Theme : Books – Robert Opron : L’Automobile et l’Art by Peter J Piljman

A book about one of Citroën’s two great designers.

Opron Photo

A while ago, having come across this by chance on the Internet, I bought a new copy direct from Sagitta Press in The Netherlands. First published in 2002, it’s not cheap, but it is a heavy, handsome and copiously illustrated book about a relatively unsung giant of car design.

Most of Robert Opron’s career was, of course, in the French industry. He started at Simca, had a short time out designing bathroom fittings, then joined Citroën where, upon the death of Bertoni, he succeeded him as head of styling.

This was obviously his golden time where he oversaw the GS, SM and CX in quick succession. Too quick of course since Citroën stretched themselves so far that they got eaten up by Peugeot. The new management courted him to stay, but he declined and moved on to Renault.

The cars styled here under Opron might not be as feted as his Citroëns, but the designs he oversaw – Supercinq, 9, 11, Fuego, 25, GTA, Espace, 21, as well as Trafic and Master vans and others – are an interesting mix of the quirky and the rigorously functional and are, I feel, unjustly underrated.

FrontIn the mid 80s, he was sidelined as a result of Renault’s ill-fated expansionism into the US market, after which he took up a new post developing designs at Fiat, where he instigated and oversaw the Alfa SZ as well as sketching what became the Lancia Y11 and the first Fiat Bravo. He retired in 1992, but carried on doing consultancy work such as microcars for Ligier and, at the time of writing, is in his eighty-second year.

Looking through the excellent illustrations in the book, I’m struck by the optimism of it all. There seems to be no cynical undertone, no blatant pandering to the customer’s hubris, in the way, say, I’d imagine the sketches for the first big-grilled Audis to do. The impression gained is of a greatly talented man, who felt that his job was to produce the right design for the intended function, not to leave his own mark everywhere. This is underlined by his modest, though arguably slightly disingenuous answer to the question why he did what he did – ‘to make people a little happier’. Has a contemporary Audi (or Citroën for that matter) ever had that effect?

As always with designers, it is interesting to see what didn’t proceed. The mini people carrier for Citroën intended for the early 70s and more left-field alternatives for the Renault Supercinq seem lost opportunities but, from reading the interviews with him, there is no hint of bitterness or a man thwarted.

I get the feeling of someone with very firm principles, but a most reasonable control of his ego, and he probably suffered for his. Undoubtedly he was more than up to the task, but the particular set-up at Citroën, which involved a hands-off approach from owners Michelin and a certain unworldly arrogance from the Bureau d’Etudes was the environment in which he prospered creatively. Whether you applaud or decry Bangle’s design shift at BMW, you have to credit him for the drive and the political ability to get it done, whereas Opron was pushing at an open door.

Unfortunately there will never be another company like Citroën – most certainly not at chez Citroën. And as for his time at Renault, although he was very productive, and was a highly respected figure in the industry, Renault were unlikely to have lost face in the public’s eyes by letting him go, since so few knew his name.

It’s probable that Opron had, and maybe still has, more ability with a pencil or a paintbrush than many of his more feted contemporaries and successors. Now that isn’t an essential skill for a stylist, especially today when there are so many aids, though indeed quite a few talented designers choose to draw or paint in their spare time with sometimes embarrassing results.

However being able to trace form onto paper does signify an ability to understand coherent shapes when designing. There has always been bad car design, but today’s version tends to reflect the influence of cut-and-paste; nice little details but a lack of coherence.

Opron was undoubtedly a modernist and Retro would have been anathema to him. He is particularly perceptive on Bertoni, who styled the Traction, 2CV, Ami 6 and, of course, the DS. He had great respect and affection for him, but considered that his personal style was more towards the traditional and baroque. The DS came about by Bertoni being led by the engineer’s directions, particularly those of the equally talented Lefebvre, the suggestion being that, given a clean sheet, that particular icon would never have been created by Bertoni.

The tone of the text can get a bit laboured at times, returning too often to the comparison of Simca, Citroën, Renault and Fiat as, respectively, a Brass Band, a Chamber Orchestra, a Symphony Orchestra and a Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also an occasional hint of twisting the facts to suit the story, for instance in hinting at Opron as being the major force behind the original Espace.

Certainly his model for the Citroën G-Mini has the look of a scaled down Espace, but the considerable groundwork done by Fergus Pollock and Geoffrey Matthews for Chrysler UK, before it was swallowed up by Peugeot, and Renault inherited Matra, completing the complex series of connections that ended up with Renault ‘inventing’ the people carrier, is never mentioned. However, I’m sure that this is the author getting over-enthusiastic, not Opron taking unjustified credit.

So would I recommend it? Certainly, because a good part of the book concerns a special time and attitude for car design, when a group of people were producing outstandingly optimistic and forward-thinking vehicles among a general sea of stodgy dross. How this happened has always been a fascination for me.

But more than that, although Opron identifies himself as a more instinctive designer of the old school, coming to the industry at a time when there weren’t established patterns or role models, his whole intelligent and generous attitude also reminds me that I can often be too glib in dismissing the efforts of today’s designers. I’m sure Opron isn’t.

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4 thoughts on “Theme : Books – Robert Opron : L’Automobile et l’Art by Peter J Piljman”

  1. Thank you, Sean, for giving an insight into a tome I’d been lusting after for quite some time. This, and the more recent ‘Spada’, are the kind of publications that could force me into poverty.
    I trust you’ll let your fellow DTWers know when you need to clear out your book shelves to make space for that Philippe Starck bathtub…

    1. Kris. Since, after Simon, I am the senior member of this site – in years if not maturity and responsibility – it would be nice that you had an image of me sitting in a leather armchair in the foyer of my motor lodge, with a tome selected from my copious library on my lap whist, in the background, my team of dedicated mechanics carried out routine servicing to a member of my stable.

      The reality isn’t quite like that. My library is rather scattergun and not nearly as large as I wish it was. I’d normally feel guilty spending more that £20.00 on a volume but, in recent years, I admit to having have indulged myself on three occasions. The Opron book, Maserati – The Citroen Years and From Passion to Perfection (The Story of French Streamlined Styling 1930 – 1939). I’ll tell my executors to keep you informed.

  2. Sean, in the space of few words, you have managed to shatter several dearly held illusions.

    Kris, you’ll now find yourself chief suspect should any terrible misfortune befall my co-founder. You have been warned.

  3. Been debating whether to buy the Opron book and Maserati – the Citroen Years, have previously got burned when buying books about SAAB and Alfa Romeo only to realise that it was light on content regarding prototypes / sketches and other comprehensive info / titbits that can be easily found on the web or asking around on forums.

    Another book am interested in is Abarth: The Man, the Machines by Luciano Greggio. Mainly from being curious about whether Abarth prior to being taken over by Fiat looked at working with other carmakers besides Simca, Porsche and Alfa Romeo. Along with whether Abarth was truly capable of being an Italian equivalent of Porsche plus other projects that never saw the light of day.

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