Born in Deinze after leaving school, van Braeckel studied electrical engineering before joining Ford as an apprentice car designer in Cologne, West Germany. Ford then agreed to sponsor him undertake a degree in car design at the Royal College of Art, London.
On graduation, he joined Audi in 1984, working on external design including the Audi A8 concept and Audi A3. In 1993, Volkswagen Group boss Ferdinand Piëch personally choose him to head design for VW's newly purchased Škoda Auto division, where he revised the entire model line-up, creating the Octavia and Fabia models.
After Volkswagen purchased Bentley in 1998 from Vickers plc, van Braeckel joined the British-based company in August 1999 as Director of Design & Styling. His brief was to create a second-car line that could sell in higher volumes than the $240,000 Bentley Arnage car. Van Braeckel created the Bentley Continental GT, which in 2004 sold 5,983 units, exceeding forecasts by 62%, and in 2009 his Bentley Mulsanne was launched.
In 2007, van Braeckel was awarded the laureate of Antwerp's Christophe Plantin Prize, which honours Belgian citizens whose cultural, artistic or scientific activities contribute to the country's prestige abroad. In 2008, van Braeckel was awarded the European Automotive Design Award by Designers (Europe).