Drawn to the power: Hong Kong's Porsche designer Pinky Lai
To mark his gleaming career in car design, Pinky Lai Ping is publishing a collection of his finest automotive artwork
Pinky Lai Ping regards himself as something of an anomaly in the car industry. "I like long-distance driving, but I don't enjoy daily driving," says Porsche's former chief of exterior design. "I reject over-motorisation because with a Porsche you only need a quarter of the horsepower to have fun. You don't need 400 horses."
So it is perhaps unsurprising that Lai has turned his attention to the art world. Due to retire from Porsche in 2014, and now working in a consultative role for the German carmaker, Lai will display sketches of his groundbreaking designs and concepts in the run-up to next year's Venice Biennale art exhibition.
The Hong Kong native was in town last week for a preview of some of the images, which are also being presented in a book, titled Ideation, to be released early next year. The book is a window on more than 30 years of Lai's work at Ford, BMW and Porsche. It includes sketches of his redesign of the iconic 911, which helped save the ailing Porsche from being taken over in the 1990s, and won him many awards.
The exhibition will take place from April 15 to May 14 at The Arsenal gallery in Venice and will coincide with the Italian regatta of the America's Cup World Series.
"The regatta is held right in front of the gallery. So a lot of preparation is needed to make it perfect. I want to set up models of a car and boat outside. Not real production models, but something sculptural that is linked to the sketches inside," says Lai.
He got the idea for the exhibition from an old friend and mentor who likened his flowing car sketches to modern art, he says, and the book was a natural progression.
"I realised that it's not just about putting up sketches for the show. I would need a catalogue because a lot of people would be asking for copies of this, or the original of that. In future, the catalogue would be the only thing to communicate all this."
Graduating in industrial design from Rome's Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche in 1978, Lai joined the car industry by accident, and one of the first companies to show an interest in his talent didn't initially offer what he had in mind.
"I wasn't even aware there was a profession called car design," he says. "After graduating, I saw an advert in a German car magazine. Ford was looking for young designers. I thought: oh, car designer. Well, it's an industrial product, so why not give it a try?"
But rather than employ him, Ford offered Lai a two-year scholarship to study transport design at the Royal College of Art in London, with internship opportunities during holidays.
"I was so upset and disappointed not to be offered a job. But I just packed my stuff and went there, then worked my ass off seven days a week at the college," he says.
After honing his skills in London, Lai spent 4½ years at Ford, working on designs for the Sierra, Fiesta, Escort and Scorpio models. He was then offered a senior designer job at BMW, where he was responsible for designs for the 3, 7 and 8 Series, and the Z2 concept. Lai's 3-Series facelift was one of the first cars to be produced without a chrome-plated metal bumper and was a big hit.
"It was the first BMW with the soft nose. I said, 'If you don't get rid of that metal bar, you are still old school'."
The only other car at the time to feature a soft nose - a rubber skin that reverts to its original shape after impact - was the Porsche 928.
After five years at BMW, Lai was approached to work at Stuttgart-based Porsche in 1989. He gained international recognition more than a decade later, at a time when the company was experiencing difficulties. As chief exterior designer, he reworked the 911, designated internally as the 996. It was the first radical departure from Ferdinand Porsche's original 1963 design, and became the company's saving grace.
"The company was about to be sold to either Toyota or Mercedes. The only model they were selling was the old 911. Sales were dropping from 50,000 to 40,000, and a year later 30,000," Lai says.
The younger generation was no longer captivated by the 35-year-old design. "It was really tough and for the first time in the company's history we made four full-sized models; four different designs for selection. I was asked to do one and my colleagues were asked to do others. We divided the direction into advanced (very way ahead), modern, contemporary and classic. I did the advanced one and they picked mine."
The 996 was a revolution, with a water-cooled engine replacing the air cooled one. That required a totally new mechanical layout. But Lai's headache was the aerodynamics demanded by the design brief, and the budget didn't allow a moving spoiler for the sloping-backed car.
"You might think it looks very streamlined, but it was bad in the wind tunnel. There was no stability. And once you put a thick spoiler on a 911 back, it's not a 911 any more. You need this kind of coffee table for the spoiler to create downforce. That was a nightmare because the moving spoiler was not in the product catalogue."
Lai got around the problem one day in the air tunnel. "There was an engine cover on the rear with cooling louvres. I fitted the last one with an extension, and it started to react - the downforce was there. Then I called up the project leader and said 'Hey, give me a small budget for just a simple mechanism. Just a little extension of another maybe 5cm and you'll get the downforce you need'."
The innovation greatly improved the car's lap speed, and therefore its sales potential.
Lai won a slew of awards for the 911 Turbo and Carrera models between 1997 and 2003, including five from Italy's L'Automobile Piu Bella Del Mondo (the World's Most Beautiful Automobiles). But his biggest accolade, he says, was the 2002 German Design Award for the 911 Turbo.
"I think that was my highest honour because it was from the German Design Council - the toughest one. I have a framed photo of that handshake with the German president [Johannes Rau]. It was the best in class, beating all the Ferraris, the big BMW and the AMG Mercedes with a six-cylinder turbo. And I had to pat my own back, because I was the only Asian standing centre stage in front of the big European armada of designers."
Although he can look back on a life of accomplishments, and forward to his book launch and Venice exhibition, Lai has not yet decided how he will spend his time once he leaves Porsche. But it's unlikely he will relocate to Hong Kong, where he returns once a year.
"It really depends. If the opportunity allows then I might stay here a little longer, like a week or three weeks. It's very hard to give up the quality of life in Germany."
Ideation is available by pre-order at brainchild-design-group.com