REBEL YELL I grew up in Quarry Bay. There weren't many tall buildings and wasn't much traffic, so we played on the streets. I was a bit of a rebel. The more my dad forbid me to do things, the more I would do them - and get beaten up for it. So we didn't have a good relationship. But, fortunately, I was spoiled by my mum; she was my backbone. I was bad at school, especially at Mandarin - I was bottom of the class. We started learning English in secondary school, and it was there we had to choose our English name. I picked Pinky because my Mum used to call me Pinky instead of Lai Ping.
CHANGING GEAR I got into designing cars by accident. After graduating from secondary school, I did lots of different jobs: working in stockyards and shipyards for three years, welding, metalwork, woodwork, drafting. For a while, I was at the Hong Kong Telephone Company drafting cables. Then I got a job at Jens Munk, an interior design shop on Wyndham Street, which is where I grew to appreciate European furniture. These pieces had a certificate saying "credito di architetto". I thought they were designed by an architect.
INDUSTRIAL REVELATION At the end of the 1960s, I was sharing a house on Lamma with some Hong Kong University architecture graduates; they were planning to tour Italy and Germany. I was thinking about starting my career from scratch, again. I thought I had wasted all my years up until then, not achieving anything, not getting properly educated. So I saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Rome. When I got there I realised furniture was not designed by architects, and that I'm not into architecture, but industrial design. My then girlfriend helped me find an industrial design school in Rome. I ended up being the only foreigner there; I was lucky all the professors spoke English. They accepted me based on my interior design drawings.
RELUCTANT LONDONER After graduation, I wanted to work in Germany. That's where I had met my wife, I knew some German from summer jobs there, and I liked the German work ethic. But no one replied to my applications except Ford in Cologne. Once I walked into the interview I knew I was in trouble. They had two huge design sketches that were so colourful, so realistic. At the Italian school, you didn't learn to draw in colour - only technical drawings in black and white.
I showed them my final project, a city bus. The guy asked me, "Have you worked for Toyota or Honda before?" I said, "No, I'm coming straight from school." They couldn't give me a job but did offer a full two-year scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, in London. I was so upset, frustrated; I had just graduated from school and they wanted to send me back! I didn't take it seriously. And then one rainy Sunday, I opened the door and there was a big envelope from Ford, with an air ticket, and all the registration done for the Royal College. It was already mid-September so I arrived late.
SUPER MODEL Probably my favourite Porsche is the 996 (which launched in 1999 and was designed by Lai), because it saved the company from being sold to Mercedes and Toyota during the 90s. (At that time), Porsche was letting people go, and I was so naive as to suggest in a management meeting that we take a salary cut. It was like I had dropped a bomb. Everyone gave me that look and then I realised, "Oops". But we managed to turn things around and, ever since the 996, every year has been a record year.
THE NERD HERD In car design you have to think five years ahead, because technology takes a while to catch up with design. How do you think two steps ahead? It's like science fiction. Most top designers are science-fiction freaks. On my way home (in Germany), I would turn off the car lights on the motorway - it's empty at night, especially on weeknights - speed up and watch the stars; it would look like I was travelling through space.
SECRET TO SUCCESS You have to choose something you would really like to do. There's no easy way, it's always hard work. But the drive for hard work (comes from) passion, and (if you have that) the pay will be good. That's my experience. But I paid a high price for it, too. I got divorced, hardly saw my boys. In the early 2000s I was working on (the exterior design of) the first generation Porsche Cayman. I practically worked 24 hours a day because some of the design work was outsourced to our Los Angeles studio, but our digital modeller was based in Shanghai, six hours ahead of Germany.
PRIDE AND JOY My dad didn't have the chance to share my success with me, but my mum did when I was at BMW (before moving to Porsche). She was so proud, telling all her friends and relatives I was doing well, and she enjoyed the bit of money I sent back to her in Hong Kong.
Both my sons are in design and I believe it's in the genes. My eldest one, in his 30s, has been a designer at Mercedes for the past year. The second one was studying transport design, but is now in product design. I swear I never talked about design or my work at home. And I'm quite liberal. I wouldn't guide them unless they asked me for help, just as I never asked my parents for help. I always made and learned from my own mistakes.
POWER PLAY Since retiring from Porsche I've been working on a high-performance electric vehicle, the type that doesn't exist yet. It is not another sports car. It is not another SUV. It's not another model S Tesla. We're going to drop the bomb when we launch this car. We are building it from scratch, and it will set the record straight that design from China is not second tier. If things go smoothly, in 12 months you won't look at Ferrari anymore, you won't even look at Bugatti. Our car will just kill them all.
Pinky's life in pictures...