Walter de Silva, dall’Alfa Romeo 156 all’hypercar Silk Faw S9

The famous automotive designer guest at Casa Gazzetta talks about himself. From the Fiat Ritmo to the Silk Faw S9, passing through Alfa and Audi, the A5 in particular, we have retraced his career. With a reflection on the current role of marketing in car design

Giacomo Ruben Martini

Tens and tens of millions of cars are sold around the world every year. Many of these, however, are simple objects functional to movement. Not all of them are born with a soul, and this is because it is difficult to make a car attractive while managing at the same time constraints of a technical nature or cost. To be able to do this, great designers are needed. Walter de Silva is certainly one of them. Throughout his career, he has achieved great recognition by leading the Volkswagen Group’s design department at the peak of its power. From “people’s cars” to supercars, he has taken up all the challenges that have been proposed to him. With his distinctive signature, characterized by smooth lines, elegant proportions and absolute respect for the brand’s tradition, he has brought about a gentle revolution every time he has crossed the threshold of a Style Center. Starting with his beloved Alfa Romeo, one of the two brands he has always had in his heart (the other is Porsche, which he also cared for in terms of design). Guest at Casa Gazzetta, de Silva recounted the best and darkest moments of his important career, which lasted over fifty years. The incipit? The encounter with a Chevrolet Impala, brought by a cousin from New York to Milan in the late 1950s, which was his first source of inspiration.

Such a great love

“Luck wanted me to go and direct the design of the Alfa,” he said in the living room of Casa Gazzetta. The 156 is one of his most famous creations: almost 700,000 units have been sold all over the world and, twenty-five years later, it still receives prizes and awards. It was the turn of the century and Alfa Romeo, since using Fiat platforms, had struggled to find a distinct identity. But with the new sedan it conquered a modern stylistic language, while reinterpreting the elegance of the models of the past. “I was young and motivated, and our team had the ability and the good fortune to make a winning model. That was a moment of rebirth for Alfa Romeo, so we were supported by friends and colleagues. Alfa, especially in terms of style, had great support from the Fiat group. I’m just sorry that some ideas have run aground. Sometimes we were pain in the ass and this is not tolerated ”. Building on the success of the Biscione, de Silva’s ambitions to be able to direct the style of the entire Italian group were interrupted in the bud. The episode that definitively removed him from Fiat was the occasion of the presentation of the Multipla, whose line did not appeal to the designer from Lecco. “I made a complaint that the concept was interesting but the aesthetics wouldn’t work. I asked if I could help to do things well, I was told that I would retire in Alfa Romeo. I did not want to retire, I was forty-seven years old ”.

the emotional revolution

After the Italian experience, the flight took off in Germany, thanks to Ferdinand Piëch and Martin Winterkorn. In the Volkswagen group, even before managing the entire design department, he changed the face of Seat, then of the house with the four rings. “They wanted me at all costs to transform Audi, giving an emotional change to the rational style that had always characterized it and which they called Bauhaus. The choice was to impose the single frame and more sculpted and soft surfaces, which have radically changed the brand “. This new stylistic course was also well interpreted by marketing and external relations, giving rise to one of the most prosperous periods for Ingolstadt. The car most suffered? The A5, considered by De Silva himself to be the most beautiful of those designed. “We wanted to bring Gran Turismo back under the Audi brand and I think we have succeeded”. The coupé was born on the mechanical basis of the A4, compared to which it is distinguished by the lower roofline, perfect proportions and clean lines. Winning the challenge in Ingolstadt led him to head the design department of the entire Volkswagen group: over two thousand employees were employed by him. And the only one who could talk about his work was the president himself. “The greatest satisfaction was winning the battle of complexity. The consumer looks at the model, but does not realize the transversal logic of production and technique, which is very stringent. But the aspect of the whole process, design and design in Volkswagen, as well as in Fiat, were very well standardized ”.

Between analog and digital

During his career, Walter de Silva has signed the supercars of numerous brands with a very important history: Lamborghini, Bugatti, Porsche. Finally, at the age of 70, he took up the challenge of representing a newly born company, where he was able to work starting from a blank sheet. Thus was born the Honqgi S9, a 400km / h hybrid hypercar produced by Silk-Faw. “It is a brand that is emerging and with my partners we have addressed the issue of giving a very strong sense to technical and technological expression, where aesthetics became the essence of what we did. When technique and style are combined 100%, objects are created that remain over time “. In addition to the great successes and new challenges, de Silva also fondly recalls his first experiences with Fiat at the beginning of the 1970s, when he worked in the team that designed the interiors and exteriors of the Ritmo: “When I look back on it, I smile because they were the early days, but I’m glad I went from a fully analog experience to a final experience that is pretty much digital only. I have lived through two completely different eras of design ”.

The cumbersome marketing

If you think that complying with safety laws is the most complicated aspect of automotive design, you are wrong. Constraints, according to De Silva, are an opportunity, which allow the automotive world to move forward and find new solutions. The real problem, if anything, is marketing. “We need to leave room for designers. If someone does something that works, then everyone does it the same way. Today you have to go and read the logo to recognize a car, whereas once it was enough to look in the rear-view mirror to understand that the car of a certain brand was arriving. And then you always want to amaze, be aggressive, give more and more. There are three-meter small cars with the appearance of cars at 300 per hour. But all of this is ridiculous: cars have to express what they are and make sense of the shape they have. Behind good design there is a good designer ”. When asked whether he is happy with the work of his successors in the car manufacturers where he worked, the answer is dry: “I take advantage of the possibility not to answer”. So what are the cars that de Silva appreciates? “I like those who are consistent with their brand and their history, because even when innovating, you always have to look at history like Porsche. The beautiful cars are the timeless ones ”. Now a return to work done by the grandfather who designed handmade shoes: “With my wife Manuela I design shoes and she makes them feasible, it’s a very nice experience”.

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Walter de Silva, dall’Alfa Romeo 156 all’hypercar Silk Faw S9