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How a wedge-shaped Ferrari (almost) influenced the Renault Alliance

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Manufacturer photo, via Alden Jewell.

Spend enough time looking at the Renault Alliance – squint at it really hard, as one naturally would – and you probably won’t see much Ferrari in it. Other than having four wheels on the ground and one in the driver’s hands, there’s little that any of Maranello’s finest has in common with the humble Franco-American collaboration. That’s despite the efforts of one of the greatest designers of his generation.

Marcello Gandini, like many of his contemporaries, went through a wedge phase in the Seventies. Geometric angles! More slab surfaces than a granite countertop showroom! Lots of parallel lines! It was a good time to be a straightedge and a not-so-good time to be a French curve template. Gandini’s Stratos HF (and Stratos HF Zero) might be the ultimate expression of the wedge style, but he followed that up with many other noteworthy examples, including the Fiat X1/9, Lamborghini Countach, and Dino 308 GT4.

He also penned some lesser-hailed examples that pushed the wedge envelope well into excess: the Lamborghini Bravo, the Alfa Romeo Navajo, and the Ferrari Rainbow. The latter, according to Gautam Sen’s “Marcello Gandini: Maestro of Design,” was meant to be a direct provocation after Ferrari moved on to more classically proportioned and curvaceous designs as seen in the 308 GTB. “The Rainbow was Gandini’s take on what a sharp-edged two-seater could look like,” Sen wrote. “It did not in any way look like a Ferrari.”

Bertone press photos.

The Rainbow – based on a shortened 308 GT4 – debuted on the Bertone stand at the 1976 Turin Motor Show and showcased an innovative hinged targa top that dropped down behind the seats. It also went largely forgotten as the wedge style petered out over the next couple of years and morphed into a design language that relied less on sharp angles and even more on slab surfaces and cladding, as seen on Gandini’s Citroen BX.

Gandini, however, didn’t forget the Rainbow. At least, not according to a Renault internal styling report from June 1978, in which Serge Van Hove interviewed Gandini and Eugenio Pagliano regarding Project 142. According to the report, which LignesAuto dug up, Gandini – tasked with designing a small/midsize car to quickly scrub the disappointing Renault 14 from the public’s memory, and to help Renault break into the U.S. market via its tie-up with American Motors – outright nabbed design elements from the Rainbow for his Renault 9 proposal.

Renault styling photos.

The two-passenger mid-engine configuration didn’t make it to the proposal, of course (“It’s a down-to-earth car, really,” Pagliano said), but the tailpanel and rectangular taillamps angled sharply forward, the angled wheel arches, the trapezoidish B/C-pillar, and the channel in the bodyside did. The design went over like a lead balloon.

“If I take the 142 made by Gandini for the Régie, this car was considered too advanced by those in charge,” Van Hove wrote. “So, if we want to schematize, she’s too much on the side of the dream! Not enough on the side of everyday reality. And so she was dismissed outright.”

Instead, Renault turned to Robert Opron, who had already designed the Alpine A310 and Renault Fuego for the company, to pen a more shredded-wheat design for the Renault 9. Gone was the channel, gone were the funky wheelarches, gone was the trapezoidal C-pillar, and gone gonzo gone was the angled tailpanel. Opron, reportedly working hand-in-hand with Dick Teague and the stylists at AMC, managed to blandify the 9’s design to Renault’s approval.

Yet, vestiges of Gandini’s Rainbow remain. The hood slopes quite noticeably, something Motor Trend’s reviewers noted when giving the Alliance (as the 9 was called in the States) its Car of the Year award in 1983. One could even say it’s wedge-like. And the horizontal lines of the grille look remarkably like those of the Rainbow’s front and rear corrugated bumpers. Whether by coincidence or design, Alliance owners can justifiably point to a tiny bit of Ferrari heritage in their cars.