Design Interview: Ivo Groen, vice-president DS design

16 March 2017 | by Bart Lenaerts

Design Interview: Ivo Groen, vice-president DS design

Images: Lies de Mol

A decisive step, animated talk: it’s easy to see how Ivo Groen found his way to leading design for PSA’s DS brand. This Dutchman also has a few nice cars on the side. He bought his Lamborghini Espada when nobody wanted such cars, owns a Porsche 964 convertible, and perhaps most significantly in his collection, a mouse-grey Alfa Romeo GTV. “I acquired it when I arrived in France 25 years ago and it was my daily driver for ten years,” Groen says. “It's totally original, apart from the red leather seats. I believed it was kinda chic. [I have] no Citroën DS, unfortunately. I would certainly own a DS convertible, if prices hadn't gone through the roof.”

It’s crystal clear that Groen is an old-school petrolhead, although his concept cars have proved that he has both feet in the 21st century plus a keen eye on the future. His unique view and 25 years of experience at PSA might well be the ideal recipe for DS, now that this new brand is establishing its strategy at the right side of creativity, at the traditional flank of craftsmanship. “Why did they ask me [to take on my role]? I don’t know. But it could well be because I got the Peugeot 108 right when we had absolutely no money.”

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As a kid, Groen was constantly drawing cars. “My father was an engineer. He taught me how things were made and helped to develop my own view,” he recalls. “My family lived in the US, so I studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I was barely 18, ten years younger than most students. It was tough, but I managed. Always with one goal – France. Citroën. Out of principle, I didn’t want to work for Japanese brands, and the American three acted on a very poor level at the time. Citroën was it, I just wanted to design the new Déesse. Little did I know.”

Citroën design wasn't hiring at the time Groen graduated, “so I did my internship at Renault instead,” he says. “However, I felt that Citroën’s [then] design chief Art Blakeslee wouldn’t dare refuse me. He was intrigued that a young Dutchman from the States absolutely wanted to join them. Eventually he caved. I was young, had long hair and wild dreams. But Citroën lived through a massive crisis, while Bertone designed the Xantia, a Citroën so conservative it was basically a Mercedes 190 with front-wheel-drive proportions.“

Groen admits that his burning love for the company has taken its toll. “When I prudently asked Blakeslee for a [pay] raise after five years, he blatantly advised me to move to another brand. It’s never good for your career if you stay long at the same company. But this is Citroën. And after 25 years, I know this concern from top to bottom.” So he climbed up the ladder, right under PSA design chief Jean-Pierre Ploué’s triumvirate of design directors: Alexandre Malval at Citroën, Thierry Metroz at DS, and Gilles Vidal at Peugeot.

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Groen happily guides us through the small, slightly cluttered museum next to the DS3 factory at Carrières-sous-Poissy, with a big smile, enthusiastic gestures, his voice raising at each marvel from history, but whispering when sharing another industrial insight or view behind the scenes. His encyclopaedic knowledge is almost frightening: “It’s my personal interest. And when judging the work of youngsters, I immediately spot whether they’ve recycled things from the past,” he grins.

There are no Citroëns or DSs around here; this museum is filled with Talbots, Simcas and other nicely weird 1970s automobiles. “A Simca 1307 is such a sign of the times. It was Car of the Year in 1976 and we all considered it beautiful, but it didn’t age well. Why? The wheels were too tiny, the track too small. Nobody noticed it back then. All cars were similar – except for a Mercedes SL Pagoda. It’s simple, yet timeless, because it has a magnificent stance. And each detail is perfect. The first look is good, the second even better. If both are taken care of, a car will probably age well. The Jaguar E-Type is different. It gets away with its weird stance because it’s a penis on wheels. Its shapes are so attractive and sensual, nothing else matters. It’s the difference between emotional and intellectual design,” Groen expands.

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The museum is as French as 'pain, vin et Boursin’, offering a great lesson: “The Talbot Rancho was brilliant. It had everything Dacia now is proud about. Unfortunately, the quality was a mess, and it lacked continuity. Typically French: victims of their own creativity. While Porsche improves the same concept for 50 years, the French tend to abandon everything when it doesn’t function immediately. Also, new bosses a priori reject all their predecessors did. A lot of potential icons died because of this, which can be tiring,” admits the man who has credit for a few Citroëns, including the C5, C6 and C3 Pluriel. “Pluriel was a nice concept. It started in design as an after-hours project. The concept car raised such enthusiasm, we quickly asked Italdesign to industrialise it. Too quickly: the quality wasn’t good. When my wife wanted one, I advised her to buy a C3 instead – also one of my designs.

“The C6 was magnificent, but sadly, by the time it finally reached the market, it couldn’t compete with Audi, BMW and Mercedes any more and we lost a lot of money,” he continues. And PSA has lived through some pretty rough times since. “It’s hard to work for a company which burns a fortune daily. And scary. A few very nice projects died because we lacked enough cash to put them on the road. Luckily, we’re making money now. [PSA chairman Carlos] Tavares truly made a difference.”

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Groen wasn’t involved in the current DS portfolio: “I’ve only been here since 2014, when DS got to establish itself as a proper brand. It was mainly design and Jean-Pierre Ploué who pulled this through, although many considered it such a terrible idea we even received hate mail. But our management liked the idea of premium cars with a bigger profit.” The DS launch succeeded, he thinks, “probably because DS is a genuine label with a tangible design signature. However, we’re not there yet: our future models need to confirm this. So the pressure is high, for me as well. Our next car will be my baby.

“DS3 is vital and has put us on the radar by successfully fighting the Mini. But we don’t want to be labelled as specialists in small city vehicles only. Even in France, not everybody realises we’re a real brand now. Focusing on the high line will put us on the map. We’ve established a strict strategy and can’t afford any mistakes. It took Audi 30 years to become premium. We don’t have so much time.

“We’re doing great in China. They like our ‘savoir faire’. In a way, it’s a very modern market, they’re much more interested in interiors than the exterior, and comfort in the rear is vital. It beautifully fits the French tradition of ‘les grandes routieres’, a segment we certainly won’t abandon. We won’t fight BMW, Audi and Mercedes directly: we prefer to offer an alternative, emphasising comfort, design and craftsmanship. It makes sense now technology is getting to the background – who still opens the engine hood? The public is ready for the electric car, and DS is PSA’s ideal brand to experiment with this. Although I don’t like that word, because ‘experiments’ can fail.

“And a new Déesse? This childhood dream will never become concrete. It’s just not possible any more, not like the old one. That’s OK – there are so many other things we can do. And I’m at the cradle of an entirely new brand. That’s unique.” Groen sees more advantages of DS being separate: “It truly liberated Citroën and allows them to focus on their own values. They’re leisure-wear, while DS is haute couture. Each brand within PSA has its own culture and there’s no cannibalism or envy.”

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Well, not a lot. “For each new technological platform, we can all propose a proportion model without signature lines or styling specs. Together with marketing we then establish our ‘Santa Claus wish list’ with the changes we desire. Ploué is the gendarme who decides who gets what. Meanwhile, he’s also fauteur de trouble. He deliberately creates chaos and doesn’t hesitate to keep us sharp; this constant battle can be tough.

“DS obviously applies a design manifesto, but we don’t indoctrinate our designers. We rather set them free, to see what happens. Also, a manifesto could be outdated before it’s finished. Concept cars better help formalise our potential and shape our thoughts. We’ve done quite a few, it’s important for a new brand, even if the danger exists that our competitors ‘borrow’ our ideas. So it’s always a question whether to show a concept or not.

“Obviously, we also do [consumer] clinics. That’s smart if you’re spending a billion. Automatically, you start interviewing people who already bought into the same segment. Which is why this industry hardly ever walks new paths – it can be risky to ignore the laws of the respective segments, like the Ford Mustang or Nissan Juke do. It can damage the rest of your portfolio and you can only do it once. We probably could, though, because we barely have a few models.

“It does happen that management asks for boring designs. It doesn’t get any worse for a designer. But dull cars represent a huge market. Each time  the industry shows something daring, everybody shouts that it should be put into production – and afterwards, nobody buys it. This can be utterly frustrating,” Groen continues. “Audi is extremely conservative, yet utterly modern. It’s not a contradiction. Audi will never go crazy – and neither will we. We apply certain standards when it comes to materials and good taste. It’s very French. And smart. Wealthy people don’t fancy weird stuff. Compared to Audi, we will offer a certain refinement, which was also visible on the 1938 Talbot Lago or the Citroën SM. Classy. Chic. That’s why we eagerly await autonomous automobiles. Then, the interior will be much more important.”

Groen is not sure DS will apply a design statement as strict as BMW’s or Audi’s, with all vehicles looking pretty similar. “Apart from having developed a common grille, which is crucial, it’s hardly an issue for us because we have so few models. We just want the best-looking car in each segment where we’re present. Our cars can be daring, as long as the design is balanced and aesthetically valuable; nothing silly for the sake of being silly. In ten years, we will know whether our job today was successful or not, and whether we took the right steps to really establish this new brand.”

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