Today, we talk to freelance car designer and coachbuilder, Niels van Roij.
Very graciously, automotive designer, Niels van Roij allowed me an hour of his time to indulge upon subjects such as tailor-made suits, music and of course, the modern coach-built motor car.
Like so many car enthusiasts, the passion begins at an early age. For this author, Matchbox cars and their exaggerated engine and tyre sounds. For Niels however, the pencil and paper called from around the age of four. His mother has kept some of these youthful outpourings though it’s doubtful his infant designs would have bearing on today’s products for reasons discussed later.
Andrew Miles: What the first car that made you go Wow?
Niels van Roij: The Jaguar XJ-S. That cars headlights, their rectangular shape and mesmerising beauty and then seeing the car go past as our family headed out somewhere. Sat in the back of my parents Seat Ibiza, I tried to get a better view. I had no clue then what the car was of course. But it awoke my sense of design. My teachers would often have to coax my interest back to the classroom but I was always drawing cars.
AM: I see you use biros over pencil for your initial sketches. For someone who simply cannot draw anything well, that surprised me.
NvR: Yes, the humble, inexpensive black biro. But I do get through a lot of them! I always carry at least one and have boxes of them at the ready. I’ve learned over time sensitivity and pressure. Lighter strokes or harder where necessary. These sketches are then put into Photoshop and can be expanded upon digitally but a project always begins this way by ink. As to the biro itself, it’s a clean, simple design that has stood the test of time.
AM: To your projects. How do they begin and progress?
NvR: A call or email then a meet up with the client. We’ll go to their home or business and get a feel for their life by looking into their car collection, artwork, musical taste, anything that lends an impact on what they actually want. These are one-offs. Not like confectionery or casual clothes that are everywhere. These cars are like a tailored suit, bespoke and we take a great deal of time refining items that the client, who ultimately foots the bill, is happy with. Ideation sketches, more in-depth designs eventually lead to clay or foam models and finally to actual production.
AM: Something like an orchestra?
NvR: Exactly. All the players, from my drawings to the skilled fabricators, have a piece to play with the client acting as conductor or as we say co-designer.
AM: Do you persuade the client to go in a particular direction?
NvR: The people I deal with tend to have taste and know what they want as they are often entrepreneurs or successful business people. We don’t get wildly crazy requests, more subtle, agreeable ways. When they hand me the keys that’s when the direction side of the brain comes into play. We can help make decisions by offering choices they may not have thought of but ultimately the car is their choice.
AM: To modern car design, what do you like and any favourites that work personally?
NvR: My shortlist of good designs is rather long! I could name fifty or more! The VW Up! first generation is how a Volkswagen should be; pure, honest, clean and better by having less fussiness to it. Same for the original Audi TT, outstandingly clean, simple lines and the car still looks good now.
AM: They are older designs, though.
NvR: Indeed, more modern cars have mainly become aggressive due to market forces. People are normally conservative but these days more insecure so they wish to dominate the road, high up in shouty SUV’s. And manufacturers are happy to comply as they have technology to make folds here, creases there, they can and do. I often ask people if they would be comfortable riding in a lift with an aggressive person – in such a confined space of course not, it’s uncomfortable, you’re under pressure. So your car, your avatar can say I am aggressive, move over.
AM: And are designers happy with this?
NvR: Not the ones I know and speak with but again, market forces, society, geopolitical issues push these things forward. It’s one reason I preferred to go down the coach building route, away from such politics and bold statements.
AM: If you could, how would you change things.
NvR: Proper car design should be honest. Patrick Le Quement believed that a Renault should look French. You’re buying into France as it were. A Rolls-Royce whispers English like nothing else. Similar to a Range Rover which is not an aggressive SUV, nor the Volvo XC-90. Large cars, yes, but not in your face, more friendly, reassuring. All three have great proportions, an elegance to them.
AM: What is your take on the coming EV challenge? And could alternative fuels play a part in future designs?
NvR: For a long time, cars have had grilles, so by tradition that’s what often helps define a car. By not needing a grille, that’s a big, upsetting change. People are slowly coming to accept this but it is entangled in our psyche. Look at the first Nissan Leaf; that car better uses its platform (though it’s no looker) than the massive Tesla’s. The biggest hurdles are the infrastructure. Without any firm ideas, fossil fuels will still be around for some time.
AM: To your bread and butter, the coach built car. Do you have any particular rules to follow or can you allow traditions to be broken? Can you have fun with the design?
NvR: Oh, we like to stir it up a little! Little touches here and there, but we never want to step on anyone’s toes.
AM: Have you upset Tesla or Rolls-Royce, for example with your take on their wares?
NvR: Tesla were most helpful and graciously allowed us free access just as long as we avoided their Intellectual Property. Our clients are not into tuning engines or increasing power. It’s the design and the process to get to the end goal. We get no blueprints or anything from the OEM’s. And we change the name. It’s Silver Spectre Shooting Brake, NOT a Rolls-Royce. If we can make a few eyebrows raise that’s fine by us. And where people think a shooting brake can only have three doors is just not true. Older examples may have four or even six doors. A coach builder transforms what’s there to what’s wanted. Five or more guys and kit need room to get in and out. Our modern variants are individuals. Two door, four, whatever, no problem. Our collective memories can go back thirty or so years, not back to 1930!
AM: Your suits and style blend nicely with your work. Do you ever go casual?
NvR: A three-piece suit is what I’m most comfortable in. Be that sat sketching, in a client’s home or in the workshop, checking progress, a suit is part of me, like my projects. Bespoke. The suit gets me the attention so no fussy details like watches or hats get in the way. I’m not comfortable in everyday wear. Jeans and t-shirts? No thanks!
AM: Can music play a part in design?
NvR: Yes. When sketching, I listen to a lot of music. It depends on the project. For example with the Breadvan Hommage, a lot of Italian music was on. It helps the flow. Music is usually on in the workshop but it might not be to my taste. That’s the fabricator’s choice.
AM: Do you get hands on in the workshop?
NvR: No, that’s for the artisans. They interpret the plan, working their magic with the materials. I’ll assist with tasks but the Bic biro is my tool of the trade.
AM: What’s your current car?
NvR: I’m lucky enough to have access to cars from industry connections so I’ve been using a Lexus LC500h and a LC-F which are very nice. A new project allowed me into a MY21 Defender which is a cool car. But I do still own and will never sell the first car that I owned aged 19. A 1991 Volvo 940 2.3 litre GLE sedan. This thirty year old car is a talking point anywhere I go and can often be an ice breaker when visiting a client for the first time. They see I’m serious about my work as I really look after this Swedish beast.
AM: I see you’ve recently gravitated back home to the Netherlands and left the London scene.
NvR: A lot of friends, people I work with and clients are based in Central Europe. And I was spending more and more time over here with projects, visiting clients, etc. The new badge maintains the design, just drops the London script.
AM: Niels, this has been a splendid and enlightening hour. Thank you very much for your time and allowing access into the world of the coach building car designer.
NvR: It’s been a pleasure.
On his YouTube channel, which is well worth a visit, Niels contextualises and interprets contemporary car design with both insight and intelligence. It may be found here.
Niels’ website may be found by following this link.
Chat recorded 16/01/21.