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Design in the Automotive World

From the Fiat 500 “Topolino” to the Citroën 2CV, the philosophy behind the method.

When talking about cars, “design” is definitely one of the words that comes up most frequently. Roberto Giolito, head of the Heritage department, has helped us shine a light on its importance by illustrating some of the first major examples of large-scale car design, such as the FIAT 500 A “Topolino”, the Citroën TPV and its direct evolution, the timeless 2CV.

What is meant by industrial design and what is its role in the automotive sector?

Design is a term that refers to numerous areas of interest—production, architecture, publishing, fashion—and seems to change meaning depending on the context in which it is used. As a rule, it denotes the design work done at industrial level with the aim of fulfilling the technical, functional and economic requirements of mass-produced objects. We can define industrial design as the harmonious and coherent confluence of all solutions relating to a product’s functionality, usability, ergonomics, aesthetics and feasibility for industrial-scale manufacture.

One of the fields in which the term “design” is used most frequently, but often imprecisely, is coincidentally the automotive sector. The design of a new car model is the result of a complex process that involves various professions. A multifaceted process that begins from the initial planning phases and does not end even with final assembly on the production lines.

Based on my practical experience, I believe that automotive design has never received due recognition as a noble form of design thinking; it is more often than not relegated to the level of product design or restyling operations.

The feeling is that all too often, the work of designers is confused with that of automotive stylists.

Within the microcosm of automotive design, there is a clear distinction between designers and stylists. The former focus on interior design and general layout studies, and only shape the external volume at a later stage, whereas the latter directly deal with the concept of an external form that, in practice, constitutes the most distinctive and widespread aspect of automotive design. The car stylist’s work often entails respecting and updating styles that make a specific car brand recognisable. A bit like in a conservatory, the goal is to propose new models that firmly uphold a brand’s defining technological solutions and aesthetic principles.

However, when you set out to solve problems that, in certain cases, arise from the new needs of target users, or from a new mobility model that is being presented, it is necessary to break free from current conventions in order to try and come up with new solutions that will respond to the users of tomorrow. The car designer must constantly figure out a catch-all solution to the various issues underlying an industrial product, in this case the car.

When did the concept of design enter the automotive world?

I would say right from the start. The 1930s was a period in which people began to think concretely of cars as a means of transport for the masses. And although cars remained a luxury that few could afford until the 1960s, even during this initial period it was necessary to deal with issues such as process optimisation, the lean use of materials and components, and the general reduction of vehicle weight All this with the aim of containing production costs to make cars affordable to the widest possible demographic. Between the two world wars, the escalation of political tensions and the aftermath of the Great Depression spawned new ideas regarding vehicle construction layouts and architectures. Subsequently, in the period after the Second World War, the car was no longer an exclusive luxury and began to be conceived as a vehicle for middle-class families. It came to symbolise the dream of emancipation and progress. This immediately had a strong impact on the collective imagination and consumer attitudes. It was at this time that the idea of the “people’s car” emerged.

Starting from this decisive and revolutionary milestone in the evolution of the automobile, the real challenge facing designers was to develop cars consisting of improvised solutions that delivered good performance based on limited economic and material resources. This, in a certain sense, gave rise to the phenomenon of automotive design as we understand it today: a process resulting from the combination of invention and the optimisation of resources necessary for production, and based on the originality of the solutions and on the identity of the products, which themselves needed to stand out in what was becoming an increasingly competitive commercial environment.

What are the models that first shaped this new way of thinking about cars?

In the history of automotive design there have been timeless projects that managed to bridge the ages because they were visionary and because, thanks to the conceptual and technological solutions they adopted, they managed to amply meet the needs of their target users. They were target-oriented designs, cars that were built with a focus on usability.

I believe that the FIAT 500 A, commonly known as the “Topolino” (the Italian name for Mickey Mouse, meaning “little mouse”), certainly falls into this category. Especially if you think of the solutions that the great designer Dante Giacosa came up with to solve the problems of space saving. He devised the period’s greatest innovation: a minimal platform onto which the frame, engine, suspension and passenger compartment could be assembled. In 1934 the engineer Antonio Fessia, then technical director of FIAT and the project’s coordinator, entrusted a team led by 29-year-old engineer Dante Giacosa, who was head of the Aero Engines section, to design the chassis for a small, economical car that could sell for just 5000 lire, according to directives received from the management. As is widely known, Giacosa’s team had never designed a car: this meant that they were less shackled by tradition, leaving them free to think up new solutions that would change approaches to automotive design forever.

What was the great innovation introduced with the FIAT 500?

One of the most significant solutions related to the passenger compartment. Interior roominess in spite of its very small frame was guaranteed by the ingenious decision to position the engine cantilevered in front of the front axle in the position of the radiator, which was set back from the engine itself: a solution that contradicted the conventional positioning of the engine between the front axle and the dashboard. The winning idea behind the FIAT 500 was to bring the car’s mechanicals “out”, based on what could be described as a centrifugal design. Giacosa wanted the passenger compartment to be unimpeded by the mechanicals and to build a car around the occupants. In order to do this, he created a coherent and organic body style. Take the gearbox for example: the solution of inserting the gearbox between the two passengers enabled him to create a cabin in which the occupants’ feet could be positioned much further forward. In other words, the bonnet cavity was conceived as a space for the feet, rather than for the engine. Thanks above all to this intuition and the decision to opt for transverse suspension, Giacosa managed to create a very compact and spacious car, while maintaining the standard of comfort afforded by a much larger vehicle. It was a revolution. The soundness of the solutions developed for the Topolino is underlined by the fact that this model remained in use long after its heyday. In many historic car races you can see cars with mechanicals from the FIAT 500 body frame… even in the UK, until a few years ago, there was a Formula 500 competition in which all cars entered were required to have a FIAT 500 engine and suspension, whereas the rest (driver’s seat and aerodynamics) was unregulated. The FIAT 500 was a phenomenal car considering how much success it enjoyed, including in racing, long after 1955 when its production ended.

From these words we can understand how much the designer’s work is an endeavour to create objects (in this case cars) that start out based around the user’s needs and then, through the different steps that comprise this work, somehow return to the user. In other words, the designer designs around the people who use the car.

That’s definitely the case. Another example is the Citroën TPV (Toute Petite Voiture, or “very small car”), better known as the 2CV, a car model that, from the time it was released in 1930s, remained competitive right up until the oil crisis of the 1970s. It was conceived for use in the countryside, but its versatility—accompanied by its optimal running costs and unprecedented comfort—made the 2CV a unique car, destined to go down in the history of design, and not solely automotive design. Its origins date back to the mid-1930s, when Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the then general manager of Citroën, decided to strengthen the company’s balance sheets by commissioning a new model with usability as its central design principle, as summed up in his instructions to the project team: “I want four wheels under an umbrella capable of carrying a pair of farmers, 50 kilos of potatoes and a basket of eggs across a ploughed field. Without breaking an egg”. The difficult task of drawing the lines of a car intended to replace the horses that every farmer used to transport goods, tools and people was entrusted to the brilliant engineer and designer André Lefèbvre.

The story of the TPV reads like a novel and, just like in a novel, history also played an instrumental role.

It is always interesting to note how cars, perhaps more than other goods, are able to fit into the course of history, be shaped by its influences and in some cases even have their own influence on history. Speaking of the TPV, we know that on the same day Nazi troops crossed the border into France in 1940, Boulanger gave the order to destroy all TPV prototypes, so that they would not fall into enemy hands. In the 1980s we discovered that three specimens had miraculously survived, hidden under the thatched roof of a building at the Citroën test centre. During the Second World War, the designers continued to work in great secrecy on the project. When plans to produce the car were revived in 1945, Boulanger decided to give the new 2CV model a more graceful appearance. To this end, he entrusted its styling to the Italian designer Flaminio Bertoni, who formerly penned the lines of the Citroën Traction Avant. But the designer went one step further by giving the 2CV the classic cute appearance for which it would become world-famous. The 1948 2CV cost slightly more than a pair of horses, but infinitely less than any other car. By 1948 standards, however, its look was extremely modern. After only a few years it had become so successful that the constructor was unable to meet demand. So, a memo was promptly issued stipulating that dealers should only accept orders from those who demonstrated they could not afford a “normal” car. The first customers were therefore largely farmers, veterinarians and teachers, people who had to travel but didn’t have the money to buy a Traction Avant, not even the cheapest model. Despite this drastic countermeasure, the waiting list for the 2CV continued to increase to 2.5 years. This extraordinary commercial success is a resounding testament to the genius of a designer who succeeded in putting the user’s needs at the centre of his work.

It is no coincidence that both the FIAT 500 and the Citroën TPV, both “people’s cars”, became known by popular nicknames coined by the public.

Exactly. They were both models created to fulfil the needs and ambitions of the middle class, which until that point had regarded cars as a preserve of the elite. They were cars that successfully met the needs of a broad and varied demographic that responded enthusiastically to this revolution. It was perhaps partly out of affection that the public gave both models a new name. The nickname Topolino, despite never becoming the official designation of the FIAT 500, entered common usage among the public and industry professionals alike. The name was inspired by the FIAT 500’s uncanny similarity to a mouse (especially when viewed from the front and side) and, above all, its natural resemblance to Mickey Mouse, who was designed by Walt Disney in 1927. If you think about it, when viewed from inside the cabin, the headlights look much like the round ears of the world’s most famous cartoon character. By contrast, the name 2CV stood for “deux-cheveaux” (“two horses”) in French, because this car was designed to replace the horse-drawn cart in transporting people and goods from the countryside to French cities.

I am convinced that the fact that these models were renamed by the people, much more than merely giving them a touch of colour, contributed greatly to their commercial success. As would happen later in many other sectors, a new method of defining a product’s identity began to take hold. Using less technical terms, metaphorical meanings were introduced that, over time, made products more recognisable and identifiable to an increasingly vast and diverse public. This, too, can be interpreted as an effect of true design.

*Special thanks to Stellantis Heritage

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