right up, brushed its hair, knotted its tie and even got rid of the silly little pane in the rear side windows, while doing a better job on the tail-lights and adding a milkmaid’s bonnet over the rear window a la Infiniti . Even the wheels have been subjected to a toning down. The baleen whale grille of past Lincoln crossovers has been turfed as well. And it’s hundreds of thousands LESS than the ‘tayga! Perhaps this makes up for Donckerwolke’s outburst that Lincoln was copying him (Bentley) back in 2015 – they did a number on his predecessor instead.


    Donckerwolke is styling Hyundai Genesis vehicles these days after styling that Bentayga road steam roller and getting out while the going was good. I like this exchange with Robert Cumberford of Automobile mag this past summer:

    AM: How do you manage studios in Korea, the U.S., and Germany?

    LD: A lot of time on planes. I’ll fly to California on Friday then come back to Korea on Saturday, effectively spending two nights sleeping on the flights. For the first two years my family is staying in Germany, and I see them when I can. It is too complicated to bring them here while I learn the job.

    No kidding. The pay must be exceptional.


  7. I really can’t stand either of these cars. Moreover, there is something just wrong with the way that new Continental looks – I find it hard to define, but it’s as if the painted bodywork is just contorted space onto which the designer wanted to hang as many tawdry bling details as possible. It’s just a grotesque of a gentleman’s GT

  8. My office of employment happens to be in a very affluent part of town. I’m lucky enough to get a break or two which I use to wander the surrounding area and lo and behold, there’s a Bentayga in what Bentley name Roulette or to mere plebs, purple. Trouble is, I’m beginning to like its stance, it’s vehemence, its ability to be crass and yet somehow fit in around the ultra-wealthy property and Range Rovers. It fair sparkles in the autumn sunshine and exudes a stance that, to me, screams in a different and diffident voice. I’ve never seen the owner/ ego inflated oaf but if I ever do I simply must ask, Why? Usually parked very nearby is a filthy Range Rover Sport which, even at ten years old, appears to “fit” its environment better. But the ‘Tayga rings a certain bell contained within me.
    Am I being brainwashed as I walk on by each time? Or is familiarity really breeding contempt?
    I might have to change my route…

    1. Next you will be saying you are beginning to come to terms with the Cullinan.
      I have a copy of TG in the bathroom and have been looking at that as I brush my gnashers. The magazines centre fold makes me concentrate on the back half of the car and it reminds me of a bad student project.
      The Bentayga ought to have been an All-Road type of estate car. As an SUV it is montrous, reminiscent of a Chinese knock-off of Bentley.

  9. Program re-boot.
    Upload new ideas.
    Execute with slow release and await results….

    I walked past the Bentayga again today. As I approached its blindingly shiny grill, I gnashed my teeth and snarled at it.
    The thing bloody well snarled back! ‘‘Tis a monstrosity!
    Lesson learned. It may fit this area per se, but it’s volume is belittled by its Frankenstein nature. And should one witness a Cullinan, I’ll be asking for air support to take it out.

    1. It´s not high enough the ground, is it? Those sills are really low. The wheel axles should look as if they are below the body not parallel with the sills. This is not really what I expect a Bentley SUV to look like. My idea would have been something much more industrial-looking. I would prefer a Jimny. That is not fair on the Jimny. It´s a brilliant machine and the Bentley is not.

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