Tea with Luc Donckerwolke – Designer Director of Bentley Motors

(from the Huffington Post in 2014 – just collecting up all my ‘Tea With’ Articles in one place)

It was at the Guild of Motoring Writers AGM Luncheon that once again I have a proven ability to sniff out a car designer when there is one in the room. Sitting at a round table for ten, an empty space beside me was an open invitation for Luc Donckerwolke, the Design Director of Bentley Motors, to sit down and endure my endless questions! For some might think I had planned this, and perhaps they may indeed be correct, as I do really love to find out what are the inspirations of a designer of beautiful cars. I managed to cut straight to the chase, as I didn’t know how long I would have before speeches – or we would be separated,

“One thing that allows my passion to feel free is motor racing and rallying”, Donckerwolke begins, “you can allow yourself to hold all this passion and be free of all of the breaks that you have to think about designing a car for the road, you can’t speak about power any more when designing cars, but racing is part of the essence of the car, being a pioneer of the car again.It even begins with getting ready for the race: dressing up in your race suit, and closing yourself with your helmet and in the car – you hear your heart beat. You are in this safety cage the first moments when you get into the car. I always have a kind of 15-20 seconds it’s all up to me. The door closes and you see friends and people around you, they become competitors. You switch off everything. On the starting grid you transform yourself into another person.”
Luc and I discuss racing at Spa Francorchamps after I tell him that my dream is to race the Historic 6 hours there with my 1971 MG Midget. Although Donckerwolke was born in Lima, Peru, and educated in various South American and African countries before studying industrial engineering in Brussels and Transportation Design in Vevey, Switzerland, he has a residence in Peru and another in Brussels and knows the Belgium circuit well – passionately well,

“You see the straight at Spa all the way up to Eau Rouge, Raidillon then to Les Combes, you always have your references. Endurance racing especially, where it’s three in the morning when suddenly your sugar and blood goes down you think, “What the hell am I doing here? I am going to stop the car!” It’s ridiculous! Then you think, ‘wait a minute there are people behind me and you haven’t seen a car for a while with less cars on the road, some having retired, It’s fantastic!” he expresses with both hands as we grab the milk as it passes around the table for our tea.

“I am preparing a car for Tour Auto and yes I would like to do Spa 6 Hours, I love Spa it is one of my favourite tracks.” He agreed with me.
Luc tells me about the Porsche 914/6 GT he is preparing at the moment,

“The ‘Ugly Duck’ of Porsche,” Luc continues with a smile whilst showing me photos on his phone. The 914/6 is the race version of the 914 and faster than the 911 because of the mid-engine he explains, whilst continuing now on his phone showing me a Porsche 356 Roadster he used to rally and then shuffles forward more and more photos of cars to the Lamborghini Miura he has for rallying.

Donckerwolke was previously Head of Advanced Design for the Volkswagen Group, as an Exterior Designer at Audi (R8 Le Mans Prototype) following with stints as Head of Design at Lamborghini (including the Murciélago and Gallardo) and Director of Design at Seat.The door closes and you see friends and people around you, they become competitors. You switch off everything. On the starting grid you transform yourself into another person.”

“I raced in Zolda, a car I designed myself, based on a mid-engine with a Peugeot 306GTI engine. But the Miura is good for rallying although quite long and too low – it often touches the gravel. Now I have a BMW CSL 3ltr which I will prepare for rallies as well.”

I asked Luc about what he takes from the racing, in terms of the design and from the cars around him into his next design?

“Movement and that emotion of looking at something in movement – we tend to look too much of cars as static objects but they are not static, this is why I like racing because you see movement. With vintage cars you have to get more out of the car, you don’t have to drive at top speed – you need to drive with control – there is no emotion with modern speed. But driving at 150 with a vintage car- requires more control and knowledge.

All my cars are delicate to drive and this is the great thing that you know that you are playing with your own limits you have to be prepared. There are no electronics to save your life no airbags etc… you have to thoroughly understand the limits and control them.”

After realising that in fact I had only asked 1 real question in all of our informal interview, I decided I would be allowed to steal another,

“Do you sketch with a pencil?”

“My desk has paper and I also sketch on an ‘iPad’ but I am always sketching – travel and at home always sketching. The computer is nothing special it is a tool: people discovered markers and biros, but the easiest is a napkin and a pen.” He concludes.

With Luc’s enthusiasm of the races and rallies, cars and engines he has built and is building along with my encouragement for finding out more, the whole table soon turns to what all our laughter is about and suddenly the intimate conversation turns into a raucous chat amongst car lovers.

One curious guest inquires about the use of clay models,

“From design in history we see things happen we see that things started to happen when we use clay, sculpture by hand and now synthetic designs, suddenly they become volumes. I like clay but at the same time clay is slow, we look at all the sketches in one week I want to see 3D out of this and quickly. We can look at a milled model and change data for milling that model. I don’t like to stay too long in the same stage in the project. I want immediate change. You mill at night and go home and come the next morning you have something to see. It is like a Magic.”

Luc, who has a keen understanding of industrial engineering continues, “We are going to go into world of 3d synthesisers, we won’t buy products we will make them. We will all have 3D printers. And now here we print in Titanium.”

I asked if Luc saw in 3D as I often see in black and white as a photographer,

“I see in 3D yes of course, and like you, it is important to have the contrast the different hues which you tend to lose if you work in colour”.

Returning to cars I ask about the new Bentley GT3 race car of which Luc is working on and how this will evolve into the road car,

“We are pushing the limits that we are allowed through the FIA for the British GT Championship. The motivation is that you push it to what works, then you bring it back to road proportions, bring some of the efficient aerodynamics back into the road car. I used to be at Audi and designed the cars that raced Le Mans in 1998-99; it was all about creating a language and changing the lengths and proportions”.

I realised that sitting next to me Luc had no chance of escaping from my endless pursuit of what makes a great designer and before I could stop myself out popped another question.
What other influences would I see in a Donckerwolke design?

“Many themes come from the aeronautical world, from jet planes and a lot from Apple, Jonathan Ives, the Chief Designer at Apple and I, are great friends and we discuss many ideas, also the bionic designs of motorbikes and guns.”
Guns? I question to him,
“My father collected weapons and from a technical approach they are highly functional, which is a genuine action, they are intuitive in theory and have a certain mechanical aesthetics with this behaviour”.
Our lunch time table talk comes to an end I apologise profusely for taking up his time with my inquisitiveness. Luc asks if this will be going anywhere into a magazine for example? I say I have no idea and tell him I will send him a copy. He thanks me and says, “it would be interesting to know what I think when I am not planned – to know what I really feel”.

I think he feels a sincere passion for the movement and emotion of the motor car – which in my opinion, is exactly what you want from a chap who designs beautiful cars.