Marcello Gandini is rightly lauded as one of the great Italian car designers of the 20th century. However there is cause to suspect that he may have been allergic to cats.
The life of a design consultant is fraught with reversals. All that time spent scouting for commissions, late night oil expended preparing and revising proposals only to receive the thanks, but no-thanks brush-off from the prospective client.
For the Italian car design houses, this had become a way of life – some you win, some you lose. This was certainly the state of affairs in late 1973, when Jaguar’s then Managing Director, Geoffrey Robinson requested carrozzeria Bertone (along with rivals, Ital Design) to submit proposals for Browns Lane’s nascent XJ40 saloon programme.
During the early 1970s, Nuccio Bertone’s studio head, Marcello Gandini was at the peak of his creative powers with an enviable back catalogue of design landmarks created over a few short years at Stile Bertone’s Caprie facility. During this period, it seemed the Torinese designer couldn’t put a foot wrong, but while the highlights of this purple patch are justifiably lauded, to view it purely as a series of stylistic triumphs is to deny reality.
As documented in DTW’s in-depth XJ40 profile, Bertone submitted their proposal in June 1974, which was reviewed by Robinson, Lord Stokes and John Barber alongside rival studies by Ital Design, Pininfarina and Jaguar’s own studio. As documented in historian, Philip Porter’s 1986 ‘Project XJ40’ history, the results of this styling review were inconclusive, but what was apparent from the Jaguar insiders Porter interrogated on the subject is that while Stokes had been impressed with Pininfarina’s offering, nobody thought much of Gandini’s proposal.
But looking at what was presented, this can hardly have been surprising. In 1986, UK weekly, Motor published a series of early Gandini renders for the XJ project [top of page] and what can be discerned is that of a designer illustrating some basic grasp of Jaguar’s styling heritage and in particular the delicate lines of the existing XJ saloons. While details such as the concealed headlamps and somewhat transatlantic grille treatment were unlikely to have found favour, it was in essence a reasonable, if uninspired effort.
One which bears scant relationship to the bland confection which arrived at Allesley in early 1974. Having successfully established the basic styling theme in 1970 with the 2002-based Garmisch study for BMW, Gandini appears to have stretched and massaged it both for the Jaguar commission and for that of Maserati, who had also turned to Bertone for a luxury saloon shape to replace their Quattroporte model, first shown at that year’s Paris motor show.
But while the recently recreated BMW proposal embodied styling features readily associated with München-Milbertshofen, neither of the latter styling studies could be said to have evoked a similar sense of marque-specific recognition – the Jaguar in particular being a particularly nondescript piece of generic Italo-corporate design. It’s particularly telling that Bertone saw fit to affix a leaper to the bonnet, in a vain attempt to emphasise its identity.
But more puzzling than the creative banality of the Bertone proposal are the basic design errors that were made – a surprising lapse from someone of Marcello Gandini’s calibre and skill. From a proportional perspective, nothing quite gels, most notably the misalignment between C-pillar and rear wheel. Additionally, the awkward dipping tail treatment, a nod to Jaguar’s past, simply lends the shape a broken-backed appearance.
And while one could envisage this proposal forming the basis of a creditable large Fiat, (had the proportions been tidied up at least), of Jaguar there really wasn’t all that much upon which to hang one’s hat. Not that this deterred Marcello’s biographer, Gautam Sen, who in his 2017 Gandini retrospective lauded the Jaguar proposal, describing it as “a sharp suited bolide, that was both modern and elegant.”
Sen, whose faithful worship at the altar of maestro Gandini seemingly makes few concessions to impartiality, went on to suggest that “Robinson and team liked the design enough to ask for another proposal from Bertone, which followed in 1976.” That’s one way of putting it, but according to Browns Lane insiders, both Bertone and Ital Design’s proposals were rejected outright and revised studies demanded.
Bertone’s 1976 proposal was clearly an improvement, but fundamentally remained a country mile from where Jaguar’s engineering leadership envisaged as their preferred destination, once again rejecting both Gandini’s (and Giugiaro’s) revised efforts. However, Jaguar’s Bob Knight did concede that in his view, the Bertone study was “the most tolerable of the lot”, and from time to time is believed to have referred to it in order to ascertain how certain stylistic features had been executed.
Sen concludes that Bertone’s proposals directly inspired the final production car, and in that there is a grain of truth, albeit not nearly as much as maestro Gandini’s biographer would have us believe. Certainly, his assertion that XJ40’s rectangular headlamp units were amongst Bertone’s stylistic legacies studiously ignores the fact that Pininfarina had previously proposed a similar arrangement, or for that matter that Jaguar’s own styling team were thinking along broadly similar lines from the outset.
Carrozzeria Bertone never succeeded in obtaining a production commission from Jaguar, despite repeated attempts. There were a number of reasons for this, but the decisive one is simply that Jaguar’s design principles were in fundamental opposition to those of Marcello Gandini, a matter which came to a head with Bertone’s 1978 Ascot design study – a design which displayed no recognisable Jaguar visual attributes whatsoever.
If we agree that only Sir William Lyons was truly capable of designing Jaguars, it is perhaps unfair to expect brilliance from the hands of others. However, it’s apparent that Marcello Gandini was possessed of an equally narrow stylistic palette, albeit one which didn’t stretch to leaping cats.