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The first car designed entirely by a woman, Ghia’s Brezza, would have given Ford an answer to the Fiero

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Photos courtesy Scott Grundfor.

The press release that Ford issued in late 1982 touting the advanced features of the Ghia Brezza concept car included all sorts of dimensional data but failed to mention two important facets of the car: its mid-engine take on the EXP and its designer, Marilena Corvasce, the first woman tasked with designing an entire car from start to finish. Neither of those facts, however, went unnoticed when the Historic Vehicle Association recently chose to give the Brezza its HVA Heritage Award.

Even though one had its engine and transaxle in the front and the other out back, the Escort-derived EXP and the Pontiac Fiero both competed for the same market segment and both had the distinction of being their companies’ only production two-seaters in quite some time. Even though the EXP, introduced in 1982, had a couple model years’ lead on its GM rival, the Fiero ended up outselling it by a hefty margin.

In 1982, Ford knew the Fiero was on its way, so it sent a pair of EXP chassis to Ghia, at the time Ford’s European design center, with a design brief: Make a mid-engine sports car of roughly the EXP’s size, and make it look like a concept car ready to hit the road.

“They basically wanted to keep up with GM,” said Scott Grundfor. “They wanted to show the world that Ford was on the ball.”

Ghia’s managing director at the time, Filippo Sapino, handed the assignment to Marilena Corvasce, one of four designers he had on staff. Giorgetto Giugiaro hired Corvasce on at Ghia in 1968 before leaving for Italdesign, and she later studied under Alejandro de Tomaso. According to Sapino, Corvasce had “very clear visions and ideas with strong but practical approaches to design.”

“To tell you the truth I never realized I was making history as the first female designer of an automobile, because this was my job, my duty,” Corvasce wrote in a letter discussing her time at Ghia. “Still now I think that opportunities for women in this field are the same as they were 30 years ago because, until now, I haven’t heard of another car fully designed by a woman, unfortunately.”

The resulting two-seater looked nothing like the EXP. Pop-up headlamps help smooth out the front end while flying buttresses give the impression of a hatchback shape in profile. Covered rear wheels come straight from the Syd Mead school of design and contribute to a relatively sleek 0.30 coefficient of drag — comparable to the Ford Taurus-influencing 1983 Audi 100, the 1983 Nissan 300ZX, or the streamlined Saab 92. Brezza — Italian for “breeze” — suited the design.

To make it mid-engine, Ghia’s workers cut one EXP chassis just ahead of the rear axle and the other just behind the front wheels, then welded the latter to the back of the former. They then removed the forward engine and fixed the tie rods on the rear suspension. It wasn’t going to win any awards for handling, but it would drive around without the need for electric motor fakery. In fact, it even retained its power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning. A stock EXP 1.6-liter CVH four-cylinder and automatic transmission powered the car.

For his book on Ghia, author David Burgess-Wise got to take a spin in the Brezza just as it rolled out of the Ghia shops.

Filippo taped a battered Prova trade plate on Brezza’s immaculate red rump, got in, and started the car; I climbed into the passenger seat and we drove off down the deeply rutted via Egeo, which faces the Ghia plant. At its head, Filippo nonchalantly launched the Brezza into the thick of Turin’s mid-afternoon traffic that was rushing down the Corso Dante as furiously as only Italian traffic can. In a couple of weeks, the Brezza was to star in the Turin Show; now it was just proving its worth as a car amid the tiny Fiats that were jockeying for position in the traffic light grand prix, swooping perilously close to the Brezza so that their drivers could take a closer look.

Ghia put the Brezza on the stand at the Turin Auto Show in 1982 and Ford, in the aforementioned Corvasce-less press release, boasted that it “incorporate(d) advanced features that could be included in production-model Ford cars of the near future.” However, Grundfor said that Ford only ever intended the Brezza as a design exercise and never seriously considered a production version to rival the Fiero.

(That’s not to say Ford never considered building a mid-engine EXP-sized Fiero competitor; in 1986 or so, it tinkered with the GN34, a series of mules — one of them based on the EXP — powered by Yamaha’s 3.0-liter V-6, the same engine that powered the original Taurus SHO.)

As for the lack of contemporary credit for Corvasce, Grundfor said that it has long been standard practice for automakers to attribute designs not necessarily to the designers themselves but to the heads of their design departments, whether that be Harley Earl or J Mays. That said, Grundfor commissioned researchers to pull together any information about female designers throughout automotive history and said that, without a doubt, Corvasce is the first to design a complete car, inside and out.

After completing the show circuit, the Brezza then made its way to Ford, which promptly put it in a Detroit-area warehouse alongside a number of other concept cars and seemingly forgot about it until 2002, when it sold off the contents of the warehouse at auction. Grundfor bought half a dozen of the vehicles, including the Brezza, and began an extensive preservation effort, perhaps the most extensive preservation effort on any Escort-based vehicle.

Since then, he’s added about eight miles to the 830 or so miles on the odometer, most of them at the recent San Marino Concours d’Elegance, where it took the HVA‘s award.