MLADA BOLESLAV, Czech Republic - Few people envied Dirk van Braeckel when he landed his job as chief designer at Skoda on 1 January, 1994. Still recovering from the years of neglect under Communism, the once-proud Czech marque was struggling.
'From a design point of view, a huge job needed to be done to prepare the relaunch of an old and forgotten brand,' says Van Braeckel.
His first task was to redesign Skoda's core model, the Favorit. Launched in 1987, the Favorit needed a major facelift to create a look more appealing to western Europeans.
The redesign took just a year to complete, and the car was renamed Felicia. It was the first step in Skoda's recovery under Volkswagen, owner of the marque since late 1992.
Van Braeckel seemed hardly qualified for the job. The Belgian had no roots in Central Europe.
After completing college in 1980, van Braeckel got a job as a modeler at Ford in Cologne, Germany. His talents were quickly spotted. Van Braeckel won the Ford International Award, an internal honor for talented designers and engineers.
As a result, Ford sponsored his studies at the Royal College of Art in London.
Van Braeckel graduated, only to find that Ford had no design jobs available. Instead, he found work at Volkswagen Group.
Working mainly for Audi, van Braeckel helped mold the looks of the A3, A4 and Cabriolet. He made his first Skoda sketches in 1993, and took up his current position a year later.
Van Braeckel is well aware of Skoda's long-standing tradition, which goes back almost 100 years. But under communism, Skoda's brand image had tarnished.
Van Braeckel had to develop a fresh but recognizable styling philosophy.
'First we wanted to explain where we came from - the area south of the eastern German towns of Zwickau, Chemnitz and Eisenach,' van Braeckel says. 'Before World War II this was the heart of the German car industry, with BMW and Auto Union factories located there.
'Then we strived for a certain engineering and styling sturdiness, following on from Skoda's technical heritage. The development of the rather rectangular grille reflected Skoda radiators from the pre-war days.'
The art and architecture of the Czech capital Prague has influenced the new era of Skoda vehicles.
'There are some traces of cubism in architecture which helped to interact with certain surfaces of the Octavia,' van Braeckel says.
Cubism is a school of painting and sculpture which breaks up natural forms into abstract, often geometric, shapes.
'I found some interesting cubist lettering which I have included in the Octavia logo,' he says.
Van Braeckel is particularly proud of the Octavia. 'That car reflects my own style.'
He has no qualms working for VW Group and its tough, product-oriented chairman Ferdinand Piech.
'Piech can be convinced with strong arguments if you have a certain point,' he says, 'but you must be quite sure to present a model which immediately speaks for itself.'
Van Braeckel is proud to manage a studio with 38 designers and modelers, half of them Czechs and Slovaks.
He still does not speak much of the local language, but is understanding Czech culture more every day.
'The people enjoy their freedom compared with the communist past, and education is good. Older people may still need some guidance because of their past. But the younger generation is full of self esteem.
'Above all, they are engineers. We create everything ourselves, as fast as in the west, but at a fraction of the cost,' van Braeckel says, with more than a touch of Czech pride.