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The Italian Influence on American cars, part 4: dual headlamps, sportwagons, and minivans

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A nice example of ante litteram dual twin headlights, seen in the Ghia bodied Alfa 1900.

[Editor’s Note: Matteo Giacon concludes his omnibus looks at the contributions of Italian designers to American automotive design trends. For previous installments: part 1, part 2, part 3.]

Fiat Lux

If you think that dual headlights were a typical American product, think twice! The first car that apparently wore them (and almost surely the first Italian car to do so) was an Alfa Romeo, to be more precise a Pinin Farina-bodied 6C 2500 built for the prince Ali Khan and consequently offered in both convertible and coupé format. The basic lines of the car were practically the same used on the famous convertible seen in the 1946 Paris car, one of the two cars (the other one was an Aprilia) taken there by Battista Pinin Farina despite he was forbidden to expose them at the show – French organizers refused to accept within the Salon cars coming from certain countries still considered as “enemies” (as a sort of post-WWII retaliation) and naturally Italy was among them.

This didn’t deter Farina to show them before the entry of the Salon, and the effect was that the duo practically stole the show. Consequently, the very next year PF was allowed to have its proper display, so at least there was no risk that “outsiders” could again be the talk of the town more than those appearing directly at the main fair. It is interesting to notice that these cars often shared overall shapes, but usually were set apart from details: The adoption of proper dual headlights (truly modern looking indeed, predating the solutions adopted not on ’57 and ’58 American cars, but, even more, those seen on ‘59s) is indeed one of this, but also the use of “blades” over the front wheel cuts, soon to be seen on ’49 Lincolns, is a peculiarity often present on this kind of PF cars. However, production numbers were negligible, and practically every single example can be considered an one-off of its own.

The Paris car is indeed interesting because it was later sold to Austin, and it was the “inspirational” tool used to create the famous Austin A90 Atlantic. One can always think that the similarities between the two cars are negligible, because a quick first sight makes everybody thinking that the A90 is a sort of small-scale ’46 Buick with the ‘screen of a ’34 Hupmobile Aerodynamic and the general front end of a Tatra, with the addition of Silver Streaks and Cyclops central headlight; despite this, it is undeniable that some peculiarities like the chrome moldings surrounding the hood of the A90 Atlantic were shared with the one-off Alfa 6C 2500; but, most important is the fact that both were devoted to the same Grand Touring or boulevard grand cruiser market, in this respect the Alfa itself also was quite a different beast than the Mille Miglia-winning Alfas of the day). Holden “Bob” Koto then took possession of this extraordinary car and it is impossible to ignore the fact that some traits found on it could also have been used to mould the ’53 Starliner shape. But also in this case, it was likely more important the whole concept offered by the car, rather than the way it appeared on metal. In any case, the adoption of dual headlamps on the Ali Khan’s car wasn’t immediately put to good use: it was too much innovative, too much a watershed design, this at a time when the American cars were forced to simple, single sealed beam units, and the Italian cars usually made do mainly with ovoid or convex transparent covering for their front set ups n cases where there was need for some more “outrageous” look (and in both cases laws didn’t help too). In this respect it was just a tad much for the typical Alfa clientele, after all the vertical grille, combined with two horizontal grilles flanking it, the “catwalks-moustaches,” was an already striking look, perfect to denote the elegant sportiness of Alfas. (As an added note, the “typical” early postwar Alfa look had a certain foreign success too, for example a trio of Wendler-bodied BMW 335s, ordered by the same client, had a front end being a blatant Alfaesque look, also predating the change from “catwalks” to “mustachioed”-shaped front lateral grilles.)

So, the typical Alfa look remained the same with single headlights for at least another a decade or so, with the Giugiaro-penned, Bertone-bodied 2000 Sprint becoming the first Portello car offering them to the public. But this didn’t deter other Italian coachbuilders to offer cars wearing dual headlights of sort, what with an Aurelia B52 bodied by Bertone: a very classic-shaped car, with the distinguishing feature of two large diameter lights set near the Scudetto grille, and two smaller ones flanking them on the outside, with both sets housed on a very flat piece of metal which had edges running in relief from the higher outside portion of the bumpers all the way through the grille surround and then up the upper fenders’ edges, ending in the indicators arrow-shaped housings. The effect is mesmerizing if one thinks it predates things seen much later in the decade, although the harmony of all of these elements is somewhat debatable.

This view of the Ghia 1900 permits to see how nicely integrated the dual headlights were in the general car lines.

Another Aurelia is wearing a similar “larger inside, smaller outside dual headlights” in a more convincing manner, helped also by the much sportier proportions: In this case it is a Vignale-bodied car, and the general front end effect is much more Exner-Ghia than everything else, because the headlights are housed within cavities flanking the main central and traditionally-penned Lancia motive. Speaking of Ghia, it is important to remind an Alfa 1900 bodied following the American ideas imported in Italy through the co-working with Highland Park stylists, but also in this case what set the car apart from its ChryCo lookalike is its use of twin headlights. These and the Bertone car are important because while the dual headlights are in reality a normal lamp and fog light combo, they induce in the onlooker the idea there is no neat separation between them and the way they can be used. Other cars of the period (including yet another Vignale-bodied Aurelia) offer similarly positioned set ups, but the main single headlights are prominent enough and the foglights are usually more subdued, so to not induce errors as their respective roles are taken in consideration. From then on, however, the dual horizontal headlights started their irresistible running, confirmed by some Italian-American creations (a famous Cadillac bodied by Ghia in 1953, the contemporary Ghia-built Dodge Firearrow in its first edition, one of the various Chrysler-Ghia GS 1 Special with its oddly low-positioned headlamps set, the Chrysler 375, the Dart and the Diablo), and soon on pure American creations. The renowned trio of Cadillac La Espada, El Camino and Eldorado Brougham are there to show us it was only a matter of time (and laws) before this captivating way to set the lamps on the front of a given car could take foot. However, for some reason, the dual horizontal headlights became a common sight, once they debuted, and the public showed appreciation for this touch. Initially considered rather advanced, almost daring, it soon began to appear almost normal, something that had to belong to the intimate nature of a new car. In sum, it became a sort of commodity. And this not in a long span of time: It took only a pair of years, for almost every 1960 American cars sported them, and soon many a European car too. What started as a revolution, ended to look like another commonplace trait.

The fantasmagorical Fiat 8V, here in the early format where the headlamps were still separated..nonetheless, a superb design.

The same cannot  be said about the very original choice for the headlamp location made by Luigi Fabio Rapi once the mystical Fiat 8V debuted. It was a sensational berlinetta-type sports car, the end result of the famous ill-fated Fiat desire to offer a large displacement, high-fractioned engined luxury or quasi luxury car (especially) for the American market, in case there was either the need to go to build cars across the pond should the export plans – devised while the 1400 was coming to light – have worked: In the end the exports plans were considered not acceptable because of costs. Nonetheless, at the dawn of the new decade, the abortive luxury sedan had seen at least its engine ready, while the car design was soon superseded. But the idea of a halo car, able to bring further attention to a reborn Fiat, was still very present in the Fiat execs minds. Dante Giacosa, despite having designed the engine, wasn’t all that convinced that such a car could be feasible for the future Fiat plans – after all, if a luxury sedan which could always be destined to institutional or ministerial roles, like the pre-war 2800, was considered an excessive waste of money and resources (and the much more rational, but in the end rather mundane, 1900 was there for that role), what about a specialist sportscar offered to the same clientele oriented to prestigious Lancias and Alfas, not to mention those newcomers named Ferrari and Maserati that were already set to spoil the scene?

So, despite its outrageous body, despite its intriguing “double skin” construction, where the simple inner panels had a structural function, while the external ones were the body in itself (in the second edition a prototype example was built in fiberglass, with its outer panels weighing in at just only 100 pounds, in doing so becoming one of the first application of such a solution outside the United States), despite the advanced if somewhat maintenance-intensive engine (and to this regard, ask the late Pontiac designer Henry Lauve about this, after he lamented about the engine mounted in his Ghia-bodied Supersonic 8V), despite the four-wheel independent suspension and the general great sporty feeling, aided by a natural oversteering nature and the good steering behavior, the car wasn’t well accepted by the would-be clientele. Its curious mix of tried and true sportscar lines and downright never-seen before elements, plus the use of a badge with a perceived image not exclusive enough, led to a production of only 114 examples, mere numerals also when confronted with the rarified Ferraris of the day. Clearly, Alfas and Lancias were seen as more suitable proposition; although the well-known Zagato coup (buying with a cut rate approach the remaining 25 examples and then modifying them, to make them competitive enough to lure back drivers) worked egregiously, and the sporting heritage of the 8V finally was vindicated. Between 1954 and 1958, it was the car to beat in the Italian 2 Liter category, quite a vengeance considering that the car began to be fully exploited – and began to win – once its official production had ceased. But we know that similar phoenix flight could happen back then: After all, how could you call the renaissance of the original 100-inch Rambler almost three years after it had ceased production?

The Fiat 8V was an interesting mix of then-current and very forward-thinking trends.

From a design point of view, it is important to notice that while the first examples had a somewhat conventional front end (although “conventional” for a car bearing a “mouth” conceptually similar to the one used on the then groundbreaking Nash-Healey by PF is a gross word), the later edition, and the best known one also, had the neat distinction of being one of the very first cars to have dual canted headlights, maintaining the larger diameter ones closer to the grille, and the smaller ones up on the extreme upper edge of the fenders. But now, they were housed together in the same fender nacelle. Although this wasn’t a proper dual headlights set up, it had all the distinctive look of a genuine one. This solution wouldn’t be seen again until the very famous ’58 Lincoln and Continental MK III appeared, although the general solution adopted by Fiat is much more aggressive than the extremely carved groups adopted on the Dearborn flagships. The resulting enhanced prowess aided the car’s styling even more, giving it a distinctive personality different from the majority of Italian sports cars then en vogue, and I always thought that this peculiarity, alongside the almost as equally striking rear, makes it a solid alternative to another quirky sportscar of the time, the mystical Pegaso (a nice showdown between two representatives of these rarified clans would be quite a nice experience…). All things considered, I would like to expect that Ford designers back in Dearborn caught a glimpse of this very original Fiat, and used the front headlights setups as additional point to ponder while studying the undisputed Behemoths of ’58. After all, while Blue Oval stylists seemed among the least affected by the Italian ideas back then, some of their creations could however be close enough to resemble something coming out of Turin or Milan (Edsel vs. Alfa central grille, for example). After a close look, such a connection is quite possible to see, although it was more a byproduct of the offshoring system of building concept cars on the roll since the Plymouth XX500.

In fact, Dearborn men were responsible for ordering the construction of a Boano-bodied car, the Lincoln Indianapolis. It was styled by the son of ex Ghia owner, Mario Felice Boano, and it was shown at the ’55 Turin Auto Show. Mario Felice Boano had good entrature with Ford, apparently, and this helped him to obtain the project. Needless to say, this car is perfectly in tune with the time and the style seen with so many American concept cars built on this side of the Alps, but what set it apart was the use of vertically stacked headlamps, just like the production ’57 Lincoln. It is perfectly plausible, given the design team’s usual timing, that L-M men gave some input to the Boanos, and the result was seen as a probe, to capture public reaction before a similar concept, a thing which was the quintessential cause for the entire Motorama shows and for the relatively sustained, yet not-too-costly, production of concept and small-series specials by Chrysler through Ghia. After all, this was the era when practically every major American firm had connections or approach of sort with Italian automakers: Ghia and Chrysler, GM and PF (although later in the decade), Nash and PF, Hudson and Touring, Packard and Bertone (via the purchase of the Fiat Abarth 1500 in 1952), and both Studebaker and K-F could brag about European designers, thanks to Loewy Associates and Howard Dutch Darrin. So, it is no marvel that at a certain point also Ford decided to become a player of this game, and it set its eyes on Boano. Apparently, Ford had decided to make him its main style consultant in Italy, and this “suggested” Fiat to put an offer to lure Boano to its still-to-create in house studio. A deal was struck, and Boano put his talent at work for Giacosa and Valletta (and Agnellis…).

Before this, he could create this Lincoln (and the Ferrari 250 GT which bore his name, a decidedly different beauty, far away from this Italian-American creation) and although it is known that other dream cars (the in-house designed Continental Fifty-X, the XL-500 and the Ford La Tosca) were the direct forerunner of that plethora of newness and extravagance seen on the production ’56,’57 and ’58 Lincoln, there are some touches in the Boano’s creation that would also see the light of the day: the headlights, the low “shaved” hood, the semi-“skirted” front and rear wheel cutouts, and the inverted trapezoidal rear roof pillar, predating respectively the ’57 Lincoln, the ’56 one, the Turnpike Cruisers and the successive ’58 Lincolns and Continentals (although the similarity between this last item and the one sported on the Ghia-built Packard Predictor needs to be considered as well, also because of the connection between Packards and FoMoCo, thanks to men like Bill Schmidt and James Nance ). The rest of the car is a striking blend of pure Americana, effectively more closely related to something coming from a GM studio, rather than from Dearborn. However, the vertically stacked dual headlights are sufficient enough to consider this as one of the most striking design of the era, this at a time when the ’55 in-house designed Mystere was considered so meaningful as to not to be permitted his vision by general public. At least the Indianapolis, with all its provocative features, was there to be admired (or criticized) since its official debut, only days after it was finished.

The vertically stacked headlights were also a rare sight in the Fifties, although the origins of this arrangement can be traced back to the first Airflows (there are some analogies for sure…), but the very first car ever offered from its market debut to wear proper dual twins was the ’57 full size Nash range – together with the Eldorado Brougham, of course; the ’57 Lincolns set was not a true dual headlights: among the first Italian-made cars to have that treatment, the Ghia-built Lincoln Indianapolis (but this is more an American car after all…) immediately comes to memory, while in successive months another Ghia creation, another Aurelia to be sure, sported them also (in a distinctly Facel-Vega manner, in effect).

And in Europe? Well, the vertically stacked formula endured few imitators, and the first and most important should therefore be Facel-Vega, with this style becoming one of the French builder trademarks, or the higher class Mercedeses of the Sixties bound to sealed-beam America, while outside of Detroit (or Kenosha) the European dimensioned Nissan Glorias and the Vedette-derived Simca/Chrysler Esplanada built in Brazil offered headlights ensemble looking very much like the ones adopted by Dick Teague for the ’67 Ambassador. However, let’s not forget those distinctive Docker Bentleys! They were too incredible to underestimate. For our look at Italian cars, it is worth naming at least another couple of cars, a coupé and a wagon built using a 1500 Fiat drivetrain by Francis Lombardi after Piero Frua designed them. If not ugly surely rather heavy-looking, and almost a derivative of a contemporary Opel Rekord from some angles. It is difficult to think that this car came from the same coachbuilder that proposed the convincingly nice 1500 Smart, a cute two door club sedan based on the same mechanicals. Among standard production cars, the closest back then was almost surely the Innocenti IM3, the Italian version of the British BMC ADO 16 models, but the vertically stacked lights in reality weren’t real duals, it was simply a huge lenticular glass covering a regular single round headlight and a trapezoidal lower parking light, in itself a close reminiscence of the Mercedes look of the early Sixties. Maybe I forgot some cars and makes , but these examples can be considered a satisfying quantity. In effect, sort of vertically stacked headlamps can be found also on some late Fifties Alfa Romeos, namely the 2000 sedans and spiders, but, just like the 2600 sedan, these were no proper twin headlights sets (otherwise, using the same criterion, also a ’55 Ford could wear them).

The Alfa 2000 Spider, with its ’55 Ford-lookalike headlamps treatment, in itself similar to the then new vertically stacked headlamps.

The notion of dual vertical headlights in effect, never caught off the Italian automotive scene in the same way the classical horizontal-set lamps did, and while juicy first fruits were offered by the 1967 Fiat 125 with its twin rectangular, horizontal setup, things like the 1977 Dodge Monaco/Plymouth Fury or Chevy Malibu ensemble were never to be seen, at least not in that format. As for the single rectangular headlamps, although it sounds strange, Zagato was among the Italian forerunner, combining some of its shapely and swoopy, aerodynamic and aggressive bodies with such an unusual item: take for example the first Alfa Giulia TZ prototype, of the production Alfa 2600 SZ . The contrast between the general roundness of the Zagato bodies and the large rectangular headlights of the latter car is remarkable enough. However, the diffusion of such a design touch owes much more to German cars, above everything else, than to Italian carrozzerie. But this wasn’t totally novel.

In fact, it is interesting to notice also that some Italian cars were not indifferent to the squared up fads of headlamps covers that set some designers’ souls ablaze in the late Thirties-early Forties, and once again, there are some examples showing the talent of Italian stylists to try to do one better than the American maestros. While in America the Woodlite headlamps’ use made some already striking designs even more fantastic-looking (think about the Ruxton and lots of custom creations), the use of strictly squared up headlamps was rare. The 1939 Plymouths and DeSotos, the ’39 Nash and, most importantly, the ’38 “Spirit of Motion” Graham and the ’38 Studebakers were early examples of this, what with their squared up bezels (’39 Chryslers and Dodges used a shield-like shape, conceptually close to the one already used by Fords, Lincoln and ’39 Mercs, Senior Hudsons, while Studebakers too adopted them in the same year, superseding the more radical squared up setup). It is important to remember also the Checker Model M, with its incredible rectangular headlights, which could easily slip in the vertically stacked category too (in effect, resembling the ones appearing in mid-Seventies on some mid-size chariots around the Great Lakes shores). But as a whole, what was a promising and brilliant new way to design the automobile front ends came to an abrupt end as early as 1940, “thanks” to the adoption of the law-mandatory new sealed beam lights. The last grand gasp to an extroverted headlights treatment came in the brief flying of the 1942 DeSotos, with their covered headlamps. Such a radical touch wouldn’t be put into production for another pair of decades, and also the deeply set ’49-’51 Lincoln headlights must’ve appeared too outlandish to endure long lasting success. But the idea of squared up headlight bezels could’ve worked, if the public could take a glimpse of them for quite a longer time than those two too brief seasons.

Just after the war, however, a much more radically devised front end treatment, sporting massive headlights covered under wide rectangular glass surfaces, showed that maybe, regardless of squared up bezels or not, the public had few problems to be entirely satisfied by normal circular lamps. At least, that’s the idea everybody can have after taking a look at the strange front end styled for some Stabilimenti Farina creations using mainly Lancia Aprilia drivetrains. This family of cars had incredibly advanced (for the time, we are speaking of 1947) front end look, with massive lines, wide rectangular headlamps (not of the sealed beam kind, of course), and often a distinctive prow-like stem, with thick rectangular bars used on the air intakes. In effect, air intakes is quite an appropriate word, for the inspiration for these cars was, this time, not coming from the then trendy aeronautical world, but by the more dreadful world of military tanks. Or, in the best of the cases, many felt these cars were loosely inspired to then modern…vacuum cleaners! But before laughing too loud, think about this: First, they were quite advanced for the time, second, they were among the supposedly first efforts of a young Giovanni Michelotti (then working for Stabilimenti Farina), third, this kind of style would be reworked to appear, at least from a conceptual point of view, on many an European creation of much later years. I have no difficult to see some traces of some Eighties cars in them.

The Alfa 2600 Zagato, seen here as a prototype, was among the first Italian cars to sport rectangular headlights.

Of course, what applies to some European cars can also apply to some American one too. However, I like to think that, considering the timing and the obvious influences Michelotti can have used back then, this kind of front end look can also be considered as the ideal spiritual ancestor of that stunningly different treatment used on the aforementioned ’42 DeSotos. I must work with a bit of imagination, sure, but it is not difficult to see this. So, what started like another reworking of some Transatlantic lines, ended to become a sort of compendium of all the ideas that would be exploited by designers 30 or 40 years later: arrow like front, negligibly looking bumpers, wide rectangular headlights, wide horizontal grille traits, arrow-like full width front, and so on. While no production car of the future would look so close to those Aprilias, they surely owed something from these obscure Italian creations, at least because similar concoctions, too advanced and too outlandish for 1947 Italy, would never be attempted for at least 20 years. Also, the whole concept of a arrow-like full width grille, implemented also on other Michelotti-penned, Stabilimenti Farina-built cars, was something to write home about (and something still remarkably ahead of its time). Michelotti really did everything for everybody!

Last but not least, the so-called “almond-shaped” dual round headlamps style, sort of mix between the horizontal and the canted dual headlamps, was visible also on some Italian cars in the early Sixties, just when the look became famous thanks to some Rolls Royces and Bentleys. While this style can be compared with both the Fiat 8V and the ’58-’60 Lincolns and Continentals, the ’61 DeSotos and the ’61-’62 Chryslers, it is undoubtedly a bit less extreme. In any case, it was a fad that lasted for some time, and it was seen on many an Italian coachbuilt effort: Some of the best known cars to use this styling belonged to the ’61 Fiat 1500-derived family, with some carrozzeria adopting the same solution originally proposed by Michelotti for the first Japanese car styled by an Italian designer (the Prince Skyline Sports). So, there were Fiat 1500s built by Allemano, Scioneri and Viotti sporting the “almond-shaped” headlights. At the time, the Fiat 1500-derived models were a hot item for experimentation, and if we take a look at yet another headlamps-styling description, we can also remind that some Siata-bodied, Michelotti-penned, 1500s introduced the headlamps design later adopted by the great Italian designer in his Triumph 2000s. While the Siata cars used an item somewhat comparable to the one adopted for the 1961-’63 Ford Thunderbird, in the end they were sort of forerunner for what Ford used for the ’64-’65 T-Bird. Did I already say that many times an original American idea was reworked thanks to Italian fantasy, and then used again by American stylists? Yes, I did.

The Siata 208 CS (aka Fiat 8V) with its peculiar retractable headlights.

P.S. And the hidden headlamps, so dear to 1942 DeSoto fans, and seen on ’36 Cords as an industry first? Well, also Italy had at least one notable car to remember, years before the covered headlights a la Corvette began to make their appearance on Ferraris, Lambos, Montreals and so on. It was the Siata 208 CS, or in other words, the Siata-tuned Fiat 8V bodied by Stabilimenti Farina and then (once the glorious Stabilimenti pulled the plug, closing its doors in 1953), by Balbo; this splendidly aggressive car was extremely convincing in its front end, where the big, wild grille (with the eggcrate treatment in the Balbo-built versions) was the focal element of the car, and the absence of visible lamps (“out of sight except at night,” per DeSoto credo) enhanced this aggressive purity. Needless to say, guess who contributed at it also? Michelotti again…

Sportwagons and Cantilevers

Difficult to say whether the automotive world would be the same without them or not; surely the automotive world would’ve had been rather different without him. I am speaking about Giannino Marzotto and his cars.

In particular, there are two notable cars wearing the ideas of this exceptional gentleman driver, likely the most famous of his kind ever to be seen in Italy. A legendary heir of a legendary family, our man was a count, a champion and an impeccably clothed guy, able to win Mille Miglia wearing tie and jacket. That’s because this kind of clothes were the ones closer to his bespoke personality, the only ones perfectly suited for him. So, it was no surprise then, if in 1950 using a Ferrari 195S he won the classic Brescia-to-Brescia Red Arrow race (beating his two brothers, no slouch guys either) wearing his favourite combo of tie-and-double-breasted-jacket. After all, what made his and his family’s fortunes was the century-old production of fabrics and woolen yarns in Valdagno, Vicenza (not too far from Padua, Verona and Venice), so this kind of personal trademark was even more logical, even if he had to try his ability with such a Ferrari in such a race.

However, the fact that he was talented, and the fact that he was a truly good client of Enzo’s factory didn’t translate automatically in super special attentions. So, to obtain even more from Prancing Horse cars, after he thought there could be room for better development (sounds familiar, uh?), he often chose to let his talent, the artistic experience of Franco Reggiani and the craftsmen at Carrozzeria Fontana (from Padua, not Modena) to do one better than Touring or other trustworthy Enzo’s men. In effect, he, his brothers and others were all competing under the family Scuderia Marzotto banner, so he had some clout for sure. The most famous results of these think-tanks were the ’51 Uovo (Egg) and the ’52 “Sportwagon” built for a supposed participation to Carrera Panamericana, in practice both derivatives of 212 Exports frames bought in 1950 and 1951 (as we’ll see, the Uovo had some links also with 166 MB).

I’ll begin with the (in)famous Egg, for it is distinctive enough and very well known: A very recent and excellent article on Hemmings already described this astounding car, so I have to add only a few words. The former (which in photos of the days often wore license plate VI 20362) was bodied with the remarkably “different” and extroverted berlinetta body (also called Jet, and for good reasons, although the initially derogatory Egg nickname lasted up until today) on what is considered a 212 Export chassis (#024MB, but its number was also the one used by a 166 MB also bought by Scuderia Marzotto, it seems that the good old practice of adopting an existing chassis number for a new one reconstructed after an accident was again used here. It is known that after the accident of the original car, the frame was literally rebuilt, what’s more all the 212 chassis were evolutions of the ones used for the 166s, and most important above all else, the car now displays an older number plate that should be the one of the original chassis). For sure, the need for such a different grille was dictated by the stock and tall radiator fitting, but what set it even more apart for me was the use, by the Padua-based Carrozzeria Fontana creation of the very rearward coupé body featuring cantilever roof. It’s not a total novelty, because a quick look at the Vutotal windscreen, and at cars adopting it, like the unlucky Mathis 666 prototype, makes one wonder whether the super-thin windshield panes had some structural role of sort for the roof itself, or if only rear pillars could cope with the roof’s weight. The superb-looking 1936 Labourdette-bodied Delage V12 Aerodynamique Vutotal offers a cantilever roof that is every bit as striking as the one seen on the Uovo, with as a plus a dorsal fin and the same ‘screen made of curved panes…this is truly avant-garde at its most superb best. But surely, if you think that the Cheetah of the Sixties was the most radical closed body sportscar ever, or that the Chrysler Norseman was the one and only one to offer the exclusivity of a cantilever roof ,think again, for the Uovo’s proportions are even more aggressive, and a good decade ahead of the Chevy-engined beast. As for the cantilever roof, the windshield had very vestigial framing, but in effect they were more to keep glass in place rather than for supporting the roof, hence the need to use massive rear pillars. The end result was effectively astonishing, and the global performances of this car were indeed spectacular. Thanks to the swoopy body, the car had valuable aerodynamics features and with a 2.5 liter engine it could beat also the latest 4.1 liter official cars (one of the reasons why Ferrari himself never was too much happy to see the Vicenza men’s efforts; however, losing their money and their influence would hit Maranello too much, so Enzo “tolerated” all of this). The racing results weren’t entirely satisfactory, but its potential surely showed in an almost brutal way. Not everybody appreciate the Cottereau-Belleville rounded grille, one of the many early 20th century cars already offering the vision of a rounded grille, but considering that the Uovo is mostly an artisan’s product, where form follows function in a very peculiar manner, the end result must be considered entirely satisfying.

The latter car of this Marzotto’s owned duo initially had no body, and before becoming the “sportswagon” kind of car it was fitted with the rough lines of the so-called Sicilian Cart (Carretto Siciliano), which became the winning car of the ’51 Sicily Tour. After the event, the car was fitted with a new engine and soon afterward properly crafted with an Export Vignale barchetta body, but thinking that the suggestions by Juan Manuel Fangio regarding the availability of increased room for cars destined to the Carrera were worthy enough, Marzotto had the car being “transformed” in a sort of sportwagon by Fontana. In the end the car became more a sort of modern pace car rather than the all-out Mexican racer initially devised, but it is however one of the first examples of sportswagon, and surely a worthy ancestor of the Motorama Corvette Nomad (although it was marred by crude proportions, the concept in itself was simply exceptional, and surely those deeming strange a contemporary Ferrari FF, should take a look at this car to understand why Ferraris deserve to be wagons but not four-door sedans) and after some months the car came back to spider configuration (after the original engine was reinstalled ); then Fontana worked again his magic and rebodied this same car (chassis number #0086E, license plate VI 20371), this time a svelte barchetta with deeply inset lower flanks, again predating later similar solutions seen on many a car sporting concave portions of the body (Testa Rossas, ’56 Corvettes and so on are the best examples to understand the effect, although the cavities were done towards the rear wheels in the Marzotto car). A last “new” body was given to the car by its new owner, likely by Fontana again, in August 1952, and as such remained also when it crossed the Atlantic to become another SCCA star. In effect, the car was subjected to so many and so radical skin changes that it is almost obvious his first owner had to be a fabrics magnate…

Their enduring heritage lies in the fact that from what were essentially needs to improve driver’s life during racing or to do most from little acorns, these two Marzotto cars set the pace for many cars to come, racing cars good also to showcase innovations not immediately linked by the public of tifosi with an all-out racing or sports car, yet remarkably close to represent the best those worlds had to offer. The fact that what can be considered as an Italian Briggs Cunningham or Lance Reventlow did this, is another interesting detail, because there was the sensibility of someone good enough to be considered a top driver, yet never considered an all-out champion, behind this intriguing experimenting on Holy Grails from Maranello. Few, if any, would endure such success while blatantly challenging the establishment of Enzo’s ideas, if they would be “normal” racing champions.

There was the need to see an exceptional individual such as Marzotto, one with plenty enough of courage to take on Mille Miglias, to defy Enzo and then quickly coming back to his family main affairs, dismantling the Scuderia, after he accepted the wise suggestions made by bankers and politicians (people afraid to lose such a formidable industrialist, a man sorely needed in the Italian economics of the postwar years), to also see some intriguing experimentations on such cars, cars already then considered too difficult to improve, and not only because of their mechanical qualities. It is indeed fascinating to think that with the results of that Italian car, some foreign stylists and especially the men behind the Corvette Nomad had to have some notions preciously taken from the 212 “sportwagon” to make their own statement about an unknown exercise, like the notion of a race-car based wagon could be at the time. Not even such renowned British shooting brakes were as extreme as that Ferrari, and surely many a British car can also be sort of influencer for the original Nomad, yet that 212 was done in a much more radical way and it was available for further refinements and study. The Motorama Nomad showed the next step.

Deep Space Six Hundred: Not Looking Like A Turnpike Cruiser, Yet Providing More Room Than Your Average Starship.

Question: what was the first hugely successful passenger-car derived spacewagon or minivan in the automotive history ?

Answer: depending on the continent you choose to look at , you can cite the K-car derived Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan (for the Americas), the Renault Espace (for Europe), and the Nissan Prairie (for Asia). For Three Diamond fans, the Mitsubishi Space Wagon must be included also, mainly because it was strictly based on the 1979 SSW prototype.

The BMW 600, one of the first spacewagons of any era, albeit not in the same Fiat 600 Multipla league.

But if you leave off the “hugely” term, the first one likely has to be the Fiat 600 Multipla. From some points of view it could also be considered as the first proper MPV in the history, but vehicles like the Chevrolet Suburban (and a certain amount of other American-made truck-based wagons of sort) and the little-known but hugely predictive Renault Colorale, or the DKW Schnellaster, or the Lloyd LT bus, or the same VW Typ II could also brag some reasons to conquer the title of “First of the MPVs.” In sum, almost every car-making country can be the home of the granddaddy of the so-called “people-movers.” So, I leave this to discussion. What is sure is the fact that without the simple, car-derived Multipla, still looking like a proper car and not like a commercial van, especially when one looks at it from the rear, MPVs as we know today, could likely be something different yet.

Among American cars, of course, it is undeniable that the renowned Stout Scarab was among the first vehicles to bring all the looks later associated with a proper MPV. The same could be said about the Dymaxion by Buckminster Fuller, the Arrowhead Three-Wheeled Teardrop car (using a Ford Flathead), or the aluminum eggs produced by McQuay-Norris as a rolling research and publicity laboratory. Also Checker studied an MPV-type car, and, guess who, also the General had a close look at the subject. For a while, it looked like almost every rear-engined car had to offer an egg-shaped line, and often all the aforementioned efforts were merely this (faithful to some of its late Thirties, early Forties quirkiness, the Checker effort looked instead like a paper box).

Back in Europe, however, more than one interesting vehicle happened to look like the egg-like or pure teardrop shape so often linked with early spacewagons. Notice for example the Dubonnet Dolphin, a car devised by none other than the late André Dubonnet and bodied by Howard Dutch Darrin while working together with Hibbard, featuring the revered Ford Flathead and, quite obviously, especially taking a look at the rear axle, four-wheel independent suspension based on its creator’s trademarks. And tuned with that typical Gallic anticonformism, please do not forget the Claveau’s efforts (there was a thriving aerodynamic experimentation back then in France also: think about the studies made by Mauboussin, think about the relatively obscure Chenard Et Walcker Mistral, for example, or the Pug 402 Andreau, both with their vestigial or immense – depending upon which model one is looking at – dorsal fin). Also Soviets made some stints at this, what with the 1940 Rostoov prototype, the mid-Fifties Belka or a NAMI-badged car, the 013, designed by Yuri Dolmatovskij, studied and developed between 1949 and 1953.

It is also a matter of semantics, I prefer to use the term spacewagon instead of Multi-Purpose-Vehicle because otherwise, I feel that also the passenger car-based but very van-like Corvair 95 and first generation Ford Econoline could be put in the equation, to make things even more complicated. What’s even more interesting, even some aerodynamic (or blatantly aeronautics-inspired) prototypes or small-production cars seen during a wide range of decades could fit perfectly as “spacewagons” of sort: Think about the Alfa Romeo bodied by Castagna for the count Ricotti in 1914, the Rumpler Tropfenauto (or Tropfenwagen, but the second moniker is more closely related to a proper race car), the English 1930 Burney and some very peculiar Crossleys, under some circumstances also the fabulously weird Leyat Helica; and let’s not forget that impressive masterpiece of aerodynamics that it is the 1938 Mercedes 170H-based Schloer, with its incredible CD of 0.189; this car is an automotive milestone, a perfect example of the use of the “lune” or “semilune” shape in applications suitable for a vehicle. Tests made by the German A.V.A. in early 1939 shows not only the incredible CD measurement above mentioned, but also the car’s ability to reach a top speed of 91 MPH, while giving an effortless cruising speed of 70 MPH, both far above the standard car possibilities (and this with a penalty in weight of approximately 500 more pounds than the original Mercedes). The incredible car, surely one of the granddaddy of all those European MPVs (or spacewagon, you choose which term better fits), was bodied in Essen by the Ludwig Brothers. This was really a spectacular car, brought to the world by a genius. And speaking of geniuses, let’s not forget that effective proposal for a car made by the Architect himself, Le Corbusier, a car rather simple in its concept, and with many similarities with modern- world space wagons, at least considering its rationale behind the interior volumetric efficiency.

Last but not least, also our great prewar hero, Mario Revelli De Beaumont, studied as early as 1933 a project of a car with teardrop-shaped body, advanced seating compartment and rear engine; this is intriguing not only because shows how Italian designers also weren’t immune to similar forward-thinking concepts, and with the obvious result of a car with an unusual amount of roominess given the overall dimensions, but for a rather interesting peculiarity hosted in this proposed vehicle bumpers too: Revelli thought to insert the spare tyres as central elements of both the front and rear bumpers’ structure, so they could act like an energy-absorbing item in case of a collision. Sounds strangely familiar…

But why I find so exciting to spend a few words about these cars in this section, and not, for example, in a text where I also described Italian aerodynamics experiences? Simple, because I always felt that the first large-production car to bear a minimum of resemblance to the aforementioned German experimental car, and, for that matter, with many of the most intriguing details of many others here cited (and then, only a hint, let’s say that both had in common the teardrop shape brought to certain extremes) was the ’56 600 Multipla. Large-production when compared with a Stout Scarab, or a Rumpler, or a Burney, surely, but it was still somewhat too avant-garde to look like a viable blockbuster success like its standard 600 sedan stablemate. This because it was not only an example of a “teardrop” car, with a blunt, high front end and a rather more flowing rear end – let’s say that at the time it gave the public the impression of being a rather grown-up Iso Isetta, so also a moniker like “egg-shaped” car can be suitable – but it was likely the most iconic car back then among the ones that could prompt an onlooker to ask “Which Way Is It Going?” To an American motorist, surely the Multipla gave the same effect early ’47 Studebakers had on Bob Hope, saying that it was nice, but he couldn’t understand why it had three rear speeds and only one forward speed! The 600 Multipla brought this to the extreme. And it was also a rather interesting example of forward-seating car too!

In effect, if someone wanted to propose a futuristic car in the Fifties, without exaggerating with fins or chrome, he could always made a stint at positioning the driver and the front passenger as forward as possible.

As early as 1951, visionary designers started to conceive eminently experimental solutions, models or running prototypes featuring a very cab-forward design. Maybe the relatively upsetting revolution of the cab-over trucks cabin (already a common instance in Europe back then), and the already taken-for-granted torpedo-shape given to the vast majority of buses, found a fertile ground in some far-reaching minds, minds eager to combine also the latest automotive trends, with tails and trunks being well-separated and well visible elements: elements useful not only for luggage, but also to give a distinct personality to the whole. This – and the idea that the car of the future would have offered a rear-engine layout – combined to produce some of the most intriguing concepts ever, concepts also moved by atomic energy, in some cases.

Some of those experimental cars can easily be considered as the heirs of the plethora of early “MPVs” we’ve already looked at. Now, however, the joyous livability of a far larger interior, good enough to give loads of room and a living room-like comfort had received in some concepts equal dignity to the old streamline ideals that set the trail for many a prewar machine.

Let’s look for example at an incredible British concept, a turbine powered car shown during the ’51 Festival Of Britain Exhibition held in South Bank, and designed by Peter Ashmore, Hugo Poole and Edward Wilkes, with the Council Of Industrial Design’s help. This car had apparently quite a revolutionary package, not only because of its rear engined turbine, but also because of the unusual proportions, a thing not missed by most sensitive car journalists. With a wheelbase of 89.7 inches, an overall length of 177.1 (so the overhangs were prominent), front and rear treads of 53.9 inches and the unusually imposing width of 76.4 inches, the car had a relatively low height (62.6 inches) for such a concept. Its prominent rear ended with a pair of ’51 Frazeresque “fins,” and while the roof was remarkably airy, thanks to the wraparound rear windows (apparently a nod to the Loewy’s Studebakers, then de rigeur on ultra-advanced vehicles of sort), what set apart its look was not only the futuristic proportions, but also the V-shaped B-pillar, the main supporting element of the “glasshouse.” The steeply raked and widely curved “panoramic” windshield, together with curiously oblong-shaped headlamp housings (something later seen, for example, on Pininfarina Corvairs) procured a very sci-fi appearance. I think in my opinion that this ought to be the granddaddy of all those cab-forward cars that soon started to appear elsewhere (in the case of the English concept, it was truly some sort of cab-over concept, for the front passengers sat directly over the front axle. Thanks to the relatively short wheelbase, the turning radius was surprisingly modest, a thing interesting to notice because the wheels were entirely covered, as per late Forties –early Fifties well known fad, with the advantage of quite large doors, both front and rear).

This unibody concept anticipated many of the later trends to be soon seen on other concepts and production cars alike: just to name a few, the wide and commodious interior, with sofa-like rear accommodation for three passengers and buckets for two in the front, ample visibility in all directions, especially for the driver (which could also benefit from a car-like steering wheel position, something most space wagons of any era can’t guarantee in every possible condition), a good luggage compartment behind the rear seats, and a flat floor, permitting ample leg room (together with the ample roof, it gives an ample roominess for passengers’ heads too). In sum, the moniker of this concept (The Common Passenger Car For 1961) isn’t too far-fetched, for all the main ideals pursued through the MPV’s further development can be seen here. Obviously, the idea that the front passengers were too exposed to road perils, and the relatively awkward position of them, if compared with the rear ones, was one of the main reasons explaining why this apparently zany concoction didn’t endure more success among production vehicles. Or at least, why it remained confined to commercial vans mainly, with few connections with the passenger car world, at least until a certain Italian egg-shaped car was launched (and another one offered a similar package under a citycar-dimensioned package). No marvel if this British car needed to be cited, it also had a proposed turbine engine and flow-through ventilation system! The whole idea of a reverse-facing car couldn’t be avoided, but it was likely a desired effect, the most daring proposition the public could imagine at the time.

For what I can understand about this concept, it remained a pushmobile, just like the Ford Nucleon remained a scale model. But this gives the idea where Ford designers were going to look at, while devising one of the bravest cars, true or model-only, ever.

Back to Europe, there were a pair of Renaults ideally close (and also quite similar-looking too) to that daring ’51 British car; apparently, Renault was well positioned to explore a similar theme, because it used its self-developed former ideas concerning a big rear-engined car for them. The 900 concept (and its smaller scale 600 brother) looked like a proper hatchback, until one took a look at the steering wheel position. The whole look of these pair of Renaults, devised in a successive range of prototypes, was reminiscent of some clues later adopted by the far less radical Econoline and Corvair 95, (the 600 had a “split” grille approach similar to what Econoline would use later – the split grille theme incorporating the lights also was a rather novel idea at that time, as we’ve already seen – the 900 had dual headlights in a second-generation Corvair mode, and one of the 900 prototypes had rear taillights looking like they came directly out of the ’57 Mercury parts bin. Always interesting to notice that despite their own L’Universelle concept van displayed at the the Motoramas, GM men followed some ideas closer to the 600 Multipla and these Renault concepts while devising their own rear-engined van’s cab – obviously, without losing eye contact with the Bulli – instead of totally focusing on that extroverted front-wheel-drive concept van) but as a whole they gave the impression of being too forward…literally.

Interestingly, Ghia at the time worked together with Renault to devise some aspects of these concepts. It is useful to remember that the Renault Floride was born out of Ghia proposals, made after requests by Renault itself, and  initially devised by none other than Virgil Exner Jr., son of Ex, and then reworked under Pietro Frua. Soon a dispute about the project’s paternity between the two designers and Luigi Segre, Ghia’s boss, and then between the two Italians, prompted Frua to sell off his design to Ghia-Aigle, the offspring of the original Ghia and by then a competitor through and through, so the Renault Floride “debuted” unexpectedly and where French CEO Dreyfus couldn’t imagine. There was work for lawyers then, but this didn’t deter Renault from offering the Floride and Ghia to devise its own version of an extreme cab-forward, rear engined concept of a car: the spectacular Selene, in both I and II form; the Selene I, to the contrary of many extravagant concept of the time, was devised as a people carrier of sort (or as a sort of vehicle offering the maximization of interior space) and this did lead its development. As an added note, please consider that this is the first official work by Tom Tjaarda (made together with Sergio Sartorelli), and please note the interesting “similarity” between the rear bumper and rear taillights ensemble of the Selene II and the production ’64 Imperial…with no central fin, of course! On the other hand, the Selene II was interesting also because it explored the unknown parallel dimension of a sporty-looking cab forward MPV, something unheard of until a certain ill-fated early 21st century Renault. Maybe this idea is again too “avantime” for the mankind.

While this formula was simply the small-scale reduction of something already familiar to motorists, both in the United States and Europe alike, thanks to cab-over trucks and (above everything else) buses, the adoption by a car of something so advanced was still in its infancy. Sure, many of the aforementioned prototypes had it, but they remained quite that, proposals. And when the Multipla was already on the market, many a firm proposed remarkable and advanced prototypes: Think about the aforementioned Renaults.

Zundapp Janus, showing why it was so quirky-looking…

Fiat, or to be more precise, the Giacosa-Valletta duo, had the courage to show the whole world a new lesson in practicability applied to popular-priced cars, and in a concept not so radically different from its original parent than some of the cited prototypes. Maximum result with the minimum effort. It must be given credit also to other European firms for some quirky proposal where the maximum possible interior space was achieved despite minimal exterior dimensions: Take for example the Zundapp Janus (quirky is definitely the best adjective for that amusing little car), that masterpiece among truly minimal cars that it is the Iso Isetta (and the various license-built or slightly modified models based upon it, and for a while spread in almost the whole Europe), or BMW’s most refined Isetta derivative, the 600. But in all of these cases, the versatility and multi-purpose formula that could be achieved by any Multipla owner was never really fully exploited. Not at the level of the little Italian wagon, that is.

The front view of the BMW 600.

While the 600 Multipla’s looks alone didn’t convinced too many prospective buyers, its versatility was surely a winning proposition, because it provided , on smaller scale, a kind of volumetric efficiency and an ability to host passengers usually belonging to far larger cars or vehicles. This thanks also to the novel design as far as the driving seat was concerned, at least for a passenger car. Because it was born out of the imperative desire to provide the maximum possible interior space in the minimum exterior length (just what K.T. Keller was saying some years before), we have already seen that Dante Giacosa and his faithful pals in Fiat moved the front seats above the front axle, in a fashion en vogue among commercial vehicles only, back then (also the VW Typ 2 benefited from a similar formula), thus obtaining plenty of space between them and the “bucket” back seats for another supplemental pair of seats, so to offer a six passengers arrangement.

In effect, two versions were available: the four/five passenger, with two bench seats (the rear one had the folding back and cushion, so to offer easy access to a very wide luggage space, and both could be folded so to offer provision for bed-like arrangement, a fact close to the kind of experience Nash owners were used to), and the six passenger, with four single seats in the rear, also offering the reclining backs (for the center row) and with the possibility, for all of them), to be fully folded (without removing them from the car), to offer a totally flat floor. In sum, to remain faithful to its name, it offered multiple cargo and passengers’ transport possibilities. All this in a length of only 3.54 meters ( up from the 3.295 meters of the standard sedan model – data for D versions), maintaining the 2.00 meters wheelbase (respectively: 139.3 inches, 129.7 inches and 78.7 inches; the width was also larger in the Multipla, with 1.45 meters – 57 inches – versus 1.38 – 54.3 inches for the sedan. Another obvious difference was the height, logically the Multipla outclassed its standard brother: 1.58 meters – 62.2 inches – versus 1.405 – 55.3 inches); the main mechanical differences between the standard sedan and the Multipla were a more sophisticated cooling system, different gear ratios to cope with the larger weight, the obvious modifications to the steering system, and the adoption of a 1100/103-style front suspension assembly, resulting also in a 10 percent wider track, which helped in stability (although the general road behavior was close to the stock 600, satisfying until higher speeds). Speaking of speeds, early examples with the 633cc engine suffered somewhat, (no more than 56 MPH, and with some difficult, but that was the best the initial 22 ponies of the original engine could do; interesting to see that the factory VIN for the engines was 100.008 for the Multipla, 100.000 for the sedan), also because of the higher dry weight and the far higher gross weight attainable, the latter a good 30 percent higher than the normal 600.

Things improved a lot with the 767cc D model introduced in 1960, with its 29 horses, but generally speaking the Multipla always gives the impression that the supposedly heavy penalty its performances were subjected to was in reality more a thought matured out of a quick look at its strange, inoffensive nature rather than at sheer facts. In effect, while the Multipla was never a striking success in an emotive and car-hungry market like late Fifties and Sixties Italy, where cars had to look like “proper” cars and had to offer vibrant emotions (not only vibrations, and because of their driving position, Multipla owners “enjoyed” a fair amount of them), it soon gained a following among the orphans of the 500 Belvedere, (the wagon model of the Mickey Mouse, often used well beyond its logical possibilities), namely artisans, shop owners, merchants, large families still abundant in Italy, and practically everybody needing a car even more versatile than, say, a 1100/103 wagon (which was also a pretty practical car in itself); the Multipla also set the stage to become sort of quintessential car for all those communities in need of maximum passengers and maximum loading and volume possibilities, including the religious orders: It became the quintessential “nuns van” for a generation of Italians, before being superseded by its direct heir, the much boxier 600 T, soon to become the 850 T ( a vehicle with many interesting design similarities with those new American models coming out of Chevrolet and Ford factories, namely the Corvair 95 and the Econoline), and, before its role was usurped by more modern “fleet” cars in the Sixties, it was also the quintessential Italian taxi, in its often-seen black and green livery, providing much needed clearance and unbeatable passenger-loading convenience for a plethora of cabbies earning their wages through narrow and overtaxed, busy and already congested main Italian downtown city streets.

So it is no marvel if I spent quite a few words remembering this Fiat and its role, for it was really the car that could do all the things those oh-so-Eighties MPVs (or spacewagons) did when they debuted, and one of the reasons (if not the main one), behind their instant success. So, when Lee Iacocca gave light green to the K-car based Mopar minivans, there were already some examples to follow, and a lesson to remember: Don’t imitate the puny-looking 600 Multipla from a sheer style perspective. If a so-called modern spacewagon had to be successful, it also had to avoid looking like a commercial device, or worse still, like a car unsuited for most of the public’s taste; this alone worked against the original 600 Multipla (and interestingly, Fiat “enjoyed” a similar fate with the otherwise laudable 1999 Multipla, a car with too many idiosyncrasies on its body to fully show its undeniable underskin effectiveness). While the formula behind the Mopar Minivans was quite simple – offering all the qualities of a full size truck-based van on a more compact, and thus better suited for the day, platform, based on what precious little was then available for Chrysler – the results speak for themselves, for rarely such a balance of lines could be found on so boxy and tall a vehicle. In effect, it was sort of contra-revolutionary thing: After decades of lower-longer-wider cars (and light trucks), it was one of the first time that a decidedly different-proportioned vehicle ended up looking so pleasant and so viable for the median consumer. Even in those Downsizing Era years, the mantra of the so coveted Longer-Lower-Wider wasn’t entirely forgotten: Witness to this the upcoming second generation of GM’s downsized full sizes, or all those spectacular Aero-Look Fords. Chrysler did a laudable effort in producing something akin to that era’s tastes, all this while offering a very large interior volume and versatility unheard of for those not used to full-sized vans. In all of this, which can sound like an all-American story, there are at least a pair of Italian vehicles that could have some sort of effect across the Atlantic (just like, across the Pacific, all those Japanese efforts, and the very similarly proportioned Mitsubishi SSW prototype, might have had a similar role, at least to afford Chrysler designers to better focus their target).

The most remote origins of the gene lie in the Iacocca’s stints at Ford, where designers, among them Dick Nesbitt, were busy at developing a “garageable” van, a type of car offering all the advantages of a full-size van without the fuss of a too-high vehicle – hence the nickname of this type of proposal. It is interesting to say at this point that despite its laudable features, the first gen Econoline was higher than the Corvair 95, so some carports couldn’t host it below themselves! The idea of a “garageable” van likely had its first roots here. The result was the Nesbitt-designed ’72 Ford Carousel, and it was likely the closest thing to a production American minivan 10 years before the Mopars. However, the proposal chosen by both Iacocca and Hal Sperlich came to nil, a consequence of the Gas Crunch, and not until the two were united again, this time at Chrysler, the idea started rolling again. Meanwhile, Mopar designers had already developed some studies of this kind in the Seventies, and once the two ex-Ford men saw these inside-Chrysler ideas, they offered all what they had learned about the subject during their Ford tenure, so it was only a matter of time before seeing such a promising vehicle launched. However, it is intriguing that Mopar chose a rather car-derived approach, and Ford and GM offered their own minivans propositions basing them on truck-related underpinnings. This was likely done out of necessity for Highland Park, but in doing so they followed the path already explored by Japaneses and Europeans.

Europe, in effect, can be considered as a real hotbed for minivans, spacewagons and the like. Not only the granddaddy of them all, the 600 Multipla, not only the granddaddy of the truck-cum-passenger car vehicle, the VW Typ 2, not only a whole plethora of prototypes, zany ideas, pragmatic concepts and small-series tentative efforts were there to be appreciated and driven, there were also grand-looking proposals, with a lot of ideas coming out of formal architecture. Take for example the extremely interesting Italian-German Autonova FAM, an NSU-engined car styled by Pio Manzu’ (the creator of the 127) and Michael Conrad (their other partner in Autonova was Fritz Busch) with lots of ideas related to the versatility and the volumetric exploiting of the interior that started where the Fiat 600 Multipla ended.

The BMW Isetta, direct heir of the original Italian Iso model, showing its extroverted egg-shaped design

This Autonova FAM is literally a revelation every time someone takes a look at its surprisingly small dimensions, and at its incredible roominess. But this was the era when Rationalism was on the verge in the automotive world, after years of wretched excesses, so it was somewhat obvious that sooner or later something like that surfaced.  Always in Italy, and always in the Sixties, a mention is needed for the Fiat City Taxi, a similar car always created by Pio Manzu’, and with similar targets to explore. As the name implies, this was a concept of compact taxi for the overcrowded Western cities (although something quite akin was conceived, and for the same purpose, also in Japan: Consider the Daihatsu BCX-III, and the following Toyota MP-I).

Both the Autonova Fam and the Fiat City Taxi predate some style solutions later adopted by the same Manzu’ on his masterpiece, the 127, but what set the two prototypes apart was, once again, the ratio between height and length, with an almost exasperated glass surface (so typical of some Italian creations of the time, and not only those with practicality in mind); but as we enter the Seventies, there was an even more fertile ground for some off-sided ideas to come to light, so it is no surprise to see that Italian Architect Mario Bellini devised an incredible-looking concept of a vehicle, all practical purposes and nonconformism, just what he liked to do with other projects of his own: It is the Kar-A-Sutra, something more known to architectural students rather than to car fanatics, also because it was devised with the help of Cassina, a renowned Italian furniture firm (not for nothing it was shown in a 1972 event named Italy: The New Domestic Lansdscape, hosted at the MoMa in New York) and it can easily be described as the offspring of a Citroen Mehari, a Citroen HY and some sort of metal bin – but its interior was an enviable world of roominess and (hoped for) comfort. It looked like some sort of Citroen because it was based on the SM underpinnings, and the radical vehicle was studied to offer the advantages of a flat floor, combined with the extreme modularity of the interior, including the possibility to change the vehicle’s height, what with its expandable roof. There was also a distinct easiness of entry and exit, courtesy of the extreme ways the doors could be opened, and the transparent surfaces’ great mobility. The basic lines afforded an enormous glass surface, even on the roof, and the global feeling was more akin to one of those Southern California Case Study Houses than anything else.

In fact, Bellini himself was a Rationalism movement enthusiast adept, but as said, with a penchant for its more extroverted side, where the form followed the function but with no locked gates for further “unexpected” shapes to come in handy as the project was under development, and everything in that “car,” from the peculiar surface treatment to the structural solutions adopted, all the way through the proportions, with a front end intended as the linear continuation of the windshield (and vice-versa) made an onlooker thinking it is more a sort of loft on wheels (or a kiosk with armchairs and a steering wheel) than a proper MPV or whatever kind of family car could it be. After all, it couldn’t be anything but, with its interior “furniture” made up of  a plethora of cloth green cushions, good to assemble every conceivable seating and laying down position, even ahead of the dash, directly under the windshield.

While it was a deliberately “provocative” vehicle, it was another one of those Idea cars that helped to set the pace for future, far less radical, but equally lively, multi-purpose (and multi-interior-configuration) cars. Bellini wasn’t alone in Italy back then, and if the untimely death of Pio Manzu’ left Italy without a pure design genius, another gifted stylist explored similar concepts to the one by the great sculptor Giacomo Manzu’ son: in this case, no other than Giugiaro, an artist always ready to set his mind on the more intriguing elements of certain periods, as far as the design is concerned.

Our hero was already involved in his fortunate ItalDesign venture when he designed the best known proposal for a captivating yet utterly practical two box sedan with a rear hatch (the Golf, a.k.a. Rabbit, after a fortunate approach to the fastback compact formula was achieved with the Alfasud), and even more would follow in the decades to come (think about the early Fiat Panda, the Uno, the Lancia Delta and so on). In between, however, let’s not forget the Lancia Megagamma, one of the first proper luxury space wagon concepts, where the purpose for the greatest modularity and flexibility was packaged in a comfortable and well-refined world of luxury inspiration not yet linked even in many MPV concepts of the day, let alone a production model. Sure, if someone wants to point out that there already were back then vehicles with tons of volumes and interiors suited for the Plaza or the Hilton, he (or she) could always reminds the custom vans craze in full swing in America at the time; however, Giugiaro chose to focus also on the purely car-based fascination for an object immediately identifiable as a car, a car with uncommon proportions but able to still ooze some sort of prestige and dignity not found in any of the commercial-vehicle vans or any of the early MPVs.

Because they were full size, the aforementioned American vans so commonly customized could be used as a reference for the kind of livability and luxury desired, but in no way they could compare with a front-wheel drive luxury car package like the one found on that Lancia (as the name implies, it was based on the then Lancia flagship, the Gamma). This alone made the car-based, and car-rationalized Megagamma a novel proposition. In effect, if viewed in profile, the Megagamma looks like a five-door city car grown up to van dimensions, and if the first look leaves some disconcert even today, one can only guess the reactions back then. Especially because one of the most aesthetically successful Italian city cars of the era was the Innocenti Nuova Mini, a Bertone-Michelotti design envisioned by the then most important Bertone stylist, Marcello Gandini. No way the Nuova Mini, or the Megagamma, could resemble a Countach, but at least all of them follows the same wedge-profile and angular and blocky school of design. Sort of, that is. Nice to remember that some Megagamma ideas explored in its interior anticipated those used on the later Panda and Uno. Giugiaro was busy at developing new and conceptually advanced interiors in those years, please not forget the Maserati-based Medici sedan, with its remarkable four rear seats solution.

So, by the time the K-car based Voyagers and Caravans received the OK for their further development, there was already a full fleet of vehicles, ideas, proposals, good enough to be taken in count. Even in a country not always so enamored of the practical aspects of a given car, like Italy, there was a thriving scene offering such avant-garde cars(at least for the common thinking), even more so considering how conservative and unexciting most of the mainstream Italian cars of the early Seventies were, namely Fiats like the 128, the 124, the 125 (and also their heir, the 131/Brava), the 500, the 126, the 130: what can be considered the most forward-thinking of the lot, the 127, would be a runaway success but had to cope with an initial conservative folks’ reticence to buy it. Not for nothing, the 127 can be considered, being a creation of Pio Manzu’, an ideal low-priced proposal for a practical, roomy, highly livable concept of a modern car with very compact exterior and drivetrain dimensions, and a very high level of roominess. All things considered extremely important on the Mopar minivans, and also in a whole multitude of modern cars, vehicles, concepts and the like. But it is always surprising, for those accustomed to some immortal design examples of Alfas, Lancias, Ferraris, Maseratis, Lambos et similaria, that there was a certain practical penchant toward more rational cars even in the most renowned Italian designers. In effect, one can also argue that a whole era of Italian cars had more to do with some architectural movement than everything else. Strange to say, they are the aforementioned “conservative” Fiats of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and, even more strange, their robust market achievements were due not only to their inner qualities (sounds strange, for some of them were dubbed as pure rustbuckets, but the pure truth is that they were plenty good enough for their home market, and after all, they were built during the so called Malaise Era, an era when also certain Volvos had the dubious reputation of hosting undesired rust). But I think this deserves a whole chapter of its own. Enter the Bauhaus Fiats.

P.S. The Renault Espace itself could’ve ended to be a Chrysler! In fact, it descended from a study developed by Chrysler UK (the ex Rootes Group), and intended to be produced in partnership with Matra, then linked with Simca (among the creations made thanks to this partnership, the three-front seating mid-engined Bagheera has to cited); as the project went on, so the financial troubles of Chrysler, that in 1978 sold off its European branches to PSA. The Espace at this point was intended to be a Talbot (the resurrected name for most of the ex-Simca and Rootes models), but PSA execs found the project too much for their tastes. Matra then remained the sole party still involved in the project, and asked Renault for a possible interest. Renault gave the green light at the car, and the rest is history. It is a bit ironic that the car that represents the quintessential American family vehicle of the Eighties looked like some sort of European car, while the quintessential extroverted French car of the Eighties was started to look like a typically American-looking car, with a profile and a front end so close to what a GMC Motorhome in smaller format could have been. History sometimes follows very unexpected paces.

K.T. Keller Was Right!

If we would compare the automotive world with the best known artistic ages, we would find some interesting analogies between these two creations of mankind. Maybe it could appear slightly exaggerated, yet I found interesting similarities between them, and at least for some of the most important decades in the automobile movement’s existence. For example, the so called Vintage, Veteran and Classic eras cars can be easily compared with the most antique artistic concepts, especially the ones offered by the Greek and by the Romans. After all, wasn’t the trademark Rolls Royce grille always considered as a stylized view of those quintessential Greek monuments, the temples?

The analogy continues, with the first cars of the Thirties bearing median lines between the old school of straight lines and the new, aerodynamic-lead consciousness. So I think they can be considered as the equivalent for the automotive world, of those Byzantine and Romanesque form of arts. The late Thirties cars must be compared with Gothic arts (after all, how otherwise we could name those Flamboyant French automobiles, looking more like self-propelled statues than passenger-carrying vehicles?). The Forties and a good part of the Fifties automobiles can surely be likened to the Renaissance movement of the 15th and 16th centuries. After that, of course, enter the Baroque, and the chrome-fins-colors glory of the Detroit cars (and a good number of European ones also) is totally akin to many monuments a tourist can find while visiting Rome, a vocal triumph of decoration, phantasmagorical fantasies and – sometimes – almost paroxystic exaggerations; following periods offered more calm and quiet approaches to both the world of arts and automobiles, with the last exaggerations built in the rococo style (perfectly suited to describe a ’59 Dodge, for example) and the first freshening example of a comeback to more subtly, more suave and less contrived contributions. That’s the Neoclassical era, with both the Arc De Triomphe, the Caserta Reggia, Antonio Canova’s art, the global look of the City of Washington being counterparts to such joyous cars like the Buick Riviera, the Oldsmobile Toronado, the ’64 Chevy Impala and the ’68 Dodge Charger, the early ‘Stang and a whole generation of European cars, including such remarkable pieces like the Jag XKE, the Ferrari 250 GTO, LM, Daytona and so on, the Miura, the Bracque-designed Mercedes, and practically everything our memory could name.

However, the Neoclassical movement soon began to try a very triumphalist approach, with new kind of exaggerations, in the proportions especially. It is not difficult to see a certain similarity between some imposing and monumental buildings, whether they remained on paper (like Hitler’s dreams about the new look of Berlin, if he would have won WWII) or they were effectively made, like some truly imposing palaces built in Europe or, coming back again in America, some of those tall ones called skyscrapers, and some too wide-too long-too low and too much heavy late Sixties and early Seventies Detroit cars. The paragon with the skyscrapers is not too far-fetched: massive bulk, a certain use of exaggerated proportions, relatively simple needs for the decoration, (but it was always well visible, and in some times it also had a thunderous comeback as something clearly unnecessary and tacked-on).

In sum, there are many analogies with some Seventies cars, just think about the heroically heavy-looking Fuselage Mopars or those GM full size cars seemingly ready to drag with their central portion, or some examples of Coke-Bottle shaped made almost ridiculous, to the point of appearing caricature of themselves. Then, both these tendencies soon gave way to something more subtle, more humble, less prone to self-complacency, and decidedly more practical: the Rationalism and the Modernism.

As simple as it gets, the 128 four door is even more convincing than its two door sibling

So a downsized Impala can be considered as something created by Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig  Mies van der Rohe or Richard Neutra, or by Le Corbusier, or – staying in Italy – Gio Ponti. Maybe I’ve exaggerated a bit, but this is only my modest opinion, obviously. But as we’ve already seen in the previous chapter, this Rationalism movement had very deep roots in Italy, and it found a fertile soil where it could develop. No wonder if a whole lot of of automobile’s most daring concepts were conceived back then by Italian visionary architects and artists. There was a whole philosophic school behind some industrial designs’ approaches and concepts, like many other countries, that is, but it is always strange to find them so well radicated among a plethora of racing and sports cars.

Maybe it is not so strange once the typical petrolhead remembers cars like the Ferrari Modulo, the first Stratos, or the Maserati Boomerang. In effect, I think that maybe the most convincing example of what an ideal car conceived following the Rationalism had to look like, could be found in Fiat dealers in those very same years. Once said this, why one should bother about this, especially because it apparently didn’t have direct connections with the American auto industry? Wait, because this is only a starting point for my ideas, and it is only an approach to a story with some reciprocal similarities between certain Italian cars and certain later American cars. What’s more, in concept mainly. No direct styling revolutions induced after a given detail was firstly offered by an Italian car. But sometimes it is more important the starting point of a certain idea rather than everything else. This idea, to be entirely honest, was already well visible once the Fiats I want to talk about debuted. A quick look at some Michelotti’s designs of the same era (Daf, Triumph 1300, Ford Anglia Torino, Alfa Romeo OSI 2600 De Luxe, for example), an in-depth study of the often mentioned Revelli De Beaumont’s Simca 1000, certain British and French cars like the Hillman Imp or the same Renault 16, also the Datsun Sunny; and all this without forgetting the role of the Pininfarina-designed BMCs.

In sum, all of this demonstrates that the Rationalism Era in the automotive world wasn’t exclusive to Fiat, it was an existing realty and also many Italian designers were aware of this, and they exploited this. But when one of the biggest European car makers adopts it on a good percentage of its production, and not only on one or two cars, thus creating a whole dynasty of similarly designed cars, it is undeniable it deserves a certain amount of credits for having been able to set a trend, although it wasn’t the first one or the only one to use it.

The super-clean, super-simple lines of a 124 Special T showing how the Italian car influenced later designs as far as roominess and simplicity of lines are concerned.

I needed this approach because in my opinion, what set the pace for a reinvigorated era of simplicity and subtlety in the car design was maybe a group of sedans offered by Fiat starting with the 124/125 duo in 1966/67, and continuing with the ’69 128 and with the ’71 127. Their lines were so simple they became the quintessential example of how a car with very simple and basic lines should look like. The 124, even in wagon and coupé format, and, even more, the 128, give always the impression of a car where the form follows the function, with no frills, very few concessions to the emotive side of the automobile experience, and a lot of emphasis on the livability and the general practicality of the vehicle. Their very favorable internal measurements, (when compared with the overall external dimensions), the very high percentage of glass surfaces, the high roof lines, the wide, long and tall cabin (especially when likened to the relatively narrow and short front and rear end) and the supremely boxy and flat sheet metal surfaces are all suggestions that these cars conceded very little to the adventure and to the unexplored. They can be considered as the epitome of the conservative automobile, a follower rather than a trend setter. This can be explained even better because, even in America, there were examples of so simple and uncluttered, so slab-sided and “bland”- looking cars. I have already mentioned how neat the initial Lark’s successors were in the Randy Faurot’s early Sixties proposals, before the intervention of Brooks Stevens. The various aforementioned Fiats look like sort of refined models of those prototypes; and let’s not forget that elsewhere in Europe, some similarly “simple” approach was undertaken by BMC too, for its 1800, despite the design help from Pininfarina. But in my opinion, those Fiats took the concept a step further, and apparently, they were so basic nobody could find something attractive about them, not at least to be seen as a viable starting point to elaborate new proposals. As we will see, they instead became some sort of example to be followed, all this despite those times had far different fads than the ones initially brought to attention by those Fiats.

Although it can look bland, without the simple and fresh line of such a car I doubt some ’77 doiwnsized GM would work in such an effective manner as they did.

Yet, as the time went by, it became also clear that in the following years, years of redundant and excessive cars of exaggerated dimensions, especially when compared with the external measurements and overall weight, the examples offered by these Fiats had to be taken in mind while studying and designing new form of cars, cars suited for the Seventies gas Crunch and the challenging times to follow. So, thin door panels, higher roofs, wider cabins, lots of more glass (although not in the still crude mode of flat pans like the 124-125-128 and 127), shorter overhangs, less radically raked windshields and, more importantly, less radically creased and rounded side panels, – at a certain point they had became so radical that they robbed internal roominess and contributed to speed up the side metal sufferings from gravel, salt and what else – became once again the thing to be used by Detroit. In other words, the good old ideas of Kaufman Thuma Keller became once again up-to-date, after years of excess (ironic that the late Sixties and early-to-mid Seventies excesses were born out of an answer to the refuse by the public to continually accept so outlandish cars like the finned and chromed marvels that circa 1958, infested the American turnpikes. As the years went by, even their heirs became more bloated than expected, and with the imaginable results, what with the so called Malaise Era autos). The various Fiat 124s, 125s, 128s, and 127s can be seen as good ancestors of this new trend; maybe it is an exaggeration to think they “influenced” in depth the new Downsized Era cars, but sure, if someone wants to see a quick example of cars built following first and foremost the “larger in the inside, smaller on the outside” motto, few cars were more suited for this, both from a design point of view and from an effective cost reduction target. This latter fact explains why the otherwise remarkable BMC efforts of the Sixties, mainly focused on the Mini and the various cars inspired to it, couldn’t be entirely put into the perspective of being outright models to follow, what with their costly mechanicals. On the other hand, while I cannot obviously consider the Fiats as the inspirational force behind the revolution happening in mid-Seventies Detroit, surely they were among the cars that more closely resembled what Detroit stylists and engineers had now to pursue, also considering that apparently, the Gas Crunch and the various Federal rules on pollution and safety only accelerated the whole revolution, for the idea of having exaggerated a bit in weight and dimension had already taken foot in certain Detroiters’ minds (and many an American driver too).

With the debut of the Downsized Era cars, this became very obvious. A quick comparison between a ’76 Caprice and its ’77 heir put this immediately in evidence. Clearly, in doing so, what was after all an interesting experiment became also a new trend, for the new downsized cars sold very well since their fall ’76 debut. Sadly, GM went too much forward in this radical changeover, and by the mid-Eighties a whole lot of its cars suffered from anonymous lines, contrived styling and excessively reduced dimensions. But at least in the beginning the idea worked, and it was a refreshing “novelty.” Novelty, that is, for those not accustomed to the Italian cars. Or, for that matter, to a whole bunch of similarly studied cars coming from across the whole world: take for example the Renault 16, the Simca 1100, the Austin Maxi, the new generation VWs of the Seventies (the Giugiaro-penned Golf is surely the most iconic of them all, also because VW execs used the Fiat 128 as the starting point for the fundamental dimensions and mechanical features of their soon immortal best seller), the new Audis of the Seventies, and, most important maybe, because it was a car coming directly from the GM, the ’72 Opel Rekord ; take also as an example the Renault 20 and 30, the Simca 1307, the VW Passat, or many a Japanese car (including the Honda Civic). They are all fine examples of the new trend toward a maximization of the role of the interior space, with the minimum of overhangs, the most basic metal surfaces, and clean and unassumingly simple roof and ends traits. In general, more a work of chiseling rather than of a trowel.

The two door 128, seen here in Rally form, was even more basic than the four door stablemate.

American firms could also count on some European examples of their own, for the already cited Opel Rekord, and the Ford Cortina MKII, the Rootes Group Arrow Series and the Vauxhall Vivas had many stylistic similarities with the later Downsize Era cars. Clearly, these cars were already old fare when time to develop the new wave second generation Detroit cars arrived. But their clean and simple lines, although not so radically proportioned like the Italian cars, what with steeply raked windows and pointed front fenders, or some more dynamic stance, surely did stimulate some thoughts about the trail to follow. In my opinion, however, these were all cars more linked with the automotive ideals than to the architectural ones that come easily to mind while taking a look at that whole Fiat range.

In effect, once a pundit put into the equation also those non-Fiat cars, it became even more understandable what American studios did, once the need for new and more compact cars emerged. It is not an error, for me at least, thinking that the Detroit cars of the downsized era owed much to both these European school of design. The more shapely German and British cars, melded with the pursuit for higher roominess and livability offered by the Italian approach. However, as we’ve seen, there was plenty enough into those Italian packages to make even American designers, stylists and engineers alike, to take notes and ideas out of them. As a starting point for a new work, they would work like every other European car of the time, likely; but because they had an even more radical approach than one could imagine, as far as practicality and roominess are concerned, I don’t think they could be ignored either. And surely, as time went by, they looked more comparable to the American cars in the late Seventies than they were 10 years earlier, at least without taking the improved technology into the scene. As we will see, some of the reasons behind the look of those Fiats was also behind some post-1977 Detroit cars: escalating production costs is an anticipation of them.

There were few opera windows or hood ornaments on European cars of the day (although there was a huge quantity of them striped and in decals, as their counterparts in the United States), and as a whole, once the need for more economical cars arrived, the European cars were much more fit for the role than anything from Detroit. It is also interesting to notice that some American cars endured a good and long lasting success thanks to the no-frills approach and thanks to the favorable ratio between external and internal dimensions: Think about the ’67-onward Dart/Valiant duo, of the ’70 AMC Hornet, the latter one of the best looking American sedan of all time, and the former the real money makers for Highland Park. It is no surprise that the Hornet platform, thanks to the Eagle, lasted until the demise of AMC-badged products in 1987, and that the Dart/Valiant heirs, the Aspen/Volaré, once their serious early bugs were taken out of the equation, were considered good enough to last until 1989 in the little disguised Diplomat/Gran Fury/Fifth Avenue format (an almost incredible case of car born as a compact, and which ended its career as a near luxury full size…how times had changed!). And in an era of wild Coke Bottle shapes, Fuselages, creases and what else, some other American vehicles started their virtual reign on a given market segment thanks to the relatively simple and boxy shapes adopted, almost in contrast with the then current ideals. A reference to the ’67 Ford F-Series is mandatory, for they changed little of their basic ’67 formula once the Seventies came, especially because they continued to offer boxy and angular lines that evidently were the most appreciated ones, and by the dawn of Eighties they were No. 1 in sales – while competitors followed Ford’s suit in design.

Especially from this angle, the staggered rear wheels typical of many a Sixties and Seventies Fiat appear clear

But it is clear that the “commonplace” Fiats, born in an era when Fiat could afford also to build “bland” cars because it literally owned car market in Italy, quickly offered very good examples why they cannot absolutely be considered as the quintessential banal or boring car: They offered roominess, in an era when Italian people were literally growing up; they offered up-to-date mechanicals, something many a foreign competitor could absolutely no brag about; they offered easiness of ownership, because their faults, in Italy, were entirely within the average of troubles endured by the common driver; they looked easy on the eyes, with no immediate risk to become démodé after only a few years (something not possible to say about many late Fifties-early Sixties European cars, not to mention the American ones). So they satisfied the would-be owners seeking a practical vehicle, not for a ego-gratifying automobile.

What’s more, and probably the single most important reason for Fiat in continuing such a design approach, they were easy to build, with their relatively simple and unsophisticated lines necessitating less metal, less difficult to handle stampings, less moldings, thus resulting both more economical and quicker to be assembled. With the rampant labor costs endured by almost all the entire automotive industry all the world around, this was a reason enough to justify their looks, even more so when Fiat discovered it could still have enough money to put nice engineering items beneath their sober lines.

A splendid early Fiat 127, in one of the brightest colours then available.

Think about the front wheel drive 128 and 127, the disk brakes, the sophisticated twin cam engines of the 125 and of some 124s; no doubt, without the mass-economies guaranteed by all those stylistic simplifications, Fiat wouldn’t be able to offer those engineering achievements to so many drivers without risking to lose masses of money, like for example what BMC was risking in UK with the ADO16 and the Minis, or the problematic Landcrabs and Maxi. When work to develop the Rabbit/Golf began, Wolfsburg engineers took a very close look at the inner secrets of the Fiat 128, a car they considered the most sensible package among a plethora of late Sixties-early Seventies compact cars, mainly because it was making nice profits for the Turinese make despite its advanced engineering, a thing somewhat more difficult to say about the equally sophisticated Austin but not as cost-effective as the Italian efforts.

The second original European Supermini, the 127, showing its basic yet effective lines.

Then, in the Seventies, the formula happened to be quite right, and the example set by Fiat was quickly followed by practically everybody else. The cars of the Malaise era can look whatever you think, but I also believe that without those almost timid Fiat cars, a quick resurgence of the entire car-building concept – in an era when many thought the automobile as a whole had to be forbidden, quickly and forever – would be not possible at all. What’s more, is it any coincidence that Soviet and Polish authorities gave green light to the cooperation between Fiat and their own automotive industry, to offer also to Eastern Bloc citizens the joy of automobile ownership, after Fiat had completed its work on the upcoming 124s and 125s? Only political pressures, or only a matter of having beaten Renault a bit before end of time? I don’t think so, I think, in my modest opinion, that once taken a close look at those two cars, both Soviets and Polish concluded they were the right cars for them, so much so in fact that both the Ladas and the Pollys outlasted by a long shot the Fiat originals. Even considering how many modifications were undertaken in order to make those cars even more suitable for the dramatic road conditions of Siberia and Eastern Europe, if the basic design wouldn’t be sound enough Russians and Polish head honchos would’ve looked elsewhere.

Before ending this chapter, a question about the basic design ideas put into these projects by Fiat rises: Was it all Fiat’s own thinking, or did its designers used ideas coming from elsewhere? Apart the well known example of the cute lil 127 – a masterwork penned by Pio Manzu’, son of the renowned Italian sculptor Giacomo, who sadly perished in a road accident the very day he had to show his 127 model before Fiat bosses for the definitive “ok” to his line – the right answer could be that “yes,” for they used also hints from the outside, but not totally out of the most obvious ones, the American designers. Many hints came also from within Italy, after some stints from a certain designer and a certain coachbuilder, working for a very architectural-induced way to design automobiles, thinking about them as proper industrial objects, with a nod to the “form must follow function” mantra, and this as an answer to the seasons of excess of just a few years, if not months, before.

A nice example of a 124 wagon, looking even better than its sedan brethren.

Of course, the 128 could also be considered as a sort of Italian answer to the Peugeot 204, and its basic proportions undoubtedly are similar, but it was decidedly a different proposition once the body was checked, panel by panel, shape by shape. Where the French car had a rounded and pleasant look, up-to-date for a mid-Sixties car, the Italian one (and maybe the 128 made this clearer than any of other aforementioned Fiats) used very square lines, something not exactly immediately linked with the typical late Sixties design movement. While a certain heritage with the 124/125 can be traced, while the reasons to limit costs and to respect all the already cited reasons to make the car to look as basic as possible can have a good deal of reasons as to why the 128 looked like it looks, while the fact that this was yet another car studied first of everybody else by Dante Giacosa, known to deliberately avoid daring stylistic solutions if possible, there is also to remember a purely conceptual exercise done by certain Italian firms and designer some years before, totally inspired to typical Industrial designs canons, and not to the typical (at least, for an Italian car of that era) automotive rationale.

In fact, during the early Sixties, a certain Italian designer named Rodolfo Bonetto proposed a series of barge-like, heavily flat-sided cars that were the literal epitome of the square cut design, bringing to the extreme some obvious American ideas. He did this precisely when more voluptuously shaped cars began to be designed by Italian stylists, and with no more concessions to the dominating American tastes. Bonetto used his very Rationalism-inspired approach (something more akin to the architecture ideals than to automotive use) to pen a series of cars utterly similar and far advanced for the times: often they were pure and simple concept, done with the desire to look for a simplified way to build a car outline shape. As an example, the Fiat 1500 bodied by Viotti, with so flat surfaces they surely predate many a later cars. What set it apart was the enormously cheaper approach for the creations of entire portions of the body, like the entire front end where three very basic dies were enough to build it (one for each of the fenders, and one for the hood – a neat simplification, considering the era, circa 1962). Also the grille/dual headlights ensemble was ahead of its time, looking like something that would be adopted later in the decade for other types of cars (the Sumbeam Rapier version of the Arrow family of cars introduced by the Rootes Group).

From some points of view, the ’72 Alfetta can be seen as an ideal ancestor of some ’77 Caprice ideas.

But the most prolific firm in this specific sector, the so called knife-edged lines cars, always specifically intended as a sort of manifesto for an ideal of cars quite different from the wretched excesses of those years, was Boneschi. Often working together with Bonetto, soon to become one of the most renowned industrial Italian stylists, and a very eclectic man, the Milanese firm began to propose some groundbreaking cars, totally unlike the curvaceous or shapely cars already seen as the quintessential Italian Style examples. The first of the breed was another Fiat 1500 (but a 1500 in name only, for it was built using the renowned spider mechanicals, instead those of the yet-in-the future 1961 sedan). Another notable car looking like a very slab-sided brick, with a purest side shape interrupted by wheels only, and therefore a most unusual Italian car, built for the same research and experimental sake, was the Lancia Flaminia Amalfi by Boneschi. Boneschi also proposed a very famous Alfa 2600 prototype, the so called Studionove, that for an unsuspected onlooker could seem almost like a ’63 Impala devoid of any kind of decoration and after a chopping operation by a custom-crazed owner.

Other cars built in the same manner included a nice Osca 1600 GT, a rather interesting Fiat 2100 sedan/coupé  (even more interesting because its rear roof pillar undoubtedly reminds those seen on later Lancia Fulvia sedan and ’64 Studebakers), the Maserati 3500 GT Tight (this one and the Studionove concept are quite close, also thanks to the rather pronounced dihedral side line that literally divided in two solids the under belt-line body, and thanks to the fact they were proposed in both coupé and convertible models; what’s even more intriguing is the fact that in my opinion, from some angles this Maser remembers the Seventies Lancia Beta HE and Zagato Spider), another pair of interesting Fiats, based on 2300 drivetrains (a coupé and a convertible, the former named Gazzella –gazelle in Italian), and last, the 1964 Fiat 850 Daino (Fallow Deer).

Even in its most practical variant, the 3 door wagon, early 128 doesn’t lack a certain amount of charisma.

However, the most intriguing aspect regarding these unconventional-looking Italian cars was the unexpected interest shown by Ford execs, as to the point to order a pair of Fairlane prototypes done using these ideas. They are undoubtedly very much in tune with the new early Sixties ideas then used on American cars, but the general ratio between solid metal and glass was a portent of things to come among Italian cars of some years later. Yes, in effect the whole ideas found on these Boneschi concepts are clearly those closest to the ideals put in production by Fiat with the 124/125, the 128 and the 127. Also the 130 had, to some extent, a similar approach, but it is also undeniable that the Turinese flagship owed something to some Ramblers too (and this despite the obvious first idea that the 130 was merely a grown-up 125). In effect, if there are American cars conceptually similar to the aforementioned series of Italian standard and prototype cars, the mid-Sixties AMC vehicles and the ’64 Studes certainly deserve further consideration, for some cost-cutting measures taken for the Ramblers appear close to the ideals of the Rationalism-inspired Boneschi cars. Later Fiats would confirm this. After all, some of Dick Teague’s prototypes in the mid-to-late Sixties also explored novel ways to make a car as economical to build as possible, at least when considering its body alone. This was behind also some of those well-known Sibona e Basano-built, Brooks Stevens-drawn Studebaker prototypes (as we’ve seen, the most glamorous of them was the Sceptre). So, the ideals pursued with those studies, finally came to light with those oh-so-simple Fiats. In an ideal sort of way, I think those Italian cars were the ideal bridge between those American studies and the downsized cars of the late Seventies. Ideal, sure, but I like to think so.

So, it is no wonder that behind those Fiats there were Bonetto’s ideas, for they were perfectly suited for the Turinese men’s desires of rational and practical, economical and livable approaches to automobiles production. And it is no wonder that Bonetto himself helped Fiat designers in the late Sixties, early Seventies. So, with great designers like Manzu’, Bonetto, and the Boano father and son behind all those square and angular Fiats, don’t dismiss those Agnelli’s Boxes as the quintessential boring machines, for there were very intelligent ideals behind them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes, but once a motorist was used to the novel roominess and driving experience of a 125 or a 128, few critics can continue to argue with the “industrial architectural” of those cars.

P.S. If you are not convinced that the Dowsized Era 1977 GM full size had a certain European flavor, despite the abundance of ideas that could be used, especially if GM engineers and designers could “freely” – or to be more precise, “feeling to be obliged to” – follow the trends set by those Practical-Above-Everything-Else Fiats, or the advanced ’72 Opel Rekord (in itself the real ancestor of the design used for the last generation N.O.V.A. cars), or the Good-For-All-Seasons European Fords and ex-Rootes Group cars, why don’t you take a look at the simple profile of a ’72 Alfa Romeo Alfetta sedan and then compare it with a ’77 Caprice ? I recently did such a thing, and I remained surprised by the result. It is only an opinion of mine, but if the various Fiats described in this chapter can be considered as the first cars of the new wave of practical cars soon to begin ubiquitous again on the whole planet’s roads, the Alfa mid-priced sedan can easily be considered as a viable stylistic example to lead GM designers toward their ambitious target, enabling them to make the new downsized cars as attractive as any. Using the Alfetta’s profile only, an unsuspected onlooker could be convinced that it was designed by the same minds behind the ’72 Opel Rekord and the ’77 Caprice…

Last but not least, the Seventies Fiats, like the second generation 127 and 128, the 132 (already described elsewhere) and the 131, a.k.a. Brava, followed this same path of Rationalism-induced lines and shapes. The 131, in effect, always conjured up in my mind an aura of refined 124 and 125 stylistic themes (quite obvious considering that it was the direct heir of both cars), but certain ideas and formulas brought to the American public by the ’78 Fairmont can already be seen as early as 1974, the year the 131 debuted. Considering it was a good success, with a good foreign following, is it any wonder that one of the most successful late Seventies Fords, in itself a New Wave car of sort, owed something to what I always thought as the most Californian-looking of all the Fiat sedans ?

Proud To Be A Copy

The Bertone-bodied Fiat X1/9 succedeed where others had failed: offering a viable mid-engined sportscar alternative to the classic North-South drivetrain, two seating, arrangement then en vogue among aficionados of sharp and undiluted driving experience, what with a legion of them who couldn’t afford the quantity of dollars needed to buy something larger, something more prestigious, something more powerful.

An early X1-9 , recently seen in Turin

The formula of the X1/9 was in effect, nothing really new, and in Europe also Matra with its Bagheraa enjoyed a respectable following. But the looks of the X1/9 are decidedly distinctive, and it is difficult to think that under such a skin there was not so noble an engine, the stunning shape making this car look like it could be something with a horse as badge, and twice the horses under the hood. The Fiat 128-based drivetrains can sound humble even today, yet the results were truly good, so much so in fact that the same Bertone firm continued to build and sell the car after Fiat decided to dump the concept. This car enjoyed a vast success in the United States especially, so I think it is no coincidence that its design concept could be used as a starting point from someone else dreaming about the idea of an affordable midship runabout good for two people and with the engine directly behind them. The term Midship Runabout is no mere coincidence here, for the undisputedly successful Toyota MR2 started where practically the Fiat evolution ended, but there is at least another car here to be looked to, because I always find pretty remarkable its logic, its mass production-relied mechanicals and its general design and styling ideas when compared with the Turinese car: it is the Pontiac Fiero, with a name meaning “proud” in Italian (hence the chapter name). But proud to be what, exactly?

It can sound strange that the most sporty-looking Pontiac so far debuted in mid-Eighties, when the old honourable GTOs, Super Duties and 2+2s were already collector’s items. But only around 1979 there were the conditions to go ahead with a project so beloved in the mid-Sixties by many a Pontiac boss (maybe no one more than John Zachary DeLorean, with his ’66 XP-798 Banshee and, even more so, with the two seater XP-833 in both coupé and spider formula). But that was the time when the temperamental DeLorean often fought against corporate diktats, and many a time he did risk some schism of sort with the Corporation. However, the dream of an economical two seater, a marriage between an affordable everyday commuter and an exciting, zippy sportscar for the true connoisseur never halted to haunt the minds of some Pontiac engineers. Among them, Hulki Alkidacti, a long-time Pontiac engineer who finally found someone with enough clout to give green light to such a project: none other than Elliott Marantette “Pete” Estes, then GM president. Of course, also then Pontiac head Bill Hoglund liked what Alkidacti was doing, for he was in 1980 in the same conditions endured by Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen a quarter of a century before: The Pontiac image as a high profile builder of sporty and exciting cars was watered down, and there was need to offer something closer to the Wide Track era so full of excitement, a sort of morale-booster for the Eighties. The Fiero could work well in doing so, but the car ended to be half the dream car Alkidacti had hoped for.

The definitive mid mounted engine econo racer of the Seventies, a rousing success among Americans who loved to drive sharply with no too many gas station stops

The project started in the late Seventies, and in February 1979 also David Holls and R.C. Hill entered in the picture to design the cloth for the new sportster. Despite the novelty of its body construction (Enduroflex panels bolted on a space-frame chassis, with the latter using also 39 welded metal squares to be used as attaching points for the panels), the general look owes a thing or two to the Italian X1/9, although Pontiac designers had also Ferraris in mind. First of all, both follow the principles of the wedge school of design; second, both the Italian car and the Pontiac have a distinct arrow-like front fender, massive and quasi vertical rear roof pillars, with deeply recessed back window; third, both have strong character lines running through the entire side length (the X1/9 has a neat inset crease while the Fiero has a rubber molding); last, both have their engines mid-mounted, with a small luggage compartment behind it. The main aesthetic difference lies likely in the fact that the Italian car was a targa-type while the Fiero was a closed coupé, available since 1986 in fastback GT form also (the latter looked even more like a cut-rate 308 GTB, or as a car closely on the path of the Lancia Scorpion, thus being quite an exciting car of its own too). So, while it is my opinion that the car more similar to the Fiero was the X1/9, the Fiero itself had a nice personality of its own, something good to make it different from the vast majority of other low-to-mid priced bracket two seaters on the market.

Despite these similarities, or more likely thanks to them, the Fiero sold well, totalizing in the first production year alone almost two-thirds of the entire X1/9 global production numbers. Sadly, the kind of driving excitement guaranteed by the X1/9 was difficult to be found in the first generation Fiero, and although its use of Chevette/X-cars suspension – clearly a nod to make the car as affordable as possible – could look as the culprit, the target of offering a sharp handling car was achieved. In fact,the critics were more concerned about it being underpowered, and they blamed its manual steering. The Pontiac still did better than the X1/9 as far as sheer handling was concerned once the first improvements were put to good use, at least for Road & Track (in its August 1985 issue, Fiero did better than the Italian car in this respect, at least considering the pure average speed during slalom), but the notion of car deserving far more horses would never left it. Some other well criticized issues made things more difficult on the market as the seasons went by, like notorious fire reputation for the 1984 model year.

The typical location of the X1-9 engine

Improvements would continue to follow, but like other respectable and notable American cars , the Fiero was a sort of one-year-only-wonder, as far as success was concerned, being put to pasture only after only five seasons. On the other hand, the Fiat endured a much longer career, ending in 1989, after it was introduced in 1972! And, important to remember, without the acclaimed role it had on the U.S. market, it would have been phased out a long time before the Fiero debut.

The Fiat X1/9 was born out of a desire to offer a sharp-roadholding car to the enthusiast who couldn’t afford to own some high-zoot similarly midengined Italian cars, and the formula would work so well that the similarly conceived Lancia Beta Montecarlo (aka Scorpion) would debut only a few years later. In effect, the project code of the Montecarlo/Scorpion (X1/8) means that the Lancia-badged model was designed in the very same time during which the X1/9 was developed: the X1/8 was the car developed under Pininfarina aegis, while the X1/9 was the one penned by Bertone staff.

Initially, only the Bertone car was given the green light because Gianni Agnelli in person liked it after a chance spotting, but the nice Paolo Martin-designed Pininfarina proposal, after the initial hiatus, was resurrected once Fiat showed some interests for an even sportier version of the conceptually similar X1/9. In fact, the X1/8 project – now dubbed X1/20 – was considered as the best heir for the aged Fiat 124 Spider in the rally competitions, and as such the initial final development work was done. In the end, Fiat decided otherwise, as far as early competition history of the X1/8 – a.k.a. X1/20 – project was concerned, and the car was given as an upper-scale X1/9 stablemate to the Lancia division.

Another well-known mid-engined Italian Seventies sportscar, the Lancia Beta Montecarlo, aka Scorpion

As we know, in the end both the X1/9 and, even more so, the Lancia (respectively with some extremely potent prototype versions and with the immortal 037) endured their deserved glory days in sports. But when the Beta Montecarlo debuted in 1975, it was a somewhat distinct-looking animal from the X1/9, although their engineering concept was close together. However, the X1/9 lines were not unique, or, at least, they had already been seen, on a Ghia-bodied De Tomaso Ford which debuted as an one-off in 1970. It seems that this car was born out of sneak previews of the Bertone works on what was already a well known project (the X1/9 was always seen as the heir of the successful 850 Spider, so it was no wonder Bertone was already busy at work on it), or, but it is maybe a bit exaggerated, it was directly copied from some original Bertone ideas gone out of his studio.

Regardless of this, the new Fiat had many similarities with Bertone’s own Autobianchi A112 Runabout, a similarly wedge-shaped concept appeared in 1969, designed by Marcello Gandini and considered as the forerunner of many Stratos ideas too. The idea of an economical two seater sporty car with the engine behind the cockpit, thus being able to provide favorable masses distribution and consequently a sharp handling, caught on – after all this was the season of the VW-Porsche 914 also, without forgetting the various Matras – hence a Fiat-badged car of this kind, substituting the aged 850 Spider, using the newest drivetrains Fiat had at the time (the 128 engines and transmission initially; then, starting with the second gen launched in October 1978, the 1.5 liter unit and the 5-speed ‘box derived from the Ritmo/Strada; obviously, some other mechanical components would be shared with the 128/Ritmo-Strada models, brakes included) was deemed as feasible, so much so in fact that it was sensed as a more viable proposition for the sportier segment of would-be owners than the Fiat’ own 128 Coupé.

Even from this angle, it is undoubted that the Italian car predates somewhat the Pontiac Fiero.

Story has it that Fiat’s sales management tried to discourage Italian and European dealers from promoting the X1/9, for fear that the superb handling qualities of the Bertone-bodied runabout could have darkened the 128 Coupé. In effect, as the time went by, this happened, for the 128 Coupé was never seen as an enthusiast car in the same way as the X1/9, a fact which continues up until today, with the 128 still looking for a serious collectors’ enthusiasm, while generation of aficiodanos continue to fall in love with the Bertone’s wedge.

Evidently, Dave Holls also fell in love, for, despite all the differences the stillborn Fiero could have matured during its development, the similarities between it and the X1/9 are plenty, and easy to be seen. Speaking of wedge, this was the wedge-shaped era for Italian designers, with tons of exciting proposals exploiting this theme. With relatively few efforts, we can cite the Stratos, a whole bunch of Giugiaro’s cars (Asso Di Fiori, Boomerang, Alfetta GTV), and, because it is conceptually close to the Bertone’s little X1/9, the Pininfarina Autobianchi A112 Giovani, a sort of shorter and front-engined answer to an eventual alternative to the same X1/9. Of course, the same Beta Montecarlo, aka Scorpion, was penned following the wedge school of design so much en vogue back then, but considering the similar origins of both project this doesn’t sound as “strange” as one could initially expect.

The sporty cockpit of the original X1-9

But it was likely unavoidable that both Holls, Hill and their staff would closely follow the path set by the Bertone car: If the starting points of both the Pontiac and the Fiat are basically the same, including the use of “humble” engines and transmission, it was clear that a similarly conceived shape could also result. What is remarkable for the little Italian targa was the fact that while in Italy it was becoming more and more a peripheral product because of the general difficulty endured by sportscars of sort in the late Seventies Italian market. In the United States, with a market affected by similar problems, the X1/9 was still able to stir souls, and I bet that among them there were a pair of great and talented GM designers. This sounds like a revenge of sort for the X1/9, and it gives a potent idea about its soundness. Thankfully, Pontiac made a very good homage to the concept, for, despite many critics made to the little Fiero, it was a kind of car quite unlike any other offered by American manufactures, a witness of the courage some GM people could still have even in those not-so-happy days.

So, our excursus through a series of examples of Italian cars influencing well known American ones, or sometimes reworking and reoffering in a different and novel manner American ideas, then used again in such a modified way by the same USA firms, has come to an end. However, Italian automobile worlds has still some surprises to offer, surprises where Italian cars bore close resemblance to foreign ideas and designs, often originated in America but brought here through what I can call “ambassadors,” whether they were American-owned European firms, American firms not related with pure automotive world or that never entered the automobile market with style-related products, or some of those notable American-badged, American-designed and American-engined cars that did contribute to make Italian Style one of the most renowned in the world. All this deserves a story by itself, for there are some surprising things to be explored too.