Word on a Wing

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?

1983 Ital Design Gabbiano. Image: Weilinet

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?

Image: oldconceptcars

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.

Image: Weilinet

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Word on a Wing”

  1. Probably the most important and notable Gandini’s work for Renault was the Magnum/AE with its breakthrough architecture. A former designer told they were astounded when they discovered the scale mock-up in its wooden case. As he said, it was a real design lesson.

  2. I’ll have to add this to the list of XM influences. The XM would have been better with the bumper/body/rubstrip concept shown here. The XM did a better job of the A-pillar and mirror; this car fudges it (seen in front three-quarter view).

  3. There’s something appealingly juvenile about the approach ItalDesign often seemed to take with concept cars which was to try to make everything look like a supercar.

  4. That’s because it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Did Renault really order something like this beforehand? Or did Giugiaro do this on pure speculation in his own? If he wanted to get a foot into the Renault business, he could’ve courted them with this little more cheerful approach. That would also explain why Giugiaro wanted to imitate the styling precedent set by Gandini, he wanted to show Renault he could out-Gandini Gandini on his own home turf. The Italian Carozzerria have been known to make stuff on pure speculation, then trying to shop it around if the intended buyer didn’t bite. Like how Bertone’s Volvo Tundra concept became the Citroën BX.

    1. The Gabbiano was shown in 1983, but of course it may have originally dated from before that time. It’s tempting to see it as a calling card on Giugiaro’s part, and perhaps it originally was. If so, it was a rather pointed one. Did Renault commission Ital Design, or was it a pre-emptive strike? Who knows, but Renault did allow for it to be shown, which suggests Gandini was already out of favour by then. Otherwise why do so?

      Gandini’s Tundra did become the Citroën BX, but not before it was proposed as quite a number of other things first. I came across a photo today of two proposals for the model that became the Renault 9. The Bertone proposal in the background appears to be essentially a three volume BX as far as I can see.

    2. It look to be slightly smaller than the BX, adjusted to the shorter, taller, and more upright package of the R9. But it’s really funny, because it’s so obviously a Gandini design, it has all the Gandini trademarked tell tales. While the production R9 is so obviously an Option design with his trademarked wrap around rear screen. Friendly competition indeed….

  5. It’s a common error to say the Tundra became before the BX. Even if it was unveiled before, the BX was already in the pipe and maybe frozen when Gandini imagined and developed the Tundra. I let you imagine how mad was the Citroën management when they discovered the Volvo concept!

    I’ve read a long time ago Gaston Juchet was the initiator of the Gandini collaboration. Just a speculation but my feeling here is that Opron ordered the Gabbiano to GG in order to introduce him at Renault. Potentially to prepare the after-Gandini (the contract deadline was close) and probably also to break the outstanding duo Gandini-Juchet and therefore sideline Juchet…

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