Motoring: The auto didact of Paris: The head of Renault's design team explains to Phil Llewellin how he draws on instinct

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Progressing a car from sketch pad to showroom is like tackling a hazardous 1,000-mile obstacle course. Patrick Gilles-Marie Le Quement, Renault's vice-president for corporate design, recalls a critical moment in the secret life of a super-mini whose futuristic shape worried many of the top brass. 'It was regarded as a great risk. I was being subjected to an awful lot of pressure to normalise the design. So I sent a note to Raymond Levy (then Renault's chief executive) asking him to make a decision for instinctive design and against extinctive marketing. The biggest risk for Renault, I said, was not to take any risks. He agreed.'

The car that almost fell victim to corporate caution was launched to universal acclaim in 1992. It is known as the Twingo and there are few more appealing shapes on the road. Alas, the cuddly little hatchback is not available with right-hand drive.

The Twingo confirmed Mr Le Quement's status as one of the world's most accomplished car designers. He was responsible for the new Renault Laguna, which went on sale in Britain last week, challenging the likes of the Ford Mondeo. Impressive driving characteristics complement styling that is quite striking, notably when viewed from the front, but lacks the eye-popping appeal of the Twingo or the Espace. Mr Le Quement nods when asked if concepts depend on a car's size.

'The design approach should be adjusted to the market segment, to the type of customer,' he asserts. 'I have always pushed myself to design with the customer in mind. I am constantly aware that a lot of jobs depend on the decisions we make.

'My friend Giorgetto Giugiaro - the greatest car stylist alive today - once said that the challenge associated with small-car design is revolution. With large cars it is culture. The medium segment, which includes the Laguna, presents the biggest design challenge, because you are dealing with a product that will be sold to males and females from various age groups, from various backgrounds and with very different incomes.

'In many cases you are dealing with people who are changing down from a big car, or people who would like a luxury car but can't afford one. The appeal has to be much broader, so the challenge is much greater. We aimed to make the Laguna a car that would stand out in its segment, but we did not intend to design anything as revolutionary as the Twingo.'

Much of the credit for the newcomer's interior goes to Anthony Grade, who jokes about song-and-dance routines when asked if he is a member of Britain's best- known showbiz family. Leslie's son, Lord Grade's nephew, Michael's brother shares Mr Le Quement's belief that interiors should be simple and practical, not showcases for gadgets. Renault's contributions to automotive ergonomics include radio controls located on the steering column, where they can be operated without the driver's hands leaving the wheel.

Mission Control is an almost anonymous building tucked away down a shabby street off the Quai de Stalingrad in western Paris. What appears to be a perfect replica of the white-on-blue street sign hangs on a wall in Mr Le Quement's immaculate office. A second glance reveals that the letters actually spell out Quai de Stylingrad. The play on words is a key to the character of a man whose status as a top-flight car designer is matched by his reputation for charm and wit. He was born in Marseilles in 1945, to a French father and a British mother, and attended school and university in England.

'There was no moment when I suddenly decided I wanted to design cars for a living,' he says. 'They were what interested me more than anything else when I was a child. My first word was probably 'car' or 'auto'. At school I was always getting into trouble for drawing cars in exercise books. I still draw a lot, because my thought processes go through drawing. Last summer, for instance, I started my vacation one week late, because there was something I knew wasn't quite right on a car whose design had been approved.'

He joined Simca in 1966 and helped to restyle a coupe. 'It was a rather cute little ladies' car that had been given a sort of Lamborghini Miura look by Bertone,' he recalls. 'I was involved with things like hubcaps, because youngsters weren't allowed to work on complete cars. My status was like that of a plumber's mate.'

Before joining Renault after a spell with Volkswagen - 'An awful company to work for' - he climbed the ladder with Ford in Britain, Germany and the US. The vehicles that have given him the most satisfaction include the Ford Cargo truck and the Sierra.

'The Cargo project gave me an awful lot of freedom, because I was dealing with an organisation that hadn't designed a truck for 17 years. We did a lot of really innovative stuff.

'I was very saddened by the initial reaction to the Sierra, but it was the right way to go. Ten years later, people were giving the Japanese credit for starting the trend towards soft, organic, aerodynamic designs, but it started in Europe with the Sierra and the Audi 100.'

What the Japanese have done, he says, is to develop the 'bio-design' theme to such an extent that cars have become the automotive equivalent of human body-builders whose shapes many regard as grotesque. Other designers have reacted by looking to the past for inspiration. Mr Le Quement rejects this - 'You don't see the future by looking in your rear-view mirrors' - and invited the pundits to comment on the Argos concept car that was Renault's main attraction at the recent Geneva Motor Show.

'A bizarre cocktail' was one magazine's verdict on the Twingo-based roadster. Fair enough, says Mr Le Quement. 'We were trying to startle people. At one stage we had six design directors from other manufacturers on the stand at the same time. One of them said 'You have managed to hijack the future'. We described Argos as a statement that we believe in

tomorrow.'

Mr Le Quement, whose outside interests include English literature and watch design, runs a close-knit department with an average age of 31. By chance, his designers represent more than a dozen nationalities. How does such a young and increasingly influential team get on with its 49-year-old captain?

'They realise I have quite a lot of experience,' he chuckles. 'But that doesn't stop them thinking they know best.'

(Photograph omitted)

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