On the surface, Renault’s 1983 Gabbiano was simply an innocuous concept, but could it also stand as a metaphor for a decades-spanning rivalry?
Following former head of Citroën bureau d’études, Robert Opron’s move across Paris to head Renault’s styling studios in 1975, design responsibility appeared to remain an in-house arrangement. However over time, a decision was taken either by senior management or by Opron himself to work alongside external consultants, a move which ultimately led to an arrangement being formalised with Marcello Gandini following his departure from carrozzeria Bertone in 1978.
During this period Gandini is believed to have been responsible for the interior design of R25 and Alpine GTA models, proposals for the 19 and 21 models and most notably, the exterior and interior styling for the 1984 SuperCinq. So what did Renault or indeed Opron think they were doing in commissioning Ital Design to create this 1983 concept?
Based on the contemporary and deeply conservative Renault 9/11 platform, Gabbiano was a compact coupe-esque hatchback with a low penetrating nose, pronounced wedge profile and minimal rear overhang at its abrupt, if rather familiar looking tail. Huge gullwing doors provided the requisite visual drama as well as unimpeded access to the interior. They also lent the concept its name, Gabbiano meaning ‘gull’ in Italian.
Pitched as a coupé upon introduction by Renault, and with strong visual cues which clearly referenced both the incumbent R5 model, and indeed that car’s 1984 successor, it certainly offers a more radical take on Boué’s original Cinq than Gandini’s tentative and it appears, troubled 1984 reboot. Troubled you ask? Well, in a 1989 interview with Car, Gandini alluded to some of the battles he faced against an unbending Renault management, who were unwilling to make even minor mechanical changes, resulting in a car (Gandini claimed) whose bonnet line was too high and windscreen too upright.
So was Gabbiano something of a spoiler on Giugiaro’s part? It’s tempting to imagine his intention being to show up his bitter rival before his less arresting production version was announced. Giorgetto after all would certainly have known not only that the SuperCinq was close to production, but also who had been assigned to oversee its styling.
If however Gabbiano was simply an attempt by Renault at signalling the forthcoming Superfive, it was something of a misstep, especially since the production car paled into insignificance against Ital Design’s more radical looking interpretation, to say nothing of the legacy of the timeless original. We did see its nose treatment again however, in the facelift for the 1991 Alpine A610.
What probably happened of course was that with Superfive proving to be his final Renault design, Gandini was already gone. Giugiaro received the baton next; Ital Design being responsible for the visually underwhelming 19 and 21 ranges. Meanwhile, following the appointment of Patrick le Quément in 1987, external design was taken firmly back in-house, and consultants were no more. So in the Renault-based battle of the Italian styling giants, who came out on top? I’d be minded to call that one as a draw.