Dirk Van Braeckel's passion for good car design goes way beyond his job, just don't suggest the new Bentley Continental GT looks a lot like the old one.
Emotion exudes from both Bentley designer and his creation
If you'd like to get a grown man in a pinstriped suit angry at you, simply suggest to Dirk van Braeckel that the new Bentley Continental GT looks a lot like the old one.
"I don't agree with that," sniffs the director of design for Bentley as he instantly straightens in his chair and looks me right in the eye. Oh, dear.
"The car is totally new, it has much better proportions than the previous car. Partially through the wider stance, larger wheels, which of course, as you can appreciate from a design point of view, can give you a completely different proportion from the outset. So that combined with shallower glass and a far more sculpted and sharper accentuated lines, and with a more simple body structure, from a visual point of view, makes a far stronger presence for this car."
OK, it's different, though not radically so. But how do you redo a car that has been the best-selling model for Bentley in its 91-year history?
"To replace that car, you have to carefully go through what you want to do. And we wanted to understand the essence of the first GT, what made it an iconic design, what gave it its success, and improve on that and build a new GT that could take us into the future.
"Replacing a successful car is also constraining because everybody expects a continuation of that success. So you can't just say 'Well, that was nice and very successful; let's build something else.' You want to build up on that and bring it into the future, and that's what we set out to do."
With the first and second variants of the Continental GT, van Braeckel and his team certainly hit their mark; the car became an instant classic when the first model debuted at the 2002 Paris Motor Show and remains one of the most beautiful cars on the road, the main reason behind its runaway success for the luxury brand. But where do you begin when penning a car for such a storied car maker? Van Braeckel finally begins to relax from his earlier indignation as he explains his work ethos.
"Our heritage, our past, is important in our work. We're inspired by our cars from the Thirties and the Fifties - it doesn't mean that I'm setting out to do a retro design. But I want to understand why these old cars are still so strong today, and people are putting millions down to own one, or travelling the world in a Bentley Blower from the Thirties doing rallies and enjoying these cars. What is it that makes these cars so strong? It's that feeling that I try to get across.
"I think it's that unique combination of performance and comfort. You can go very fast in a very relaxed fashion. Look at the GT: it's got almost 600hp, it can go over 250kph, but it doesn't shout about it. It looks like 'Yeah, I can do it if I want, but I don't have to'. And that's the expression we've got to embed in the design."
Van Braeckel's passion for good car design goes beyond his job, which is why he owns a 1963 Jaguar E-Type, considered one of the most beautiful cars ever built. But other modern brands are catching his eye, too.
"I think design directions within the Volkswagen group are proving very, very successful [Bentley is part of the VW group]. You see the success that Audi is enjoying, and it's growing, and it's a big portion due to design and their expression of quality. Volkswagen is very much on that route, too. I think design that actually expresses quality can have a big impact on the customer.
"Outside the group, I also love the creativity of Citroën, and have for a number of years now; I really find it inspiring what these guys come up with. I like Pininfarina with the Ferrari 458, I think it's a fantastic looking car."
But van Braeckel is quite happy at Bentley, thank you.
"This brand is so rich, I have so many ingredients to cook with, and it's my choice which ingredients I take and what I'm making. It really is a playground for a designer."