Designers of today are the glamorous stars of the automotive industry, jetting from trade show to press event unveiling their latest creations or concepts. But Patrick Le Quement, the longtime head of design at Renault, remembers a very different time, but more on that in a moment.
In his new book, "Design: Between the Lines," Le Quement, who also worked for Ford, Volkswagen and Simca, recalls his nearly 50 years in the car business, mixing strongly held opinions, insider gossip, boardroom intrigue and thoughts about the place of design not only in the auto industry but also in everyday life.
Under his watch, he notes, roughly 60 million vehicles were produced that bear his imprint, among them the Ford Taunus/Cortina and Sierra family sedans and Cargo pickup; Renault Twingo minicar and Scenic minivan; and the Dacia Logan low-cost sedan.
Le Quement documents what he sees as a fundamental shift from the 1960s to 1980s as designers "began to be looked upon as significant assets who could transform the destiny of a company" rather than mere stylists who were asked "to superficially alter the appearance of vehicles that had ungainly proportions."
According to Le Quement, a shift of power for designers began in the 1980s when internal styling teams began to compete successfully against external design houses such as Pininfarina. A pivotal moment, at least in France, came in 1982 with the smashing success of the Peugeot 205 that was designed in-house by Gerard Welter -- "a masterpiece of automotive design," Le Quement says, "that provided the signal for other designers to come out of the shadows of the Turin carrozzerie."
Now, Le Quement notes, the only Turin-based styling specialist in good health is Italdesign, which is part of the Volkswagen Group. As automakers' regional design centers gained power design houses such as Bertone and Pininfarina started to falter or change their focus.
Le Quement's journey from the drawing board to the boardroom began with a brief tenure at Simca in the 1960s. After freelancing for several years, he joined Ford in 1968, first in England and Germany, then in Detroit, where Le Quement was astounded by the Big 3's resources and the "delicious excesses" of the bosses. The carpets in Henry Ford II's offices were so thick it was like "walking on freshly fallen snow," he notes. And Ford's design vice president at the time, Eugene Bordinat, and his deputy both drove DeTomaso Mangustas, but Le Quement asks, "How could anyone drive a Mangusta and propose designs like the Lincoln Mark III decorated by the couturier Bill Blass?"
Motown's charms eventually faded for Le Quement, with the Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz twins perhaps the final straw: "These two models represented the lowest point in Ford design since the Edsel," he says. His impression of the Mustang II was that it was "about as attractive as a cheese grater."
He knew something had to change. "It suddenly dawned on me that I could not subject myself to this visual pollution for two more years," he said of reviewing the Tempo/Topaz designs in 1985.