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Lambo man flies in to revamp Bentley design

By Phil McNamara

Motor Industry

31 January 2013 16:00

Bentley is embarking on a new design era, steered by the man behind Lamborghini's stunning 21st century portfolio. Luc Donckerwolke, the Belgian who has held official positions at Audi, Bentley, Skoda, VW and Lamborghini, and worked in the background shaping the rest of VW Group's brands, is now getting down to business at Crewe.

'They told me: "You have to go to Bentley, move the brand forward and create a new design studio",' Donckerwolke told CAR in his first conversation since starting there five months ago.

His most pressing task is to hone Bentley's SUV rival to the Range Rover, a car just two years from its premiere. Bentley showed a concept at the 2012 Geneva show, which although soundly beaten with commentators' ugly sticks, was so inherently grotesque that the bruises didn't show. 'We are doing the car from the beginning,' said Donckerwolke, confirming that he has a blank styling canvas to work on.

'The concept car had to have a strong impact, to announce that a Bentley SUV is going to arrive,' he said. 'Think of it as being like an actor on set, having to wear make up and speak more extrovertly. It was a bold announcement and we are working on the production version. It's going to have a different aspect.'

Donckerwolke will be working alongside exterior designer Sangyup Lee, who is moving over to Crewe from VW/Audi's Californian advanced design studio. Lee designed the muscular reborn Chevrolet Camaro.

Donckerwolke's Bentley vision

The Belgian designer is soaking up Bentley history, and immersing himself with engineers, Crewe's current designers and customers, in a 'learning phase' before taking action. 'For me, Bentley is a unique blend of luxury, ultimate performance and technology. It's about a rewarding driving experience and a cosseting atmosphere. That's different from a Lamborghini, where you strap a 12-cylinder on your back and wear a slinky black dress of carbonfibre!'

'I'm approaching this brand with a lot of respect. There's no need for Bentley to break the curve, to change its course; we're not about to turn 180-degrees.' Donckerwolke says the era he's thinking of most is the 1920s, when the Bentley boys' daring drove the brand to four consecutive Le Mans victories. 'I'm not going to go retro, absolutely not, but everything I do will have its roots in history.'

So will Donckerwolke push Bentley design towards modernity? It depends on the model line, and its suitability for the customer. 'For each product, you have a different blend of tradition and modernity. It'll be a new recipe for the four car lines: Continental; Flying Spur; Mulsanne; and the SUV. We'll give them their own position and personality.' Reading between the lines, we're expecting more differentiation between Continental GT and Flying Spur, cars bracketed together in the mid-2000s, when Donckerwolke starts on future generations.

What does this mean for the third iteration of the iconic car that relaunched Bentley under the VW umbrella, the Continental GT? 'I can't tell you what we talked about yesterday!' he laughs. 'But we will develop it. The [gentle evolutionary] approach to the second generation was justified; it respected and forged the icon, and protected sales. But it's time to sharpen the Continental GT. It's not about making it louder,  vulgar, it's about enhancing its character. It's the right time to do it: customers are now ready for it.'

We watch, and wait, with high expectations. Donckerwolke has one hell of a track record, setting Skoda on the road to credibility with the clean and classy first-gen Octavia and Fabia, shaping Audi's leftfield A2, and of course, the Lamborghini era. Now it's Bentley's turn.