Trailblazer is a term that's either overused or misused.
In popular culture, the term would likely refer to either a sports utility vehicle or a ball club. But it shouldn't be used so casually or lightly as marketing jargon. Such a word should carry a lot more weight because it refers to a person that dares to venture into a previously untried territory, typically armed only with wits, talent, and a determination to succeed despite the many challenges on the way.
Benjamin Dimson is someone we know to be a true trailblazer for Filipinos in the field of automobiles. Specifically: automobile design for major carmakers worldwide.
A Pinoy in global car design? Some are probably thinking that the only real contribution of Filipinos in the realm of auto design is the jeepney, and that's just not true, and we'll show why.
Dimson's name may not be familiar to casual motorists, and that's fine. His accomplishments may not have had as much mass-market success as, say, a Corolla, and that's alright too. There are many ways to downplay how his career played out over the last 4 decades. Judging by how he spoke to us, perhaps even he is downplaying his own accomplishments as well.
But let us tell you now that what we have learned about Dimson's design career has left us in awe. He was the exterior design lead for the second-generation Porsche 911, otherwise known as the 964. He worked on the 928 S-4, the 944 Turbo, and even the 959; yes, Porsche's first supercar. He had a long career in Mercedes-Benz, overseeing the design of the W124 E-Class convertible, the M-Class SUV, and more. He had a stint at Audi and almost joined Ferrari. And he also designed the cockpit of the Airbus A320.
Mind you, this isn't just based on Googling; the lockdown actually gave us the unique opportunity to talk to Dimson himself, and he gladly shared many insights from his long career in the field of global car design.
Dimson went to Adamson University in Manila to take up Industrial Engineering; he really wanted a design degree, but Adamson didn't have program at the time. So to get the education he wanted, Dimson went to the Art Center College in Pasadena, California, and took up Transportation Design. Armed with his degrees, he set out to start a career in turning his imagination into reality and boarded a plane to Germany with his Philippine passport.
“I arrived at Stuttgart Airport in the early fall of 1981 with 2 suitcases to begin my design career in Germany. I was picked up by the head of the personnel department, Dr. Rabe, with whom I communicated with when I first applied for a position in what was then known as Style Porsche,” said Dimson.
Stuttgart is the home of Porsche and was literally founded by Ferdinand Porsche in his full name with his degree: Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche is German shorthand for Doctor of Engineering honoris causa Ferdinand Porsche. The man that picked up Dimson was none other than Dr. Heinz Rabe, one of Porsche's longest-serving executives. Perhaps most fittingly, Dr. Rabe was the son of Karl Rabe, Porsche's original chief designer.
“On the autobahn en route to Porsche’s Weissach research center, we conversed about the basics of life in Germany and my Filipino background... all while doing 270 km/h in a 924 Turbo,” said Dimson. “The fastest I had ever driven beforehand was about 130 mph or just a little over 200 km/h, this was my welcome to Germany. I became so amped up and so excited to be in my new environment built around the need for speed and covering great distances in a matter of seconds.”
Style Porsche's gurus (L-R): Richard Soederberg, Anatole Lapine, Hans Bruan, Wolfgang Moebius
Germany at the time was known for 3 things: beer (or bier), the autobahn highway network (and the open speed limit on some parts), and the Wall. Germany was still politically (and literally) divided into the democratic West, and the communist East. 1981 was, after all, still in the thick of the Cold War, and it will take 10 years for the Berlin Wall to fall.
“I was assigned to the exterior studio under the leadership of Wolgang Moebius, the designer of the original 928. German was the primary language of communication although many in the studio spoke English. I saw immediately that I had to learn German as fast as possible, I would sketch my thoughts to get my point across when sign language and English no longer worked,” said the former Porsche designer.
Learning German isn't as difficult as some may think. Being that German is also a language derived from Latin, there are many words that are very similar to English like gut (good), morgen (morning), haus (house), braun (brown), and more. German and English are Germanic languages; basically cousins. But it's one thing to learn at a managed pace in a classroom setting; it's completely different when you're a Filipino and you have to learn it to be able to function at work.
Porsche 964 Carrera Design, Modelling, Engineering Team in 1986, Dimson is on the bottom left
It took Dimson 3 years to be fully conversational in German, but until then he had to make do as he was chucked straight into the deep end, meaning you either sink or swim. Remember: they didn't have Google translate at the time.
“The first project I was thrown into was the redesign of the 928, [and] I was competing with a young German designer and an Englishman both trained at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. The competitive apprehension was immediate since the RCA grads were considered superior to Art Center grads since they held master's degrees over my bachelor of science degree. This, plus the pressure of working under the original designer of the 928 as design chief, was intimidating.”
Dimson shared a lot of photos from his early years at Porsche, and it's just a treat to check out the artwork on the walls, the 80s hair, and the prevalent cigarette smoking... even inside the Style Porsche studio. But what we can tell is that the field of design is a competitive one. Automotive designers within one design studio tend to compete against one another to have their ideas chosen. Later on, as carmakers became global entities, it wasn't just designers within one studio competing; studios worldwide now have to compete against each other too.
“Months down the road after countless sketches and renderings were created along with a quarter-scale model of each designer's proposal, my model won approval for feasibility translation into full size. I chose to pursue a design direction that was, to my mind, an evolution of Porsche's design DNA derived from the 356 series rather than rely on current design trends prevalent in the eighties. This proved to be the appropriate direction to take when the board of directors including Dr. Porsche unanimously preferred my full-size model direction for the next generation 928. The car became and looked more homogenous and natural in its formal execution; the success and its acceptance secured my stature within Style Porsche.”
Porsche 928 was originally designed by Lapine and Moebius, updated to this 928 S-4 by Dimson
The reception of Dimson's ideas for the update of the Porsche 928 got the attention of Anatole “Tony” Lapine, the company's design guru. That attention that Dimson got from Lapine meant that he was included in future design projects for Style Porsche, a respect that must not have been easy to earn for a Filipino in a top European automotive design studio in the 80s. Sometimes even the passport he used made for some challenging moments.
“There were also occasional racial tensions that arose in professional competition and in corporate-everyday life. The fact that I maintained my Philippine citizenship created visa issues that hindered free travel within Europe,” said Dimson. “I recall having to spend a weekend in Strasbourg, France because the German border police would not allow me to re-enter Germany due to the expiration of my work visa. My wife, colleague, and I attended an automotive hill climb event in the Alsace region, [and] I neglected to check my work-visa status. The French allowed me to stay in Strasbourg but withheld my passport until my American wife and German colleague returned with an authorization/proof of employment paper form Porsche.”
Porsche's Helmut Bott at the design studio checking 959's progress. Cheryl Dimson is in the background
Dimson's wife, Cheryl, is also an artist. In fact, she also worked with Porsche as the head of the graphics department. Dimson tells us that his wife was responsible for motor shows and the nomenclature. If you've been inside some Porsche models from the 80s like the Turbo, Targa, Carrera, Speedster, and 959, much of the script work was hers, along with instrumentation details, as well as the revised Porsche crest on the hood.
Despite those unusual challenges regarding his passport, Dimson was making a very positive impact in Style Porsche. His progress meant he was entrusted to influence the design of a wide variety of Porsche models at the time. And yes, that included the role of the lead exterior designer for the Porsche 959 under Richard Soederberg.
“The success of the 928 allowed me to apply the same design philosophical approach to the 944 Turbo and the 959. My work became the brand identity of all Porsche cars in the eighties. This in turn would catapult my career and be promoted accordingly. Tony Lapine later assigned the recreation of the Speedster program on the 911 platform to me as lead designer and project manager.”
Dimson was assigned to other Porsche projects, including the range-topping Turbo variant of the 944
But what was perhaps Dimson's biggest achievement at Porsche was being tasked to head up the design of the 964, the first fully new generation of the 911 since the model debuted in 1963. That task was, of course, a double-edged sword. How do you redesign a model without disrespecting the purists, whilst simultaneously attracting new customers to the Porsche brand? It's a major risk, but one he didn't shy away from.
Porsche 911 (964) undergoing series production
“When I suggested using an evolutionary approach, many scoffed and waited to exercise schadenfreude [taking pleasure in the failures of others] because I was going against the current and hottest design trends pursued by Porsche’s competitors. I was perhaps fortunate in being given the chance to fall on my own sword, the risk was worth it to go against the herd. What made it even more ironic was I was merely using the principles of the Bauhaus to create an even purer Porsche. This is probably the most evident in the 964 Carrera’s design and explains its popular acceptance amongst 911 aficionados.”
Several generations of the Porsche 911
That's the kind of mental weight when it comes to redesigning something like a 911, a sports car with a cult following. And by cult, we mean the religiously fanatical kind, and you just so happen to have been ordered to remodel their central temple. He was basically told to redesign the automotive equivalent of Mecca's Masjid Al-Haram or the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica. Good luck.
Porsche 911 (964) Carrera designed by Benjamin Dimson
“The company itself was comprised of enthusiasts, techno-zealots, and wannabe race drivers, all driven to achieve the highest performance levels in any discipline. There were old-world craftsmen and artisans in all the various departments from the paint shops, fabrication, metal foundry, works racing team, upholstery departments, etc., and all were critics driven to chase perfection,” recounted Dimson.
Eventually, Dimson's design is the one that emerged with the 964 Carrera, otherwise known as the start of the second generation Porsche 911 in 1989. This model had clean lines, integrated bumpers, was still air cooled, and preserved the characteristics of the 911 that purists know. Well, except for the handling which changed; the opinion on it depends on who you ask.
Airbus A320 Cockpit, design work by Dimson as part of Style Porsche
Design studios also do a lot of non-automotive work. They design boats, furniture, interior spaces, basically anything that any paying client wants. It's also a good opportunity for artists to look at something else besides cars. In the case of Style Porsche, one such client was Airbus. In fact, one of Dimson's more notable feats is designing the cockpit of the then-new Airbus A320 airliner. Yes, if you're a pilot-rated for the world's best selling jet airliner ever (the A320 overtook the 737 in 2019 in that regard), you should know that Dimson designed your workspace for reduced load.
But it wasn't just about doing different things. Dimson wanted a change of pace and a change of scenery. So, just when his design creation, the 964, was rolling off the factory, Dimson left the Style Porsche for another: Mercedes-Benz.
“In 1989, Professor Gallitzendorfer of Mercedes Benz Design recruited me away from Style Porsche after Tony Lapine had retired. I thought at the time that I had designed enough sports cars and was open for a greater challenge but who to join was a problem after the years at Porsche. My wife and I were beginning to miss being closer to family and the offer to join Mercedes and its greater international presence became very attractive.”
A younger Gallitzendorfer and the Mercedes-Benz design team working on the C111
Josef Gallitzendorfer was one of the luminaries of Mercedes-Benz design, having worked on a lot of their models, including the R107, otherwise known as 1971-1989 SL-Class and the C111 series of experimental cars. And so Dimson went off with Mercedes, and they sent him to the Black Forest in Germany (er, still West Germany) for training for his new post at Mercedes-Benz design in the United States. Both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz may have been headquartered in Stuttgart, but as Dimson learned, MB isn't going to be anything like Porsche AG.
“I was now with a huge conglomerate that built luxury cars, buses, heavy-duty trucks, diesel marine engines, and had part ownership of Airbus Industries,” said Dimson about his realization upon joining Mercedes. “I was now in a bottom line-centric operation where design was merely a means to an end, profits ruled.”
Mercedes-Benz booth at 1990 Geneva Motor Show
“I was now a part of the empire, hierarchical management structures with matching bureaucratic processes. The familiar Schwabish-Teutonic approach to the pursuit of automotive perfection was there but more focused on quality for profit. In Sindelfingen cars were luxurious business products, not statements of passion. Pragmatism and deadline accuracy controlled almost every phase of development along with authoritarian budget constraints that were paramount in operations.”
By Benjamin's own words, it was a complete 180 from what he had been accustomed to at an organization that had been driven towards automotive perfection for passion and tradition, not profit. But just because the culture is that way doesn't mean you can't make your voice heard as a designer.
“In between project meetings and managerial presentations (all conducted in German) I convinced MB Design management to experiment with more passionate and emotive design directions for future generations of MB models. I became design project manager for the W124 cabriolet and Mercedes-Benz’s first attempt at a minivan on the 124 platform.”
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W124) Cabriolet, design work done by Dimson
So he had been responsible for the design development of the convertible version of the W124, a car we know to be the drop-top E-Class. But perhaps what piqued our interest a bit more was that this is the first time we've heard of Mercedes-Benz already toying with the idea of their own minivan as early as 1990. That made sense, especially since the minivan market really took off in the U.S. in the seventies and eighties.
The Mercedes minivan project, however, would never bear fruit at the time; it was only in the mid-2000s that the automaker released the R-Class minivan. Interestingly enough, the R-Class was released at a time when MB's parent had already been merged with the pioneer in American minivans: Chrysler.
Dimson with MBAD Japan's Olivier Boulay at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show. Boulay would eventually become the design boss of Mitsubishi and is known for the "Boulay nose" first seen on the Mitsubishi Grandis and Lancer.
He wouldn't stay in Mercedes-Benz very long though, as Dimson was then recruited to join another German automaker: Audi. As he recalls: “Audi Design recruited me from Mercedes a year and a half later to join their satellite think tank studio in Munich where I worked on the Avus show car and its first attempts at another minivan.”
Revealed at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show, the Audi Avus was purely a show car that was intended to have a W12 (basically, two V engines that appear to have been fused together), but was never really realized as the revolutionary engine was still being developed. But here's the kicker; the Avus is seen by many as the precursor to another great model from a fellow VW Group member: the Veyron from Bugatti. There is a resemblance, sans the Bugatti grille.
Dimson and Mercedes-Benz design staff and executives in California with the SMART Coupe in 1996-1997
But Dimson's stint at Audi didn't last. Oddly enough he was re-recruited by Mercedes-Benz and made an offer he literally couldn't refuse. As Dimson explains: “Three months later and right before I was about to move to Munich, Gerhard Stienle, assistant to Bruno Sacco (MB Design Director) recruited me back to Mercedes this time to head their newly established Advanced Design office in Irvine, California. This was a dream offer I could not refuse because of what it meant for my young family and me.”
By our count, it only took him about 10 years (more or less) to become head of a studio since he first arrived on that fall day in Germany. Mind you, this wasn't an ordinary studio: this was Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design or MBAD. That's one heck of an acronym if you ask me. Still, the pace is fast, and it shows the respect the industry is showing him.
“Upon graduation from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, I had offers to join Ford and Volkswagen, both in their Michigan based design studios. I came very close to accepting VW’s offer until the chance to join Porsche came. The offer convinced me to get on a plane to Germany instead."
Dimson with Charles Pelly (Pelly Associates), Martin Smith (Ford Europe design), Chris Bangle (BMW design chief) and his wife Catherine
Pasadena's Art Center is indeed one of the leading global colleges in terms of design. A lot of successful automotive designers came from there, including Dimson's classmate: Chris Bangle of BMW, the guy behind the “flame surfacing” trend in Munich in the 2000s.
But wait, there's more.
“While I was with Style Porsche, an opportunity arose to join Ferrari through Pininfarina. I met and interviewed with Leonardo Fioravanti who was Sergio Pininfarina's second-in-command at the time. I probably would have joined them if they had met my financial goals.”
We can only imagine what cars Dimson could have worked on had he left Porsche and joined Ferrari if the Italians had paid better, but clearly his career had taken off. He had already found a home in Mercedes-Benz, and this was going to be for the long haul.
Dimson got to drive the McLaren F1 road car with his son Titus and Steven An of Prodigy software
“As Chief Designer in Irvine, MBAD introduced some of the most revolutionary cars under the MB product umbrella. We introduced the SMART, created the world's first luxury SUV with the M-Class, created the CLC-Class coupe, and introduced a more directionally emotive form language to MB through the W220 S class. California-designed MB models significantly contributed to MB's profitability through increased global volume sales. The luxury trend took off for MB allowing it to sell about 300,000 units of its most expensive models in the U.S. alone.
“The expansion of the luxury market allowed me to represent MB Design in many social and promotional activities which include hobnobbing with royals, industry titans, well-heeled patrons, and celebrities. I was charged with the hiring of all new design talent in the US and was the interface between the design department and its marketing arm in the US.”
One key hire that Dimson made was with another Filipino designer: Winifredo Camacho. Wini eventually moved up the ranks in Mercedes-Benz design and was responsible for the exterior looks of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class as well as the concept version of the X-Class pick-up which was basically the Nissan Navara in Teutonic clothing.
Dimson at a CART race with Norbert Haug (who would lead MB racing) as well as a young Dr. Dieter Zetsche, or Dr. Z, who would eventually head up Mercedes-Benz
“We designed support vehicles for MB’s involvement in CART Racing [the precursor of IndyCar], mega yachts for VIP clients, movie cars, and various other luxury sports equipment marketed under the MB brand to become one of the most aspirational luxury brands globally.
“Our location in California also exposed our research into the high tech world as we conducted numerous advanced vehicle studies for Germany. We were amongst the first to integrate mobile communications and internet on wheels capability long before the dot-com bubble burst. Many of our show cars won design accolades in various international auto shows and found second lives in movies.”
Ben Dimson with the Mercedes GT Vision concept car after completed by Metalcrafters in California prior to the 2013 North American International Auto Show. The concept was eventually used in the 2016 Justice League film.
Some of MBAD's film credits include the Mercedes-Benz ML SUVs in 1997's Lost World: Jurassic Park, as well as the recent Justice League film. Yes, Bruce-Wayne's Mercedes-Benz Vision GT came from MBAD when Dimson was running it in 2013. The Filipino designer eventually concluded his tenure with Mercedes-Benz in 2015.
The BIOME show car at MBRDNA
“Over the span of 25 years, I held the positions of Chief Designer, Assistant General Manager, Corporate Secretary, and Program Manager for Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design and Mercedes-Benz Research and Development of North America.”
Dimson at MBRDNA
But still, it's all about the cars, and Dimson and his team worked on a lot of them. Some are motor show concept cars, while others are production models anyone can buy, so we asked him which type he enjoys working on more.
“Although few people ever remember great show cars, more people remember and lovingly follow production vehicles, [but] working on show cars was always fun for me. They allowed a designer's imagination and vision to go un-corralled by regulation and or even corporate constraints. They are simply dreamy ideas executed to spark controversy, good or bad. Production vehicles when done right, however, immortalizes a designer's idea in metal forever. That's hard to beat and such a rewarding confirmation of one's design efforts by the consuming public.”
Meeting with Horacio Pagani in Modena with Swiss cosmetics tycoon Luciano Colosio
Dimson has since ventured out into his own, founding Story Dimson Design together with his wife Cheryl. His wife also runs a successful landscaping business, and does projects for a variety of clients. And still, many are automotive. Some of Story Dimson Design's clients include Ruf; yes, the one that made the CTR Yellowbird and other high performance re-interpretations of Porsches. Dimson also sent us some photos of him with Horacio Pagani; he tells us they were swapping stories from the industry, as Pagani is very much into design. Pagani even took Dimson around in a Zonda Cinque, a supercar that only has 5 examples in existence.
Dimson with Horacio Pagani in a Zonda Cinque
We can tell that Ben still has a soft spot for Porsche, a company that changed significantly since Dimson started work there. Today's Porsche isn't what we call purist given that they have expanded their product portfolio to include the 4-door Panamera, the Cayenne SUV, the Macan crossover, as well as other Porsche sports models like Boxster, Cayman, and Taycan. Does this trend make the only Filipino alumnus (that we know of) from Style Porsche cringe?
Porsche Taycan, their first EV
“I consider these existential products much like the 924, 944, and 928 were in the 1980s and 1990s. These are models that add volume to its product offerings and allow Porsche to compete in a crowded market. They also allow Porsche to offer potential buyers options to drive a Porsche with more room without compromising performance and value,” said Dimson.
Style Porsche today
“They are all designed consistently and cohesively, true to Porsche’s heritage minor details aside. They look and feel sporty as if cast from the same mold from an aesthetic viewpoint. Their performance equals what the designs exude, delivering a quality expected of cars from Stuttgart.”
Porsche has changed a lot, but so has the industry as a whole, particularly with the emergence of the new automotive superpower: China. At first, they were crude copies, but now China's industry is making overtures that it wants to dominate the world, and they're beginning with design.
Dimson with other Style Porsche alumni at the Rennsport Reunion: Grant Larson (designer: Boxster, Panamera, 935), Tony Hatter (designer: 993), Thorsten Klein, as well as Roland Heiler (Porsche Design). Also in the photo is Ben Salvador, another Filipino auto designer, but with General Motors.
“There are some designs that already stand out purely from an aesthetic perspective especially in the EV arena. Chinese companies have aggressively recruited design talent away from the US and Europe. They are, however, the new kids on the block and will be competing in a very crowded market already dominated by European, US, Japanese and Korean manufacturers. Their only chance to acceptable entry is through superior quality, the global market is already full of inexpensive entry-level vehicles whose sales volumes are very high making profitability unpredictably risky. They may survive in their local markets as the EV market may become a game-changer once battery development improves range and reliability issues.”
But the veteran designer has been noticing the trend of automobiles now, as compared to decades past. The realities of modern mobility have changed the perception of not just driving, but how cars are seen and utilized.
“Millenials and future buyers are becoming less brand-attached since they are no longer as emotionally driven to cars as previous generations were. Personal mobility is becoming more essential but simultaneously also more burdensome; therefore the concept of ownership becomes less important as opposed to shared or on-demand, pay-as-you-go mobility. Beyond that is the erosion of the joy of driving from congestion and pollution.”
Dimson at the Rennsport Reunion at Laguna Seca Raceway with his brothers Rufy and Phil, as well as sons Ciro and Titus. Both of his sons are aspiring architects. His brother Phil collects Porsches.
There's no denying that driving in this day and age has changed given the heavy traffic, the costs of owning and running a car, and the need to be socially connected all the time, so much so that taking the wheel has become a burden, not a pleasure. Benjamin Dimson is spot on, but that was to be expected of this Filipino automotive artist that blazed a trail for himself, and for others to follow or even exceed.
Despite those observations, there are still many of us who prefer the old ways, ones who -despite the drawbacks- take great pleasure in automobiles and the freedom they give. There are still those who appreciate the effort that went into a vehicle, from engineering, maintenance, performance, and design. There are those who still cherish driving as a matter of pride, not a matter of just getting from A to B. To those people, a car isn't a conveyance. The automobile is the campfire they gather around to swap stories and share experiences with others like them.
If you're reading this fairly long article up to this point, you're probably one of those people. You're one of us.
Benjamin Dimson is too. He just happens to have a uniquely interesting story to tell.