Legendary Walter de Silva leaves VW without a top designer

Retiring design chief leaves a hole at Volkswagen that may not be easy to fill

As if proving there is no such thing as an overnight success, Walter Maria de Silva first joined the ranks of professional automotive designers when he began working with Fiat's Centro Stile studio in Turin in 1972.

But it would be more than two decades before a car with his stamp on it became a publicly recognised commodity. Certainly, de Silva must have had a hand in such cars as the later updates of the 131, the creation of the 126 and the Ritmo but nothing came from Turin that you would be able to call, unmistakably, a de Silva car. It would take several spins of the career carousel yet before that would happen.

Leaving Fiat in 1979, he rocked up eventually at the influential IDEA design house. Long since closed down, IDEA was, in the 1980s, a hotbed of new motoring ideas and while it always seemed to struggle to shepherd a car from concept to production, it was always well in the mix with the other big studios of the day and the car makers' own design bureaus. De Silva learned much at the IDEA coalface and felt confident enough to step back in to the car industry, with a post as a senior designer at none other than Alfa Romeo.

This was 1986 and Alfa was going through one of its periodic re-inventions and recoveries, but de Silva would be instrumental in helping shift perceptions of Alfa out and away from “rusty Italian crap-box” to “premium sports brand” once again. And he did it with just two sweeps of his pencil, which created the mid-1990s GTV coupe and its Spider cousin – perhaps not the most financially successful Alfas of all time but certainly among the most striking cars ever to emerge from Milan. They kicked off a revolution that saw Alfa, briefly, seem able to challenge the German sports saloon hegemony.


Design magic

De Silva’s next bit of design magic was the Alfa 156 saloon. Launched to the public in 1997, this impossibly handsome four-door saloon suddenly became a big seller and put Alfa back into the black for a brief, glorious time.

Subtle but with some brilliant touches (the off-set number plate, the boot release hidden in the badge – a recurring de Silva theme) the 156 deserved its success, even if its mechanical package (it was essentially a much-modified Fiat Tipo underneath) couldn’t really keep up.

De Silva barely had time to revel in its success though, as by 1998 he was gone from Alfa and was taking over the design reigns at Seat. This was the period when VW was touting Seat as "a Spanish Alfa Romeo" and what better way to build the brand fast than hiring Alfa's own designer?

For Seat, de Silva actually rather toned down his Latin flair and produced instead stolidly Germanic-looking cars such as the Toledo, the first Leon and eventually the Altea – a car whose design influence on Seat is only just now beginning to wane. Again, he was on the move though, to the company where he would really make his mark – Audi.

And it was with an Italian name that de Silva effectively created modern Audi. The Nuvolari concept car was revealed at the 2003 Geneva motor show and while now it just looks exactly like an A5 Coupe, back then it was a major turnaround. The big, bold, "shield" grille was an entirely new device for Audi (influenced in part by the classic Auto Union Type-C racing car of the 1930s) and it instantly gave Ingolstadt that which it had previously lacked: an identifiable face with which to challenge BMW.

Later, when the Nuvolari did become the A5, de Silva had no hesitation in calling it his favourite of his own designs. “For me, the Audi A5 was close to perfection,” he said. “I love everything about this car. The general form, the details; it is so balanced in its proportions.

“It’s sensual and dynamic at the same time . . . Certainly it is a piece of deceptively simple styling which Audi has been struggling ever since to move past without pastiche.”

As well as creating the first Q7 and the current A6 for Audi, de Silva was now branching out into the rest of the VW Group, touching lightly on the current Polo, the Scirocco and the sixth and seventh generations of the Golf. Perhaps it is the Golf that will be his most enduring creation – it seems hard to imagine VW’s iconic hatchback having its shape better defined than in the current generation.

De Silva never wavered from simple though, he was never one for loading up his cars with needless fripperies nor unnecessary detailing.

“Design is, in abstract terms, the sum of individual signals, which are combined into a powerful comprehensive signal. Good design is not only the result of rational thought. And that makes our mission so complicated. At the end, design is always the reflection of attitudes towards life, vision and beliefs. I’ve never counted them but I guess I must have put about 80 cars on the street,” he said.

Finally though, and without much fanfare, de Silva has gone, slipping away into retirement in the past two weeks, with only a quick send-off from VW in the shape of some kind words from embattled chief executive Matthias Muller, who said: “Walter de Silva succeeded in establishing a design culture and methodology across all Group brands that is unique in our industry. At the same time, he was the driving force in preserving a high degree of creative autonomy for the brands and their design departments.”

Incidentally, de Silva always specified his personal cars in blue, with a light-coloured interior – “a typically Italian combination”. It’s interesting to note how many of his products – 156, A5, Golf – look their best in that same configuration.

Worrying position

VW is now in the worrying position of having no recognised chief designer, no one to oversee all its brands and varying demands. De Silva is gone. The great Giorgetto Giugiaro, his Italdesign company swallowed up by Audi, is gone. Peter Schreyer has long since departed to Kia and now Luc Donckerwolke has followed him to Hyundai.

Design seems like so much vapourware at a time when VW faces the challenges of “diesel-gate” but that’s to look at things the wrong way around. VW needs people, needs us to buy its products, in ever greater numbers now. And we appreciate, connect with and buy products with our eyes as much as with our wallets. A car company that fails to understand that is going to fail.

I’m sure VW’s bosses wish it could be 1995 all over again, and de Silva could just stroll in and change the world with two quick sweeps of his pencil.