The new Renault Twin’z was launched this week to a burst of flash bulbs. But not at a car show. It was launched at the Milan Design Triennale. If this were a chair or a lamp there would be nothing unusual in this – Milan is the natural habitat for design.
It was designed by Ross Lovegrove, who is at home in Milan, having designed everything from early Apple computers to seating for Japan Airlines to a bamboo bicycle. His sinuous, biomorphic style is instantly recognisable and his seductively futuristic aesthetic has proved influential.
It is unusual for a mass car manufacturer to commission a product designer. Cars are seen as complex machines that only specialists and in-house teams can fully comprehend. In 1999 Ford worked with designer Marc Newson to develop the 021C Concept Car but this is the first such collaboration since then.
Laurens van den Acker, Renault’s senior vice-president of design, says the company hoped the design could help it link to a new audience. “This should be a car that provokes and inspires. I love cars but we need to remember that only 8 per cent of people read car magazines. Taking this car to Milan allows us to be not just spectators in the design world but to participate.”
The design represents an attempt to appeal to a younger, style-conscious urban audience, as new car sales continue to fall across the industry. Renault’s sales were down 18 per cent in Europe last year.
Renault says the design team reacted well to an outside designer being parachuted in. “Most people here knew Ross’s work,” says Mr Van den Acker, “and had great respect for it. Of course, we had different ways of working and he has very strong personal views – so at the beginning there is an element of speed-dating to it, getting to know each other.”
Mr Van den Acker admits it was not always easy: “Part of his job was to make people here slightly uncomfortable.”
The discomfort paid off. The result is extraordinary, a Klein-blue glimpse of a future where even small, affordable cars might be design objects of desire.
Mr Lovegrove did not start the design from scratch. The body shape was given, yet almost every detail is a radical departure from the normal small urban car. “We started with the headlights,” Mr Lovegrove says, “and it went from there.”
These are inspired by the irises of a human eye. “You could imagine that you might one day be able to customise them by matching them to your own eye colour,” the designer suggests.
Their elegant, organic complexity is mirrored in the hub caps, which appear to grow from the tyres, with spokes like the branches of an alien tree. Mr Lovegrove worked with Michelin to develop a two-coloured tyre that would meld seamlessly into the wheel.
Door handles have disappeared; a gold button now does the job. “It’s not an expensive car and this is a moment of luxury,” Mr Lovegrove says. But perhaps most eye-catching are the rear brakelights, which spread up over the roof to create a complex landscape of light that changes and moves as the brakes are applied.
Small cars in particular have become homogenised in design and these motifs – the lights and wheels – give this car a character that allows for better consumer identification.
Mr Lovegrove is keen to stress that, unlike some concept cars, this one is “makeable”.
“The average margin on a car is 6 per cent, this is a high-level game and a huge commitment,” he says.
The prototype car cost about £1m to make, and it is intended as the template for a production model that will cost about the same as the current Renault Twingo.