Canadian Eric Leong (left) and Han Yong-fei of France with their winning popemobile design. Photo courtesy of Eric Leong

Students re-imagine popemobile

  • November 9, 2012

They say the sky’s the limit. Just don’t say it to someone as practical as Toronto native Eric Leong.

The strategy that won him and partner Han Yong-fei the 2012 Autostyle Design Competition for designing a new popemobile was based on plans that were never too “blue sky,” never too unattainable.

“There are things that we could have done that might have looked really cool,” said Leong. “Even though it might seem cool, being blue sky is something that we didn’t want to do because it’s not in a way feasible or possible.”

Leong and Yong-fei’s popemobile design, a modification of a hybrid Volkswagen Cross Coupé, included spray-on batteries to decrease weight, bullet-proof kevlar-belted wheels and a solar panel on the roof for a “greener aspect,” said Leong, who promises that everything in their design can be produced.

The pair were among 22 young designer finalists chosen out of 70 applicants invited to the 19th-century Villa di Bagno in Italy in October where their popemobile proposals were on display. They competed with the goal to build an eco-friendly vehicle with high Pope visibility and strict security requirements. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken on protecting the environment, and the Vatican aims to use renewable energy sources for 20 per cent of its energy needs by 2020.

The popemobile designs had to be based on a production hybrid car model or concept car design and keep the car model's front features so as to maintain the brand image. Only the rear of the vehicle could be modified and in such a way as to guarantee comfort for five passengers and maximum visibility of the Pope. Projects needed to use alternative energy, cutting-edge materials and innovative technology that allowed for rapid and easy rear access to and from the vehicle.

In high school, Leong, now 25, knew he was interested in art and engineering. But he found neither to be fulfilling enough. Then he came across industrial design.

“That was a pretty good mixture,” he said, “and so that’s how I ended up in the design field.”

Leong completed his degree in industrial design at Toronto’s Humber College. But he met teammate and classmate Yong-fei, 23, at Sweden’s Umeå Institute of Design.

“I just finished my master’s in transportation design,” said Leong, who is now looking for a placement in this field.

Representatives from the ninth Autostyle competition came to the school looking for contestants to design a new popemobile, he said. Berman, an Italian car-parts manufacturer, sponsored the contest. This year, the Vatican Publishing House also supported the competition and will publish the best eco-popemobile design drawings. The panel of judges included design directors from Alfa Romeo, Audi, Bentley, Fiat, Ford, Ferrari and Toyota.

(With files from the Catholic News Service.)

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