David Bowie ‘tribute car’ finally realised after 21 years

A white colour car.
Render of ‘db’, by Alexandre Larnac
(Image credit: Alexandre Larnac)

‘A portrait of db’ is a curious project. This art car of sorts is designed as an expression of David Bowie and his music, and created as a tribute to the singer-songwriter following his death in 2016. It has taken some 21 years to realise, with a full-scale 3D model debuting at Exposition Concept Car Paris this month.

‘The date on my first sketch reads April 1997,’ says Takumi Yamamoto, a former PSA Peugeot Citroën designer best known for the exterior styling of the futuristic ‘GT by Citroën’ for Gran Turismo created a decade ago. On a poster of Bowie in his childhood room in Tokyo were the letters ‘db’, as in David Bowie, which to a young Takumi resembled a car logo. ‘It was my ‘aha!’ moment,’ he recalls. Decades later, now working in Paris as an independent car designer, he began creating a presentation for Bowie. When the artist died in 2016, what was originally envisaged as a collaborative project became a tribute car.

To translate his drawings and ideas to a 3D volume, Yamamoto connected with a former PSA colleague, the computer-aided styling modeller and industrial designer Cyrille Ancely. ‘I was intrigued by Takumi’s idea of translating someone’s character into a car,’ he says of their meeting in Paris. ‘I was excited by his creativity and passion – that this car will become a sculpture. Much like how a painter expresses himself with colour, Takumi would do this through a car, and I wanted to help him.’

David Bowie 'db' concept car research sketches

(Image credit: Takumi Yamamoto)

Research sketches, by Takumi Yamamoto

So, the two began sketching – over the next year working after hours to experiment and explore how to make this car possible. ‘We looked at transforming a Bowie song to an algorithm which would create a parametric pattern we could then apply on some parts of the car,’ says Ancely. The parametric design creates a moving sculpture which in the end proved to be too difficult to realise. Yamamoto interrupts: ‘We are still working on that point, and might have a partner for the next stage.’ But for this project, they extracted key words from Bowie’s songs to guide the form of the car. He offers, ‘this is generally how I tend to work and it gives me a deeper understanding of how I perceive the target.’

A third creative was recruited to bring the car concept visually to life. Alexandre Larnac, a computer-generated imagery (CGI) artist and industrial designer, worked on the renderings which then attracted the organisers of the annual Exposition Concept Car. They said if the team could commit to creating a full-scale sculpture in time for the end of January, ‘A portrait of db’ will go on show at the event.

Ancely explains the next process. ‘We wanted to mill this automotive sculpture with additive manufacturing – as in 3D print. Our design would have been too complex and expensive to realise with traditional milling techniques. Compared to how the automotive industry usually realise their mock-ups using clay and physical modellers, the 3D printer creates an exact sculpture. The process gives birth to the car,’ he adds.

The first photographs of David Bowie's concept car

(Image credit: © Mathieu Boimare)

One of the first photographs taken of the 3D model.

The next stage involved sourcing the printer. Marie 3D had purchased a Massivit 1800, the biggest 3D printer on the market, and the company owner, Philippe Marie together with the printer manufacturer saw this as an opportunity to promote their new technology. And so the Bowie car received sponsorship. Ancely smiles: ‘This is how we have managed to achieve our goal.’

At the time of our interview, ‘A portrait of db’ is in the process of being born in time for the Paris reveal. The car appears to be more inspired by Bowie’s earlier period visually and musically. Yamamoto likes the remark. ‘It wasn’t intentional, but I’m happy you feel this way,’ he says. ‘I wanted to express his multi-faceness – that he created and played so many characters in his career. I think the impression that people will get from this work will be varied.’

They extracted key words from Bowie’s songs to guide the form of the car

Ancely admits this has been very much a collaborative project. ‘The ideas, the main design themes are from Takumi, but the final work is the result of our collaboration. Someone wrote something along the lines that he is the brain with the ideas, and I the sculptor – that explains our collaboration.’

Yamamoto feels he may have several further attempts at this subject in the future. Up until now the project has reflected the evolution of technology in car design, and it would be interesting to see how this team takes the Bowie car to the next level. Asked if he sees this prototype developing into a niche vehicle, the designer replies: ‘Why not, but I am not sure which car brand will accept this concept! Probably investors who are into automobiles or art?


‘A Portrait of db’ will be on show at the Festival Automobile International Concept Car Exhibition from 31 January to 3 February 2019. For more information, visit the Festival Automobile website, the Takumi Yamamoto website, and the Cyrille Ancely website

A writer and editor based in London, Nargess contributes to various international publications on all aspects of culture. She is editorial director on Voices, a US publication on wine, and has authored a few lifestyle books, including The Life Negroni.