Walter de Silva’s 65th birthday - due next February - comes an opportune time for a car designer who has been at his drawing board for well over 40 years.
After 17 years in various roles at the VW Group, and currently the Head of Group design, de Silva has announced that he’s retiring at the end of the month. Although he heads for the door as the VW Group faces the biggest upheaval of its existence, he can be happy, at least, that his area of the company is firing on all cylinders.
de Silva’s first appointment at VW - becoming head of Seat design in 1998 - was indicative of the German motor industry’s search for design soul.
The VW Group has long had a weak spot for British and Italian cars, believing them to have innate character and charm that often escapes their own products. After all, does anyone actual love their Polo or Passat? Or are they cars that can only be admired?
The Germans quietly think that their cultural mindset of technical solutions and an emphasis on engineering (their inability to get old-school diesel engines through US Clean Air laws notwithstanding) lacks the flair and passion that brand theory insists is essential for long-term prosperity.
In German, this desire translates - rather badly - as ‘faszination’. But it’s a word we also understand in English and according to one dictionary definition it’s ‘the exercise of a powerful or irresistible influence on the affections or passions; unseen, inexplicable influence’.
It’s why BMW wanted the Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Mini brands. And why the VW Group bought Bentley, Lamborghini and Ducati. Enthral the car buying public and they’ll not only pay of premium for a product, they’ll also keep coming back.
Hiring de Silva was part of this long process of the VW Group trying to get that ‘faszination’ designed into its future products. De Silva was enticed away from Alfa Romeo for the SEAT gig, after overseeing the iconic Alfa 156.
That’s a car that the car design community still holds in the highest esteem. Many in the industry were astonished that he would make a move away from the Italian car industry. Even in VW’s official press release about de Silva’s retirement, much is made of his authorship of the 156 and 147 models. Clearly, they are two cars that are still seen within VW as benchmarks.
Indeed, Alfa Romeo has been a stone in the shoe of VW Overlord Ferdinand Piëch for many years. It’s a glamour brand he’d love to get his hands on. The logic, as with the purchases of Mini and Land Rover, is simple; imagine combining German technical competence with the flair of a ‘fazsinating’ brand.
Unable to get his hands on Alfa, Piëch hired de Silva in 1998 to try and transform Seat into a Spanish Alfa. The results were mixed, to say the least. The original Leon concept - the Salsa - was a remarkably innovative hatchback concept, but the first models using the design language were the Altea MPVs, rather than a proper rakish hatch.
de Silva also oversaw the stunning Tango roadster concept (which I had the privilege of driving) but it never saw the showroom. With Seat losing money and the possibilities for de Silva limited, his move to oversee Audi Group design in 2002 allowed him to really get stitching.
If you think back to the A6, Q7 and A5 of the time, they showed an interesting step on from the ‘Bauhaus’ A6 of 1997. That latter car really moved the game on in terms of terms of fit and finish and design discipline.
I once had lunch with de Silva, in Qatar of all places. He is a slim and elegant chap, thoughtful and philosophical and noticeably gentle in a way many Germanic designers will never manage.
We discussed the Golf design language at length, particularly the way that the Mk6 Golf had wrap-around headlamps and taillights, breaking the rules set by the previous models. ‘I will fix things with the Mk7’ he assured me.
I can’t say I agree with de Silva’s own assessment that the Audi A5 was the most beautiful car he ever oversaw. As an Audi fan from the days of aero 80/90, breaking up those fuselage-like bodysides with a single wavy, ridge line was not for me.
But anyone with the Alfa 156, Golf 7 and VW Up in their portfolio has a serious place in car design history. de Silva’s influence and editing produced cars that combined both presence and weight with real elegance.
With VW’s company-wide reboot, it’s being suggested that the design language of the various brands may no longer be centrally co-ordinated. That’s probably a good thing, but without the influence of people like de Silva, Germanic precision could once again drive out any chance of ‘faszination’.