Car Wash: Marc Lichte and Michael Köckritz talk design

The first time Marc Lichte laid eyes on the legendary Audi Sport quattro as a teenager, he was hooked. But the car we’re washing together today is the Audi e-tron GT that he designed himself. A main topic of our conversation is the Audi of the future. And how difficult it is to get the windows as clean as you’d like.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Dominik Gigler

To hone your appreciation for the quality of new products, you’ve got to create a contrast to the hallmark of memory. Which immediately led us to the perfect location for this car wash: the hallowed halls of Audi Tradition in Ingolstadt. Beautifully positioned among the treasures from the historic vehicle collection, a legendary Audi Sport quattro and an Audi e-tron GT are waiting with us for Marc Lichte to come along.

There’s never been a car like the e-tron GT, says Audi. An all-
electric grand tourer. So we’re curious to hear what the designer has to tell us about his car, about all the buzz surrounding the future of Audi and, of course, about anything else that might come to mind.

Where does your love of cars stem from?
I grew up in the Sauerland region, in Arnsberg, a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Frankfurt. But every two years my father would take me down there for the IAA motor show. We drove there during the week after school because there was less traffic. My father owned Porsches, BMWs and once he had a Mercedes Pagoda. He even raced one of his Porsches, a 911 Carrera RS 2.7, in hill climb events.

What a great dad!
We spent a lot of time together, and that’s where my passion for sports cars comes from. Admittedly, Audi wasn’t really on my radar as a child. But then it happened: It was 1983, I was fourteen years old, and I was standing in front of an Audi Sport quattro, almost bizarre in its proportions, and yet totally innovative, completely radical. There was nothing else like it. I was completely blown away.

"There was nothing else like it. I was completely blown away."

Marc Lichte

And was that the moment you decided to become a designer?
I already knew that before. When I was twelve, I saw a report on TV about the new Transportation Design program in Pforzheim. I went there with my father, had a look around and knew: I want to study design. And when I saw the Sport quattro at the trade fair two years later, I realized I wanted to become a designer at Audi.

But with the Audi Sport quattro, the focus was on function rather than form.
Yes, and that remains true to this day. Function is what defines the brand. The design is created around the technology, calls attention to it. But that’s what Audi is all about. The Sport quattro reveals the cutting-edge technology to perfection. During the Piëch era, Audi became more and more daring, so that even my father switched to Audi. And it all started with the rally sport achievements combined with the all-wheel drive.

And today?
I designed the Audi e-tron GT together with my team five years ago. In design terms, that feels like an eternity, because in design we always have to think ahead. But it is still the most beautiful car I’ve ever had the privilege of designing. I see good design as always being based on proportions, and in this case they are outstanding. At 1.41 meters tall, the e-tron GT is flatter than our A7. But even with my 1.95 meters, I still have five centimeters of headroom when I get in. It’s a masterpiece. It’s a real four-seater; I’ve never had a better foundation.

"It’s a masterpiece. It’s a real four-seater; I’ve never had a better foundation."

Marc Lichte on the Audi e-tron GT

Does the car represent the future of Audi?
First of all, it stands for the future in general, because electric cars are the future. But you know what else the design stands for? The e-tron GT looks classic. Some manufacturers go to bizarre, extreme lengths to make their electric vehicles look different from their previous internal combustion engine cars. That’s not how I do things at all. In a few years, we’ll all be laughing about it anyway, because electric will be the new normal. I also want a car to last for years. I strive for timelessness.

Which brings us to the subject of icons. What makes a design iconic?
Of course, good design comes first and foremost from the design department. But icons are made out there on the street, by the customers and fans. Like the Porsche 911. A 911 has something timeless about it, as do a VW Beetle or an Audi TT. That’s why they became icons. The proportions form the foundation, and if they’re good, you can make something perfect out of it. For me, the e-tron GT is good design. I can’t predict whether it will become an icon or not. But it certainly has what it takes to become one.

What about this color?
This olive green – we call it Tactical Green – is extremely modern, if you ask me. The paint looks solid, but it’s metallic. And when the light shines on it, it becomes a really friendly shade of green. I tried out the paint on my RS 6 a few years ago, and the response was very positive, with many of our customers asking for the color after seeing my car out on the road and writing down my license plate number. That’s when we decided that we would put the color into production on the e-tron GT. I think it’s a perfect match for this car.

Since we’re here washing the car, what other external features and details are important to you?
Looking at the Audi Sport quattro, which is turning forty soon, the answer is clear: there’s no shortage of Audi, of innovative technology, in this car. The car personifies this to perfection. If you ask me, all-wheel drive is the best type of drive there is, especially on snow and ice. We wanted to take this DNA into the new era with us. So we used it to generate a completely new and distinctive design for the electric e-tron GT, with these muscles over all four wheels. Everything is precisely balanced. The cabin is positioned relatively centrally between the wheels to reveal the quattro all-wheel drive. With the e-tron GT, I wanted to present the quattro technology in its maximum expression. The result is an extreme contrast between the narrow cabin and the powerful body.

Does this power carry over into the interior?
You could say that. Everything is aimed forward, just like the road. The faster you drive, the narrower it gets, because it all vanishes into a single point. With this interior, you feel like you’re already driving 250 km/h even when you’re standing still. We’ve never done it like this before; everything looks so sculptural. But cars are going to radically change anyway.

Why is that?
Electric cars make proportions possible that I have always dreamed of. I used to draw big wheels and small overhangs when I was a kid – and I still do so in my sketches today. With a combustion engine car, my team and I have to conceal the long overhangs. There’s no more need to do that with an electric car. We have a long wheelbase to make room for the large battery. We need large wheels because the battery adds weight. Without a combustion engine, the overhangs can be reduced and you can design a spacious interior because there’s no more transmission tunnel. That creates previously unheard-of proportions and gives us a great deal of freedom in terms of design. But the real game changer is yet to come. For over 110 years, drivers have always held the steering wheel in their hands. Now we are developing technologies that will also allow us to automate driving. And then we will be completely rethinking the car.

So we will also be seeing a major change in how cars are used?
Yes, the car will become a third living space. That’s the phase I’m in right now with my team. We are already designing cars like that, and in a way it’s total science fiction. When people are no longer driving the whole way themselves, we can start asking questions that we’ve never asked before – and look for answers to them. Questions like: What do I want to do in the car? How do I want to be able to move around in it? What kind of restraint systems do I need? If you’re no longer sitting at the wheel, the airbag there makes no sense – and neither does the one in the A-pillar. This requires completely different ways of thinking in both design and development. And I want to be a part of it, significantly driving this transformation with Audi.

What does that mean for designers?
Throughout my career, I’ve contributed to designing around a hundred and fifty cars. The procedure was more or less always the same. We started with the technology, then the package was defined, meaning how many occupants we were designing the car for. Then we designed a beautiful interior to match. Today, we design cars from the inside out. The role of the car is changing, and we’re not just concerned with the hardware, but are designing an overarching brand experience. Apple recognized this long ago. Everywhere in the world, Apple products stand out for their clean design and a user experience that is simple, intuitive and elegant.

Apple chief designer John Ive’s role model, by the way, is Dieter Rams, the revolutionary industrial designer at Braun. You can see that form and function go together perfectly at Apple. Beautiful design without elegant technology doesn’t work. But clever technological solutions without a beautiful design won’t be accepted in the long run either. So Apple can be a role model for many different sectors. At Audi, we’re still a long way from getting there, but at least we’re well on our way. Everything comes together in the design – how you experience the car, how you move around in it, how you operate it.

→ Read the entire conversation between Michael Köckritz and Marc Lichte in ramp #59's "Car Wash" "Tomorrow is yesterday".

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