Who were I.D.E.A anyway?
And then there were four.
Once dominated by the twin pillars of Bertone and Pininfarina, the leading Italian car-design consultancies found their hegemony (and profitability) threatened by the dramatic arrival during the early 1970s of a precocious interloper by the name of Giorgetto Giugiaro. His ItalDesign consultancy quickly established itself as a formidable adversary, capable of delivering turnkey projects in both product design and engineering.
A decade or so later, and seemingly just as abruptly, another significant player entered the field. By the tail end of the 1980s, the Institute of Development in Automotive Engineering (I.D.E.A) was going head to head with the big-hitting Italian carrozzeiri, having gained the patronage of Fiat with perhaps the largest and most ambitious vehicle programme in its history. Yet they appeared to have arrived from nowhere.
But did they? Founded by Franco Mantegazza, IDEA was created with a notably different ethos to its Torinese rivals. While Bertone, Pininfarina, ItalDesign and to a large extent, the smaller entities orbiting around the Fiat mothership still cleaved to a more romantic hand-beaten carrozzeria tradition, IDEA approached matters from a more pragmatic, engineering-led methodology.
Unlike his rivals, Mantegazza eschewed the show circuit and its stream of blue-sky concept cars, preferring to work directly with clients than gifting his ideas to rivals, as he outlined to journalist, Russell Bulgin in a 1990 issue of Car Magazine. But despite this somewhat different approach, he had the requisite skills, and given his prior background at Fiat France and Magneti Marelli, seemingly, the leverage to convince Fiat management of the validity of his arguments.
Mantegazza’s calling card was 1981’s Vettura Sperimentale per Sonosysteme (VSS), an engineering concept exploring the use of a conventional unitary structure supporting non-load-bearing composite bodypanels, which could be bolted or bonded in place, reducing weight, complexity, costs and complication. The Ritmo-based VSS was an entirely rational design, one where style became a secondary concern over the central idea, one taken on board with some seriousness by Fiat.
Mantegazza was at pains to underline that he was a mechanical engineer, ‘not a designer’, telling Bulgin, “I am convinced the time is finished for nice styling, where you draw down a few lines and change the face of the car.” His approach was to design the entire system for making the car, not simply the vehicle itself; a philosophy explored with the 1988 Tipo model and its adaptable, modular platform, described by Bulgin as VSS made flesh.
Closer to it conceptually and in material form was General Motors’ Pontiac Fiero, whose VSS-style body structure and cladding IDEA also claimed to have contributed to. Closer still perhaps, if somewhat later was a vehicle closer to Mantegazza’s own heart: ‘Twelve years ago, I recommended to one of my best Italian clients to make a car like this, because one of the results of VSS was to be able to make a car like the Espace. And I had tragic problems to be understood. I was told, “it’s another division which makes vans”’ So it is therefore not a huge stretch to imagine VSS also informing the thinking behind the spaceframe structure which underpinned the clever and misunderstood Fiat Multipla MPV of 1998.
But in addition to both US and Italian car giants, IDEA is also believed to have worked with the likes of Volvo, BMW, Ferrari and Nissan. Former Zagato and part-time BMW senior designer, Ercole Spada became a fixture at IDEA’s Moncalieri headquarters, situated in the hills above Turin (a few kilometres from ItalDesign’s nerve centre), as did the father of the Alfasud, eminent former Fiat and Porsche engineer, Rudolf Hruska. Indeed, some have suggested that IDEA was less a carrozzeria and more something akin to a skunkworks for Fiat’s Vittorio Ghidella to allow future thinking to take place away from the politics and frequent chaos of Lignotto or centro stile.
There was no shortage of future thought from the rapid-fire Mantegazza, amongst which was the issue of urban mobility. “It is unthinkable in the future to drive in towns – not only London, but also small towns like Bergamo or Brighton,” he told Bulgin. Discounting electric vehicles on the basis of the pollution associated with its generation and the difficulty in obtaining the requisite supply, he proposed instead “a short car, a very light car with a very light engine.” He believed that a larger-capacity slow-revving engine could be made to run more efficiently than a smaller unit, “so we arrive nearer zero pollution.” Thirty years on, has all that much changed?
He also saw more clearly than some the future for the carrozzieri. “We are four today in Turin – in the future we will be two,” suggesting that the contemporary business model had about “five or six years” left in it. The inference he made was that that it would be ItalDesign and with a following wind, IDEA that would prevail, both Pininfarina and Bertone having become too big and tellingly, too diverse. It might have taken longer, and it didn’t quite pan out that way, but he was correct in the essentials.
But as Fiat shifted from the progressive Ghidella era to the disastrous reign of Canterella, product decisions became less clarified, the less clarified models failed in the market, and the subsequent failures brought about contraction. Consultancies like IDEA, to say nothing of the traditional carrozzeria would be collateral damage for the decline and eventual fall of Fiat Auto.
But in the Spring of 1990, this denouement seemed to be anything but the case. During the 1970s, Mantegazza claimed to have told Fiat management, “you are too poor to make cars!” He probably didn’t realise it then, but it is quite likely that never a truer assertion was put to them.