Photos: Alfa Romeo, Audi, Daniel Nikodem Photography, Volkswagen, Wdscars, Hongqi
During his career spanning over four decades, one of the most successful automotive designers in history has designed more than 130 prototype, sports, concept and production cars for Alfa Romeo, Seat, Audi, VW, Bugatti, Bentley, Lamborghini, Ducati and Maserati, and as many as five of his designs have won the European Car of the Year award
All these lines could make at least four cars, said Walter de Silva as we passed one of the cars on display at the Geneva Fair. The casual comment he made in 2007 as we were looking for a quiet place to talk perfectly summarises the human and business sides of the designer whose works marked the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Refined and clean in his creations, and, at the same time, direct and sharp in his opinions, de Silva was promoted to the first man of Volkswagen Group Design ahead of the Swiss motor show in 2007, where the attention of the audience was captured by the Audi A5, the model that, three years later, would bring de Silva the Design Award – the Oscar of the world of design.
He started his career in 1972 as an intern in the design department of Fiat, and 43 years later, somewhat unexpectedly, retired from his position as chief designer of what was then the largest automaker in the world. Over four decades, he had designed more than 130 prototype, sports, concept and production cars for Alfa Romeo, Seat, Audi, VW, Bugatti, Bentley, Lamborghini, Ducati and Maserati, and as many as five of his designs had won the European Car of the Year award. But the fact that he retired did not mean he stopped working. His love of aesthetics and functionality shifted from four wheels to high heels and, in 2017, he launched a line of women’s shoes under his name, followed by the establishment of the WdS & Partners design studio two years later, with which he marked his return to his first love, cars.
One of his latest designs is the stunning hybrid super sports Hongqi S9, which is backed by an investment by the US-based Silk EV and the Chinese giant FAW, a car that comes with a price tag of €2 million. Despite the many compliments that accompanied the presentation, de Silva is highly critical of the Asian giant’s design.
– The Chinese attach importance to design only as a strategy. For them, you always have to do something that is surprising, but it never reflects the value of the brand or product. When they start a project, they clearly tell you what that car must look like, and this often comes down to copying. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones. Most cars that come on the market today are absolutely boring. They all look the same, and new models are just replicas of one another, which is perceived both by professionals and by clients. Part of the blame can be placed on the excessive impact of computers that can do anything but do not have the power to touch, feel and love, so everything turns out to be just a mathematical formula in the end. Add incomprehensible aggressiveness in the final touch and marketing, and you end up creating cars with no brand identity. Of course, there are exceptions such as Porsche, whose models are infallible, be it the 911 or the electric Taycan. Range Rover is consistent, Hyundai is making great efforts with Genesis, and Flavio Manzoni’s work at Ferrari opening new markets and products deserves praise. Volkswagen continues to bet on simple, uncomplicated cars, and Alfa Romeo, despite its problems, has maintained its identity, but it is Mercedes that currently has the best design.