PARIS - To be a woman is rare in the small world of auto designers. To be one of Renault's four chief designers is even rarer. But to be the person whose 1990 concept car Scenic inspired the 1997 European Car of the Year is to have achieved a designer's dream.
These achievements are reasons enough to pay attention to Anne Asensio, 35.
She is a nice woman, a strong and original character. But she does not emphasize her rarity as a woman who designs cars. She is a car designer who is a woman.
'When I was a child, I always wanted to have a trade related to drawing,' she says. 'Later, I wanted to change things, I was never satisfied with the situation as it was.
'But I never drew car sketches in my exercise book. I discovered cars later.'
Her first passions went to horses and motorcycles. Today she owns a Ducati Mostro motorcycle she sometimes rides from home in Boulogne-Billancourt to Guyancourt, Renault's technical center.
'I decided to make a career in plastic arts,' she says, so she studied sculpture at Versailles art school during 1980-82. Afterward she entered ENSAMA (Ecole nationale superieure des arts appliques et metiers d'art), a famous school for design in Paris.
In 1984, on a student internship, she designed a horse carriage for French coachbuilder Heuliez. Shortly after, she had a first encounter with Renault planners.
'I immediately identified with Renault's very strong corporate culture,' she says. 'I also liked the company because it listens to the people, people can express themselves. This is why Renault's products are so specific.'
A few months later, when Asensio decided to complete her training at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies in 1987, Renault agreed to pay part of her tuition.
A decade later, Asensio remains very enthusiastic about her stay in America, because it allowed her 'to start thinking by myself.'
'There are big differences in American and European approaches to design,' she says. 'In the USA, the shapes and the size are more unbridled. In Europe, the line and the volume are more controlled.'
In Detroit she worked with Francois Castaing, who was then the technical boss at American Motors. When Renault sold AMC to Chrysler, Castaing went too.
Her work at the Center for Creative Studies inspired Chuck Jordan, then the chief designer at General Motors, to offer her a job.
She declined. 'I had a moral contract with Renault,' she told him.
Asensio was only 24 when she joined Renault in July 1987.
'Patrick Le Quement succeeded Gaston Juchet as head of design in September 1987,' she remembers. 'I knew him by reputation. The Renault design division used to be run by engineers. The designers wanted a real designer for their boss.'
Asensio started with light and heavy trucks, and in 1989 she returned to Detroit to work on the Junior Jeep project, which was to be a Renault-Chrysler sport utility.
The project was rejected.
'The car was very well done. It should have come out in 1992, like the Twingo,' says Asensio.
When she returned to Renault in 1990, she beat eight other designers for the exterior design of a concept in the lower-medium segment. A team gathered to complete the vehicle, including Patrick Lecharpy and Yves Legal, the interior designers, and Dominique Levant, in charge of colors and materials.
The vehicle, called the Scenic, was shown in 1991 at Frankfurt auto show. Six years later, the Megane Scenic pioneered a new segment and was voted the Car of the Year.
After this masterpiece, Asensio joined the advanced design service. There, she made the Next hybrid prototype, the first concept car to be entirely designed by CAD/CAM. She also contributed to the Clio replacement due next spring.
She was really surprised when, in March 1997, Patrick Le Quement telephoned her on her vacation to tell she was the new chief designer for Renault's small and lower-medium ranges.
Le Quement is proud of his choice.
'I want a new generation of designers to come out at Renault,' he says. 'Anne has an excellent training, she is a mastermind and she perfectly combines intelligence and creativity.'
An insider at Renault says her selection was a complete surprise. 'Some people ground their teeth,' says the insider, 'but now everybody agrees.'
Asensio agrees with Le Quement on the essential nature of her job.
'Design is very little drawing. Before you draw, you must think,' she says. Although she does not emphasize her gender, she notices how women are treated.
'Renault has hired many women in my generation,' she says. 'It will certainly change the company management. It's something new in the design area. In 1987, I was the only one to work on exterior design.'
She prefers to focus on her new job. 'As a chief designer, I will have to manage other people's creativity by orienting them in a well-defined direction. I will give coherence to the model range.'
She manages a team of 10 designers - from Germany, Sweden, Argentina, Belgium and elsewhere - and one engineer, who, by the way, is a woman.
When she drives a car, it is her Porsche 911, but she says she is 'very interested by what is emerging: the two-seat urban cars. The exterior design of the Smart is not serious but I was astonished by the inside.'
When asked about her favorite designer she reflects before she answers: Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect.
'He was able to think about the function and simultaneously to create a plastic shape,' she says. 'I have the same relationship with cars.'