OOD questions lead to great cars, Frederic Duvernier believes. Some Q&A ahead of R&D has worked before, the 38-year-old Frenchman insists.
“If we look back at Citroen’s history, there was always this out-of-the-box thinking. There was a good question, and a nice answer, I think.”
Duvernier is someone worth listening to.
This lanky, thoughtful and soft-spoken designer has been at the epicentre of Citroen’s recent burst of creativity. He’s the man responsible for the exterior of the brilliant C4 Cactus. Before that, he helped shape the C3 Picasso, the car that smashed the egg as a model for MPVs at Citroen. Duvernier also came up with the idea for Airbumps, the patented plastic protection pads that are the visual signature of the C4 Cactus.
This isn’t what he dreamed of doing as a boy.
Growing up in the small city of Chaumont, east of Paris, Duvernier fell in love first with drawing and then with aircraft. Jet fighters were his thing.
“I loved, for example, the F104 Starfighter,” he says. “This kind of airplane, they were made for heroes somehow. They were dangerous, they were experimental, they were extremely fast…” As he drew stubby-winged, needle-nosed F104s, Duvernier imagined himself flying real jets, but gradually his thoughts turned to cars. His sketchpads were soon filled with cars as he taught himself to render them realistically. It was by now obvious where his talent lay.
Duvernier enrolled in an art school in his home town, studied some more in Paris and ended up in the transportation design course at the Royal College of Art in London.
From there he started working in the car industry, first at Ford in Germany. Only months later he followed the Frenchman who had hired him, Jean-Pierre Ploue, back to France and to Citroen. It was 2000 and the French brand was, as Duvernier puts it, in “a very dark time”.
Three years later Duvernier moved with his wife, also a car designer, to Japan. There he worked for three years in a studio outside Tokyo on the Nissan NV200 van. With that project at an end, Duvernier accepted a job as a senior designer back at Citroen.
These days he’s in charge of Citroen’s advanced design and concept car department. It’s a role that allows him to question convention, which once was Citroen’s normal way of working.
“The 2CV was a good question,” he says. “A simple car for simple people with a basket of eggs.
That was nice. And the answer was incredible.”
Though a designer, he understands technology can provide answers, too. “If you take comfort, for example – that was a Citroen value for a long time – the hydropneumatic suspension was a good answer. It was incredible on the street.”
Tellingly, Duvernier’s chosen examples come from Citroen’s period of bravery and brilliance, from the ’30s to ’70s. Cowardly conformity was imposed on Citroen after bankruptcy led to a takeover by Peugeot in 1974, to create the PSA Group, today Europe’s second-largest carmaker.
The Cactus, which has been a sales success, shows Citroen doesn’t need to conform to survive.
By instead questioning what the other brands do, it might even thrive. And this excites Duvernier.
“Isn’t it more interesting to ask the good questions?” he begins. “Like, for example, why are cars unprotected?” Asking this led to the development of Airbumps.
Duvernier rattles off a few more. “Why are cars uncomfortable? Why are cars too complicated to use? Why are cars too big, overdesigned? If you ask this series of questions, maybe you can have different answers. All the other competitors, maybe they try to add more, and we believe maybe we can put less.”
Citroen was successful in the past, despite doing things differently, Duvernier argues. “Citroen was always a mainstream carmaker. In the ’70s the Citroen CX and GS, they were selling very well, being mainstream but being completely out of the fashion of this time. All the cars were like boxes, and these cars were like low-profile missiles.
There was no aggressivity in the expression of the face, not so much decoration. So if we are true to the DNA of Citroen, I think we can do something which is mainstream.”
The design language of the C4 Cactus, the Aircross Concept and, most recently, the Cactus M Concept revealed at Frankfurt in September, is an attempt to set Citroen apart, at least visually. “This
THERE’S a good reason why the rear doors of the C4 Cactus don’t have wind-up windows: “It’s not a more expensive car than the competitors,” Duvernier explains. “It’s quite affordable, but Airbumps, they cost some money. We placed the value there, and not on the rear window, which nobody opens… in Europe at least.”
CITROEN’S show car for Frankfurt 2015 takes as inspiration the Mehari, France’s late 60s answer to the Mini Moke. “It’s not a revival,” Duvernier says, “but the spirit is there in terms of simplicity. Everything is manual. No over-technology ... It’s closer to what people need, I think. Real people, not engineers, not technicians, not car specialists.” furt ’ l t ’60
CITROEN’S Aircross Concept is a one-off show car, with a hand-made tubular steel frame and carbonfibre body. But it’s not an exercise in pure fantasy. The car’s dimensions (wheelbase, tracks, length) do not exceed the limits of PSA Group’s newest platform, EMP2.
This is the codename for the platform beneath the new Peugeot 308.
unique surfacing, like we try to do, like really soft, I think it’s a way to create the next icons.”
“I’m quite a fan of old cars, old-timers, and if you take examples of cars that have survived every trend, they are the most simple cars… the Porsche 911 or 2CV. The original [Citroen] DS is very soft, very slim and very simple, very pure. The nice Ferraris, from the ’60s and ’50s for example, they are extremely pure. I believe that this kind of design can last longer and create a kind of calm and quietness which is nice for us to experience.
“We don’t have very big engines,” he says of Citroen. “We run on streets that are crowded, with speed limitations. So maybe there’s a different approach to car design that can convey a kind of friendliness. Not being like a friendly face, but being just not aggressive.
“I think some brands are very true to this.
Porsche is not being over-aggressive. What they do has a function. They are not being show-off, because they don’t need to.”
The Aircross Concept was created specifically to show that the soft, friendly and modest style Duvernier describes could be applied to something bigger and more expensive than the C4 Cactus.
“After Cactus, some people in the company, and outside the company, they had doubts that we can really transform this kind of aesthetic into other kinds of cars. So we had to prove it, and make a car in an upper segment.”
The Aircross Concept obviously persuaded Citroen’s leaders to see things Duvernier’s way.
“This aesthetic, without flaming and aggressivity, we will really develop it for production,” he promises.
The recent separation of DS, to become a standalone brand within the PSA Group, means greater freedom for Duvernier and the others in Citroen’s studios. The design teams of Peugeot, Citroen and DS work separately, he says. While Duvernier sees what the others are doing, he says he simply ignores it.
Instead, he prefers to look to Japan, a country he grew to love during his time there, for ideas.
“For me, maybe the most interesting at the moment are kei cars because they are completely out of the box. I mean, they are boxes, but they are thought in a different way. They are interesting in terms of being very spacious on a small footprint.”
He names the Honda N-Box and Daihatsu Wake as his favourites.
The kind of project Duvernier would most like to work on could be a kind of global kei car. “My dream work would be to do a cheap, popular car. I think there is a need for these cars. And carmakers are having a hard time to make them profitable, so there’s a challenge.”
Right now, however, Duvernier’s job provides a challenge of a different kind. While each of the PSA Group brands will work to specific design briefs, the essentials will be shared. This means there will be no return to Citroen’s long-ago role as technical innovator.
“The platforms are common, the engines, but there will be plenty of room for designers to move.
Before, there used to be the DS3 and the C3. They were sharing some parts. It won’t be the case any more. There will be no parts in common which will be visible, so we can really make completely different designs based on the same platform. Seat, Skoda, Audi and Volkswagen, they all share the same platforms; an Audi TT is a Golf, which is a Skoda whatever, which is a Seat...”
Platform-sharing arrangements inevitably limit what the individual brands of a large group can do, and Duvernier understands this. But it doesn’t stop him from fantasising.
“I think, for me, a dream Citroen would be the car that you drive fast, but you don’t struggle. It’s just like a flying carpet. You’re comfortable, you’re in simplicity, you are not stressed with buttons or things that beep-beep everywhere. It’s just, you can drive fast in a very smooth way, relaxed.”
Sounds like the right environment to come up with some interesting questions…
WINNING approval for the C4 Cactus’s signature protection pads wasn’t easy. “I remember all these meetings on the Airbumps, where everyone was telling me: ‘It won’t happen. You cannot make it.’
I had to come back every time with the proof that we could make it.” Resistance finally crumbled when when he found a UV-resistant material that could be laser-welded to create Airbumps bubbles.
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