Rétromobile 2020 - Bertone Collection
Some less well-known concept cars provide a fascinating insight into the legendary Turinese carrozzeria’s history.
Obscurity is no weakness in itself. More often than not, obscure objects make for rather more interesting study than celebrated masterpieces.
A case-in-point presented itself at this year’s Rétromobile in Paris. where a handful of Bertone concept cars were shown. Not among these were the likes of the Stratos Zero, Carabo or Testudo - the undisputed legends among the carrozzeria’s treasure trove of outstanding concept cars. Of the cars on display, the Gandini-designed Autobianchi Runabout is likely to be the most prominent entry - and with good reason too, as it betrays plenty of the flair that characterised the output of this giant of automotive design in his prime.
It is the more obscure designs that provide the fresher insights. For while Gandini’s exceptionalism is well-documented, the views on Gandini’s latter years at Bertone’s Caprie studio are usually somewhat rose-tinted. A close look at the Ferrari Rainbow in three dimensions certainly proves to be as sobering as years of studying photographic evidence had suggested - it really is just as strikingly ungainly, ham-fisted and coarse in the metal. Maybe even more so.
Something must have happened to Gandini at some point in the mid-1970s, when, after a string of masterpieces that redefined automotive design, he entered his ‘brutalist’ phase with the creation of the Rainbow. The lightness of touch, the playful inventiveness that had distinguished Gandini’s output during the first part of his Bertone years suddenly were replaced with a highly mannered aesthetic emphasising blocky graphics and heavy proportions. The previous Lamborghini Bravo concept car had acted as a toe in the these stylistic waters, but that car still featured plenty of early Gandini flair in its striking (rather than overdone) graphics and dynamic proportions (which were woefully absent from later efforts). The Rainbow, on the other hand, is an astonishing creation for all the wrong reasons. Its B-pillar (which doubles as rollover bar) is modelled as though it was literally made of concrete, whereas the abrupt, perfectly straight cutting off of the rear highlights why actual straight lines appear odd on automotive bodies. Given Gandini’s pedigree, these very peculiar choices would not have been due to deficiencies in craftsmanship, but of the deliberate kind. A frank discussion with the car design legend about his motivations would be supremely intriguing.
Next to the coarse Rainbow, the Volvo Tundra benefits from a less drastic application of late Bertone-era Gandini cues. There is more softness to its radii, the surfaces are slightly more voluptuous and the details suggest that the Rainbow was either created in a hurry, or Gandini received some assistance in that regard when the Tundra was created. As had been the case in 1971, when the number of projects in Bertone’s pipeline resulted in Gandini being too preoccupied to design a concept car for the upcoming Geneva Motor Show - which was when the chance of a lifetime presented itself to an intern by the name of Marc Deschamps, who went on to create the Citroën Camargue. Uncredited, until very recently. Far more in keeping with the Citroën house style at the time than future Bertone designs for the French marque would prove to be, the Camargue is a restrained, but no less impressive effort, even by the standards of Bertone in its prime. Its semi-shooting break architecture is allowed to take the limelight in the context of very measured, but effective graphics and exceptionally clean surfaces. The broad shoulders and full-width rear lamps obviously do stand out, but only add to, rather than distract from the overall flair of this exceptionally consistent piece of design.
It may well have been on the basis of the Camargue’s success that Nuccio Bertone decided to make a call to Marc Deschamps years later, when the working relationship with Gandini had deteriorated to such a point that a parting of ways became inevitable. The Gandini era at Bertone thus ended and Marc Deschamps was appointed new chief designer. As had been the case when Gandini succeeded Giugiaro more than a decade earlier, the Frenchman did not immediately pursue a clean break from his predecessor’s style. Instead, Deschamps’ output evolved the themes laid out with the Tundra in particular, albeit in a sleeker style that tapped into the upcoming decade’s obsession with all things high-tech.
In that context, it is the finesse and attention to detail of the Chevrolet Ramarro’s design that surprise. On the surface (and in photos), it looks like a wedgier, slightly less well balanced ‘80s-futuristic take on the excellent C4-generation Corvette it is based on. In three dimensions though, it takes on a highly expressive quality, aided by those truly extreme proportions and surfacing that still looks fresh today. While the base car’s was most certainly the prettier design, the Ramarro’s appearance is far more striking than photos would suggest - for the right reasons.
The rest of the Deschamps concept cars exhibited at Rétromobile cannot match the Ramarro’s impact, but even so, they’re ‘bang on the money’ for the period. However, the Citroën Zabrus does suffer from a certain disconnect from the brand. It is a fine design in its own right (and may well have been on the mood board as the first Range Rover Evoque was being designed), predating certain trends - like stacked rear lamps on either side of the rear hatch - by some margin. But distinctly Citroënesque it is not, single-spoke steering wheel and all. The Lamborghini Genesis V12 MPV, on the other hand, stretches brand credibility to an extent that the shock value of the most un-supercar-like body style for the quintessential supercar marque must have been at the core of Bertone’s and Deschamps’ considerations. Again, its execution is decent, but the point that is supposed to have been made through it - if there ever was one, beyond the absurdity of it all - is difficult to see. As a 1980s take on the Marzal (which also was offered the kind of interior space and ambience not readily associated with a super car), the Genesis also happens to be a bit too stylistically sober.
Over the course of the decade he was in charge of Bertone’s stylistic fortunes, Deschamps did not rewrite any rulebooks or shift paradigms, as his predecessors had. He did keep Caprie’s efforts closely in tune with the Zeitgeist, while ensuring that in terms of detail execution and professionalism, the concept cars left little to be desired. More of a craftsman than a visionary, his body of work has withstood the test of time rather better than certain (latter-day) Gandini designs that mistook blunt outrageousness with boldness. But Bertone’s status as industry pacesetter was lost during the 1980s.
Viewed from a benign perspective, the soft forms of the Pickster, a BMW-based ute from 1998, could be seen as having been only slightly outdated by that point. In harsher words, they encapsulate how out of tune Bertone had become by the late ‘90s. The concept of a pick-up with a rear spoiler and fishnet instead of a hatch may have been in keeping with the extreme nature of Gandini’s finest Bertone concept cars - in theory. But in reality, the Pickster illustrates how Bertone had veered off course by that time. Rather than bold, the Pickster is just silly. Its appearance does not challenge formal preconceptions in a meaningful way. Its brash style cannot distract from the fact that its ‘organic’ forms were yesterday’s news by the year 1998 - which arguably constitutes the worst of its sins, as Bertone in its prime looked further ahead to the future than any other carrozzeria. This was was its raison d’être, its Unique Sales Proposition.
The Opel Filo, from 2001, fares little better. That its basic architecture and most striking feature (a crease along the side windows) have been copied as recently as last year, by none other than Audi (with the AI:ME concept car) does not serve as vindication, but rather proves that design excellence was not just fleeting in its nature in Bertone’s case. Its cabin, featuring a peculiar multifunctional yoke for all controls, appears like a rough Renault proposal from five years earlier. It may have aged more gracefully than the Pickster, but the Filo too is a far cry removed from the standards Bertone set when the future of car design was being devised at Caprie.
It would obviously be shamefully simplistic to blame the downfall of Bertone on the Pickster and the Filo, or the cars’ respective designers. But what this small selection of concept cars proves is that any company is only as good as its employees. Even if the man in charge is Nuccio Bertone, who has not only been the best recruiter of exceptional car design talent of all time, but someone gifted with enormous design flair himself.
With the cars speaking for themselves, it becomes obvious that Bertone’s ethos of constant reinvention was particularly prone to both benefitting from individual talent and suffering the consequences of its dearth. Even with Nuccio Bertone’s tutoring and nurturing, not every car design talent was bound to become the next Scaglione, Giugiaro or Gandini. The consequences of which were first seen in the diminishing results on the Bertone show stand, before reaching an equally sad and inevitable conclusion in 2014.
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