David Hilton

David Hilton is a successful car designer and former karate-champion from Detroit. Growing up with a talent for Art and a passion for the Martial Arts, Mr. Hilton’s life has taken many turns in bringing him to today. “When I was a child my mother had only three rules for her children: one, learn how to behave properly, two, learn how to swim, and three, learn how to defend yourself. Number three was always my favorite,” he recounts with a grin. At the age of 15 David possessed a black belt in karate and later became one of the top 5 fighters in American, also qualifying for the Taekwondo team for the Olympic Games in 1988 in Korea.

It was a chance phone conversation about product design however, that planted the seed for his future career. Earning money from giving karate lessons, David was able to save for his studies. By putting pen to paper, he was later able to leave Detroit when the opportunity arose. Working for Ford after graduating, his work has since taken him to Sao Paulo, Hiroshima and beyond. Arriving in Germany 15 years ago, this American decided to stay. Nowadays, even though the chief designer of Bentley Motors travels between Germany and England, he considers Cologne his rightful home. For this portrait the former karate champ and now car designer talks about his childhood, love of martial arts, successes in life, and his transformation from a self-proclaimed ‘white trash kid’ from Detroit, into the head exterior designer of luxury car brand Bentley Motors.

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When David opens the door to his apartment he is yet to take off his jacket. “Come in, I just arrived,” he says. Currently he only lives at his property in Cologne on the weekends. As the Head of Exterior Design at Bentley, David lives in England during the week. “I sometimes wonder why I bought this apartment, I am hardly here. Perhaps I did it because I never had a home of my own in Detroit and I feel good here. I have become a real Kölner – Cologne native.”
There is also a side story: the 1903 building he lives in was partially destroyed by American bombs during WWII. “My grandfather used to be a bomber of the U.S. Army. So there is a chance that he might have damaged this building some 70 years ago,” says David. Somehow it comes full circle. He doesn’t have a proper answer when he is asked about why he landed as a Detroit native car designer in Cologne in the 90s. “That was more or less destiny. So many factors played a role. Where should I start? Probably at the very beginning,” he says laughingly.

As one of a few white children in African American Detroit, David always had a love of martial arts. Already possessing a black belt in karate at the age of 15, seven years later, he qualified for the Taekwondo team for the Olympic Games in 1988 in Korea. However, he was not allowed to fight for a medal. “When my team mates and I had won almost all qualifying rounds in the USA, the Koreans in authority seemed to be afraid that an American team would beat Korea at its very own national sport in front of the whole world. The U.S. team was actually run by Korean coaches at that time.” David says while showing us pictures.

Presumably due to these political pressures, instead of nominating David and some of his team mates, the U.S. trainers of the team chose more unsuccessful fighters, who were then quickly defeated. David left the country without winning or losing one single Olympic fight. “That was really hard, but ultimately I learned an important lesson. Success is not solely defined through talent. There are three important factors that count: talent, perseverance, and the people you meet. They can either open a door for you or slam it in your face.”

While sitting at David’s dinner table and listening to him, he begins to draw sketches on the side. “I didn’t know what to do after high school. I had only fought. I was aware that without an education I wouldn’t be able to leave Detroit. A talent, that I knew was lying dormant inside me, was my talent for art. Unfortunately I had no idea what to do with it at that time.” Far away in time from career centres and Google search machines, David took a telephone directory looking for inspirational jobs. When ‘product designers’ caught his attention, he dialed one of them immediately. The man on the other line patiently offered David an overview and explanation of product design, the income opportunities, and job prospects while recommending a University in Cincinnati to look into. “I would have never become a car designer if I had not found this number by chance, and if that gentleman didn’t take the time to explain the profession to me,” he reflects.

But at this time David could not afford University, so he went back to what he had always done: martial arts. “Back then I was known in America and fortunate that there was an extreme ‘Karate Kid’ hype happening at that particular time. Every kid wanted to learn karate,” he says. By working as a karate instructor, he had no problem in saving up for expensive college fees. “I cannot thank Mr. Miyagi enough for that,” he adds jokingly.

“During my University studies I did internships at Chrysler and Ford,” he says while he continues to work on his car sketches, “which ironically brought me back to Detroit.” After his degree, David gets offered a position at both places. “I didn’t really have a preference as to which company to start with, I only had one condition: to travel the world! Ford gave me that possibility and I accepted right away. No one really wants to stay forever in Detroit.”

After living abroad in Sao Paulo and Hiroshima, his journey continued to Ford in Cologne. “Back then I didn’t know anything about Germany and I will never forget my first day here: I was on the streets and I noticed that there was not much racial mix, other than ‘central European’. I had never seen such a thing in my 30 years. It was very different for me. What I have always enjoyed during my travels was the mix” he recounts. “Fortunately, I soon learned that Colonge is indeed quite varied”.

After 2 years in Cologne, his job required him to return to Detroit, so David decided it was time to quit Ford and stay. “That was a very hard time for me. I had no job, no working permit, no German passport, no money, and no prospects. I had no idea what to do, I only knew that I wasn’t going back and I wanted to stay here in Germany.” Without a permanent job he decided to found his own company, Motorcity Europe. In a matter of months Motorcity rapidly developed. The following years saw David generating car design concepts for Ford, Kia, Mazda, McLaren, and many more. In January 2012 he became the Head of Exterior Design of Bentley Motors.

When David finishes his last sketch during the interview he rips it apart. “Lesson one: don’t be too much in love with your work,” he says jokingly and adds, “I just love to draw. Perhaps I am a car designer on paper, but in my heart I am an artist. Luckily, the two are very closely related”. When asked if he would consider changing paths to become an artist full-time he responds: “Fortunately I have no idea what will happen in the future and that is something I truly enjoy. We all need to have a direction for our talents, however I like the fact that we don’t know where life will take us,” he says and quickly adds,” But one thing I know: I don’t necessarily wish to go back to Detroit. However, if and when I do go back some day, I am sure it would now be with very different eyes.”

David many thanks for sharing your inspiring story. To see some of David’s designs view Morotcity Europe’s website here.

This portrait has been produced in collaboration with Mondo Mondo. Have a look at their website here.

Photography: Lukas Korschan
Interview & Text: Lukas Korschan