CAR interviews Patrick le Quément on Renault design (2009)

Published: 29 April 2009

Patrick le Quément, 64, has steered Renault through one of its most interesting – some would say controversial – design phases in its history. Born in Marseilles but educated from the age of 12 in the UK, he speaks almost accentless English and agrees to talk to CAR on the eve of his retirement.

Le Quément is one of those designers who’s achieved stellar recognition over the past two decades – matching the reputation of Chris Bangle and J Mays as a member of the design A-list, that exclusive club who’ve helped shape the modern motor car as we know it today. We might not like all their cars, but they've certainly been influential.

He retires later this year, to be succeeded by ex-Mazda man Laurens van den Acker. But don’t underestimate le Quément’s legacy. He designed the last-generation Ford Cortina and its subsequent replacement, the Sierra, during his watch at Ford. At Renault he introduced genuinely novel monobox designs such as the original Twingo and Scenic, as well as the groundbreakingly radical Vel Satis and Avantime, plus consumer products from watches to yachts, motorbikes to bicycles.

Seemingly liberated by his impending retirement, CAR tackled him on the more controversial aspects of his reign at Renault. Highlights published over the next four pages include:

Le Quément reveals the personal favourites and flops of his career
Renault’s plans for reviving the sporting Alpine brand
Why the Renault board overruled le Quément’s preferred Vel Satis design
How car design is changing in the 21st century
What his successor should do at Renault
How the Renault Avantime came about
Le Quément’s plans for his retirement

>> Click ‘Next’ to read CAR’s exclusive interview with Patrick le Quément

CAR: What will be your legacy at Renault?

PLQ: The design department now reports to the COO and it’s the most international design group in the industry, in terms of the number of nationalities represented. Renault’s design team truly reflects the global nature of the business. But I still feel the Frenchness of Renault is something that’s very important – that issue of cultural traceability. There is a Germanness to some of the German brands, and Renault should equally keep some links with its heritage.

Of which vehicle are you most proud in your career?

I was very pleased with the first Twingo, the one you never had in the UK. It was a very important car because I had only just got into the company. I was hungry for success in those days. I suppose the Twingo was my first success and it was not an easy car to do. I am very proud of the Scenic programme and I also enjoyed the third and fourth generation Espace.

Do you have any regrets during your 22 years at Renault?

There are many things. But let me say right away that some of the things which haven’t been huge successes, I do not regret. The second-generation Megane was not as successful as I hoped. Don’t forget it was European Car of the Year when it was launched, and the jury were full of praise for its design. Then there is the Vel Satis…

I personally favoured another approach, another derivative of the 1995 Initiale concept. The approach the Vel Satis took was contrary to what I believed was right. When I joined the company I found that for many years, the design department was under great influence from the engineering department. The job of design – or styling as it was known then – was to make a dress over the lumps and bumps. I fought against that. The Vel Satis was done at a time when I was not active in the meetings. In one of these meetings it was decided that we would do the Vel Satis, and not the design that I favoured. I did not like it but I had to become the person who spoke for the design. I still believe it had many things that were good about it, though.

What about the Renault Avantime?

It was a very modern piece of design, but it was not liked by many people. It was not supposed to be built in the hundreds of cars every day. It was two years late to market and it was launched at the wrong time. There was also the issue with Matra [which assembled the Avantime and its business folded mid-cycle]. I felt very awkward about this. If we had done a highly conservative design, would it have sold better? If pigs had wings! We will never know. It was a real blow when Matra went bust. If a model is not selling well you feel for the people at the factory. You feel involved when they cut a shift or something like that. When a design works well and it’s a big seller it’s very satisfying. But when it does not work, it’s so often design that’s held to be responsible.

>> Click ‘Next’ to read CAR’s exclusive interview with Patrick le Quément

There have long been rumours about the return of the Alpine brand? Were they true?

I have been at Renault for 22 years and three times I tried to revive the Alpine brand. Each time it was very close, and the last time was just a few months ago. That it has not happened in my career is very frustrating. The first time it was too early, the second time it was a concept car in 2001 or 2002, and it was supposed to be shown at Paris or Frankfurt, but we decided to wait and do a production car but then it was cancelled because it was not economically viable.

The third time was last year and then came the economic crisis, so it’s now not a priority. It wasn’t a concept car but the real thing – it was going to happen, and we were going to do a show version of it first. We hadn’t got as far as giving it a number. Now it’s on the back burner but it will happen again. It might even be an electric vehicle… who knows? Alpine is a strong brand and we can do something with it.

What will you do in your retirement?

I have drawn all through my career, but I rarely give my drawings to anyone anymore. I do not draw the cars any more. The one thing I would like to draw is furniture. I am also in the process of setting up my own company and I was going to call it something different, something not associated with me. But I saw a business lawyer recently and he couldn’t believe that’s what I wanted to do. He said ‘let’s put your name into Google’. He told me my name was so well known, why would I want to design things under anything else?

Who do you see as the future stars of car design?

It’s very difficult to say. I’m a real friend of Chris Bangle and I’m a fan of his successor at BMW, Adrian van Hooydonk. If you look at the car companies, there aren’t that many people in their forties. I do like the work of Luc Donckerwolke at Seat though.

If you could leave a note on you desk for your successor, what would it say?

Have respect for your design team. If there’s no respect, it shows. Just because you have more pips on your shoulder, it doesn’t mean you’re more creative than someone else. Modesty is important. You are going to meet people who are far better than you, but don’t overwhelm these individuals. Allow people to express themselves. Design is only an opinion, it’s never wrong, and the head of design has to protect the team. Praise breeds respect and that is important to keep the team together.

>> Click ‘Next’ to read CAR’s exclusive interview with Patrick le Quément

 

How are things different now for car designers, compared to 1967 when you started?

It was a dark age when young people were not recognised. I used to design door handles, hubcaps and rubbing strips. The older guys used to hold on to their jobs. But today it’s totally different. The new younger guys – people who have been in with the company for six months or a year – have fresh ideas and the older guys help them to turn them into whole production cars. Now they are living treasures.

What will you miss most when you retire?

Renault’s design team is a large one with 430 people. The thing I will miss most of all, apart from the people, is that in the past few years I have been very active in developing the technology – especially in digital design work. I am certain that we are leaders in this field, in terms of the reduced time it takes to develop new models. We were seeing it 15 years ago when it was hypothetical, and it’s now become a reality.

I’m also proud that we opened up new Renault design centres in places such as India and Brazil. We did things that people said we could not do, such as getting Russians to work with Romanians.

Has your time in the car industry been fun?

Oh yes, it’s been fun! What I’m worried about is that now I’m getting lots of approaches to do different things in the future, and that they won’t be as much fun as this has been…

>> Has Patrick le Quément been a good steward of Renault design? Click ‘Add your comment’ and discuss his legacy

How are things different now for car designers, compared to 1967 when you started?

It was a dark age when young people were not recognised. I used to design door handles, hubcaps and rubbing strips. The older guys used to hold on to their jobs. But today it’s totally different. The new younger guys – people who have been in with the company for six months or a year – have fresh ideas and the older guys help them to turn them into whole production cars. Now they are living treasures.

What will you miss most when you retire?

Renault’s design team is a large one with 430 people. The thing I will miss most of all, apart from the people, is that in the past few years I have been very active in developing the technology – especially in digital design work. I am certain that we are leaders in this field, in terms of the reduced time it takes to develop new models. We were seeing it 15 years ago when it was hypothetical, and it’s now become a reality.

I’m also proud that we opened up new Renault design centres in places such as India and Brazil. We did things that people said we could not do, such as getting Russians to work with Romanians.

Has your time in the car industry been fun?

Oh yes, it’s been fun! What I’m worried about is that now I’m getting lots of approaches to do different things in the future, and that they won’t be as much fun as this has been…

>> Has Patrick le Quément been a good steward of Renault design? Click ‘Add your comment’ and discuss his legacy

  • Patrick le Quément: due to leave Renault 'some time before the autumn'
  • Renault has had three separate attempts to relaunch Alpine, reveals le Quément – none of them successful
  • The original Twingo. With some strange Sumo wrestlers. Eh?
  • Renaultsport Megane: one of le Quément's arse-wobblers
  • Renault Avantime: now we're in the really surreal patch
  • Renault Vel Satis: le Quément admits he lost the battle for the Vel Satis design, and then had to champion it