Arguably the most influential car designer on the planet today, Walter de’Silva– Volkswagen Group’s head of design – is responsible for some of the most iconic car brands in the world. His design remits cover Lamborghini, Bugatti, Audi, Bentley, Seat, Skoda, VW and soon Porsche – and accounted for more than 6.3million sales in 2009.
The 59-year old’s career began at Fiat in 1972 followed by stints at the R Bonetto studio in Milan, Idea Institute in Turin and Trussardi Design in Milan before taking charge of Alfa Romeo Design Centre in Milan in 1986 where the 156 saloon and Sportwagon became his breakthrough cars.
Since 1999 he has been at the VW Group, behind design hit after hit including the Seat Salsa, Tango, Leon and Altea, Audi TT mk2, A5, A6 mk2 and R8 supercar plus the new VW Scirocco and Polo mk5. Head of VW Group design since 2007 de’Silva’s agenda now includes reinvigorating the VW brand with the forthcoming Up! range high up his agenda.
Guy Bird caught up with him to talk about eco car design, future mobility and his bad habit of crashing cars as a kid.
GCD: Do you think the Up! needs to look green, or more ecological? Many car designs seem obsessed with showing their greenness with electric circuit board motifs and so forth
De’Silva:[Sighs] This is marketing, do a nice, elegant car, come on...
GCD: But take the example of the second-generation Prius versus the Civic Hybrid. Arguably the Prius sold better because it had a separate and clearly eco-focused identity?
De’Silva: In the end, if you have to use design to communicate that a car is different, okay maybe it is a marketing strategy. But if you design a car like the VW Touareg Hybrid, why does it have to be different? I’m Italian and for me it’s best if the car is elegant. If you look at all the data on aerodynamics maybe the difference is one point. So you could change everything [for such reasons] do a shit car and say, ‘look this a hybrid‘, but in the end the Prius is a different game. People buy it not for the design but because it is a trend car. George Clooney drives a Prius in front of the photographers but I know which car he drives to race. Why? Because it’s beautiful.
GCD:But VW’s eco Bluemotion models have green-focused details like closed grilles and on?
De’Silva: This comes from aerodynamics packages that Bluemotion models generally have added. But now I say the opposite: I want a super-nice car that is Bluemotion. Not to do the Bluemotion after, but to do the Bluemotion for the basic car. This is the game, to combine these elements that always are, let me say, a little strange, in a nice and elegant design, this is the next stage. You want aerodynamics? We started a long time ago. Look at the  VW 1-litre concept or the  Audi A2. The shapes of the body of the cars are similar. This is a big problem in design. If you want good aerodynamics you can do a car with a rear overhang of one or two metres but no one wants to buy a car like this. In the end the car is a compromise, you have to offer performance, a good package and good design so that when people go to the car park they say, “I love my car”.
GCD: Talking of the Audi A2, will you make a successor?
De’Silva: Our group never stopped researching green technology. When the 3-litre Lupo was on the market, we had about three crazy guys buy this car. When the Audi A2 launched it was not for that moment. People said ‘shit car, good package, blah, blah’. It was completely narrow, closed grille, aerodynamic, small wheels. Today it's a car everybody wants.
GCD: So you’re going to do another A2?
De’Silva: Not in this sense, now we have the A1 and A3 so we need to avoid the mistake of the past. First, it must have the same performance but good design. Honestly, it was a very nice intelligent project but too engineered. The game of Audi is to push innovation, research and technology – in the premium segment you can do this.
GCD: What is the future of the 2009 VW L1 tandem car, the spiritual heir of the 1-litre concept?
De’Silva: We don’t stop this research. For me it’s not only a question of product but the network, the traffic is not ready for a vehicle like this.
GCD: But we have motorbikes already?
De’Silva: Yeah, but [the L1] is more a car that could be coming in 10-15 years. You have to change completely the environment around the product.
GCD: Is VW Group in touch with other mobility providers? De’Silva: We are working a lot on ideas about mobility because it’s coming, it’s coming. We have to work with administrations too. We need agreements with them.
GCD: But VW is Wolfsburg, so you could start there no? You do have power. VW isn’t a little player…
De’Silva: Okay, we have a lot of projects but it’s not easy. As I recently said, in ten years we won’t talk about cars, we’ll talk about mobility, micro mobility, personal mobility, and global mobility. I’m sure. The young generation aren’t interested in cars, they are more interested in the effect of the mobility, so we have to offer products that appeal to this new generation. In Japan for instance it’s much more important to have an iPad than a car. My last kid loves cars but not with the passion I had as a boy. I used to take the key off my father and go in the garage and go ‘Brrmm, brrm, brrm’ and sometimes I would crash them. I’ve had a lot of accidents.
GCD: How many cars have you crashed?
De’Silva: The first was a Fiat Topolino. My father was very angry and after that I crashed a taxi on holiday outside our hotel in a small village on Lake Como. Every afternoon for one hour the taxi drivers were very kind and put me in the driving seat of the car – I must have been seven or eight – but one day I started the engine and the other taxi was parking in front of me at the same time and… crash. I destroyed a Lancia Appia of my uncle’s too. This was a big accident (I was in the garage and there was a low bollard). My first car was a white Fiat 500. I was so happy but had an accident after just 100 metres. The car was in the repairers for two weeks.
GCD: What cars do you own?
De’Silva: I have a VW Golf GTi, an Audi Q5 and a S5 Sportback, but I don’t drive cars much as I’m always travelling around the world. I also have an old blue Fiat 500 (I bought my first car again), the original Giugiaro Fiat Panda, a Vespa and now I want to buy a nice condition original VW Beetle. I like small economic well-priced cars where everything is done to the limit. I like the creativity of such design and engineering.