Vaclav Kral was one of the Czech Republic's most prolific automobile designers, a veritable legend in his field. Last year, when he died unexpectedly at the age of just 69, it understandably came as a shock to his loved ones and friends, but even caught countless fans who never knew him, off guard. He had been working on a new project - Autodesign & Styling magazine, as well as a planned exhibition of some of his best work in the town of Roztoky near Prague, where he lived for many years. The exhibit was meant to mark his 70th birthday and his lifelong passion for design. As it is, it became something of a final retrospective - in memoriam.
"Vaclav wasn't from Roztoky originally but I got to know him when he and his family moved into the same building. I knew him for more than thirty years. Over that period I got to know his methods of working, at times I saw him work on illustrations, or try out new prototypes. It was always exciting watching him in the process."
Vaclav Kral was born in the Moravian city of Ostrava in 1936. Early on, as a child, he showed talent for illustration. In the 1950s, as a young man, he then studied automobile design in the east Bohemian town of Mlada Boleslav, some 60 kilometres outside of Prague. When he was just 18 he designed his first automobile, built on the chassis of the historic KdF - the early Volkswagen. A limited series of ten cars were produced.
After that, Vaclav Kral worked for the Czech manufacturer Skoda and worked as an illustrator for Czech automobile magazines, including "Svet automobilu" - The World of Cars. He excelled. Throughout his career sharp and fresh illustrations remain a striking element of his work, capturing accurately not only sleek shapes of classic and modern vehicles, but also their complex innards, with the finest mechanical precision. His son Jiri, a designer himself who cooperated on many of his father's projects, outlines his father's philosophy in both illustration and design:
"My father had one motto, which was that design had to come from the 'inside', that there was more to design than what was on the surface. Especially engineering design - cars, planes, trains - he said you had to understand what was going on within; you had to understand the basics. The quality of material, the vehicle's behaviour in use. He always told me: you have to study physics and math, and then hope you get the artistry for design itself, from God." In the 70s Vaclav Kral not only designed, he also raced off-road: dune buggies. He designed the first such dune buggy in Czechoslovakia, the 1970 Baghira, named after the black panther in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, also Vaclav's nickname as a boy scout. Tana Pekarkova again:
"In his drawings of racing cars you can feel the speed - he himself raced dune buggies and that experience is evident. His technical illustrations, too, were exquisite. By hand he could draw a cross-cut of any vehicle: the engine to the shell - with all the technical parameters. No technology was unapproachable."
Throughout the 70s and 80s Vaclav Kral continued to design autocross vehicles, but his interests also ran to designs for formula 1 like the 1978 KIN project. Arguably, though, his greatest opportunities came following 1989's Velvet Revolution, which opened the doors for new investors and more extensive - and expensive - projects. Perhaps the most famous today is his Tatra MTX V8, which clocked 260 kilometres per hour in 1997, the national speed record, with driver Petr Bold at the wheel. The car won the Czech Design Centre's annual award for excellence. In all, five of the cars were produced. The designer's son says the so called "supertatra" was easily his father's favourite:
"It was his favourite. From its first inception in 1986 - when it was originally an idea for a rescue car in Formula 1, using a Tatra 613 chassis and a 3.5 litre 8 cylinder engine, to its final manufacture for the street, it was unparalleled. In 1992 the original model cost 2.7 million crowns. If you ask me which of the cars I prefer though, I like the Dioss Rebel two-seater, 130 horsepower, a low centre of gravity; the feeling behind the wheel in that car is unique."
Other cars took less time to produce, but says Jiri Kral, constructing exclusive vehicles is not getting any easier at a time when automobile design in general has moved towards standard parameters and a unification of approach. While the 90s offered more in the way of opportunities - to a degree - designing custom vehicles has always been a matter of compromise. But, still Kral and his son - often working on projects together - didn't give up.
"Most projects took about two years. Together with your client you discuss the product that they want: whether they want a utilitarian vehicle or a supersport car. There are all manner of methods on reaching the final prototype: you can either use computer software to determine the parameters, or you can work by hand, as we did at the beginning of the 90s: creating a wooden 1:1 model, on which you fine-tune details for the eventual laminate."
And, that's not all: Jiri describes the feeling when a new car is born:
"Once the car sees the light of day, it is a fantastic feeling. It's like the birth of a child. Working from concept - discussing and deciding on everything from the chassis to the engine to the body - to creation, fitting everything in. Then you have to fine tune all the elements because the car is born 'raw'. You have to teach it how to handle!"
Interestingly, over the last fifteen years, even as Vaclav Kral saw some of his finest designs realised, he gradually grew increasingly concerned with the automobile's impact on the environment, and he began looking for different solutions, working on solar powered projects at the technical university in Prague, where he taught. He tried to instil in his students different approaches needed, and says Jiri Kral, in the last part of his life was far more concerned with sustainability. In the end, says his son, ordinary cars interested his father most - a concern that is done justice in the show, with a section on his students' work. That too is Vaclav Kral's legacy.
Finally, Tana Pekarkova again:
"After what happened, well, it wasn't easy for his family, especially for his wife Vera, to put together the show. We felt such a huge responsibility. But she was amazing, she knew every last detail of his work, she knew exactly where everything should go. I still can't believe he's really gone. On the occasion of the show's vernisage it felt very much like he was still with us. I tell myself, he's just stepped out."