The Big Idea

Who were I.D.E.A anyway? 

(c) auto-forever

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.

1981 Fiat VSS. (c) Influx

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.

(c) influx

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.

1992-1998 Alfa Romeo 155. (c)

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

54 thoughts on “The Big Idea”

  1. Hi Eoin,

    I’ve always heard about I.D.E.A when growing up because it was always mentioned in car magazines but I didn’t know the story behind it so thank you for this informative piece.

    Regarding his offering of ideas to rival companies it looks like this Fiat prototype became the Daewoo Kalos. It’d be fun to try and find other designs they gave away. Also, while perusing Google Image after typing ‘I.D.E.A prototipo Fiat’ I found this interesting Fiat Lampo concept which I didn’t know or forgot about. It’s from 1994 and it was commissioned to mark the launch of the Punto I think.

    1. Great find with the Lampo. I liked it when it came out and looking at it 25 years later, it still holds up. It reminds me, oddly, of the Ferrari Mythos concept in that what appears to be essentially a one box shape is created with two intersecting spaces or voids, if I’m getting the design terminology correct. It, the Lampo, is also full of neat details, like the sparse “grill” that echoes that of the Coupe Fiat, the subtle flare in the wings, the indent in the hood behind the badge and, most of all, the red spoiler.

      I recall the Lampo being one of a raft of concepts Fiat commissioned from the carrozzeiri for the Punto launch and that they did the same for the unveiling of the Bravo/a and, for all I know, probably other vehicles. One loss from the end of the design consultancy business model and Fiat’s patronage of such is that we don’t get a look at how they might have riffed on FCA’s current line up. We could have seen something better than the current Tipo.

  2. While researching I.D.E.A i came across this car I didn’t know about. It’a a Dacia Latsun. It looks intriguing. Nothing to do with I.D.E.A I think.

    1. That looks a bit like a SWB Lancia Y10 Mk1! (How improbable is that!) It was actually in production for three years from 1988 to 1991. Here’s a rather tidier example:

      Incidentally, it’s called “Lastun” not “Latsun”.

  3. The VSS might have made an interesting larger sibling to the original Panda. I’ve always liked the idea of flexible (and self-coloured?) composite panels for the exposed bodywork of a “utility” vehicle. Such a vehicle is likely to be subjected to less care than a traditional car, so panels that will flex rather than dent and not show scratches like painted steel sound very appealing.

    For a utility vehicle, the style is really quite appealing. Here’s the front three-quarter view of the VSS:

    I like the fact that its not styled to look self-consciously or overtly “utilitarian”. If it lost the external tailgate hinges and, possibly, thoes slightly awkward “ears” behind the rear door, it would really be rather smart.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Although their concept is entirely different the VSS reminds me of Citroen’s Berlingo Bulle concept.

      Regarding the Multipla I like this sketch (bottom, left) which shows the thinking behind the dashboard agencement. They compare it to a desk with the computer, fan, etc… arranged in the most practical way as opposed to the traditional dashboard layout which would resemble a desk with the objects on it all lumped together in the most unpractical way.

    2. Good morning, NRJ. I agree about the rational dashboard layout. The exterior design sketch at top-left shows an upswept waistline and a slimmer front end that is almost sleek, if less distinctive than the original production model.

      What’s going on in the sketch bottom-right? It looks like an elevating roof for taller passengers!

    3. With regards to this dashboard arrangement I don’t think (I.DE.A’s ?) idea is necessarily true. With an office desk, even if you don’t use a wheeled chair you still have more room to move around but in a car, stuck in your seat and buckled up, all the switches, stalks and equipment need to be within easy reach.

    4. Daniel,

      Me too I tried to understand the bottom right sketch. I think it might show that the cabin has been elevated (compared to a normal MPV ?) for the occupant’s comfort ?

      A few other propositions:

      Btw, since I signed up with WordPress yesterday all my comments go through the moderation queue, I’am sorry if it creates more work for the site’s admin. I don’t know if it’s possible to go back to the old way. I tried logging out but to no avail. I can’t even get rid of the avatar which was just a test i n the first place.

    5. I think the dashboard arrangement doesn’t necessarily mean that things are out of reach. At least in the pictures of the real dashboard it doesn’t seem this way. I guess the I.D.E.A is rather to have a three-dimensional arrangement of the things instead of just lining them up and stacking them in a wall. One could argue that it’s more intuitive for reaching the controls, but also that it’s breaking up the visual wall and provides a broader horizon.

      The elevated / lifting cabin puzzles me as well. An exchangeable module? Cabin with height adjustment? Or just a way to show that the seating position is higher than in a standard vehicle?

      Whatever it is, I like the unaggressive, cheerful, but still rational futurism in everything we see here – the Multipla, the VSS and also (much toned down) the Tipo and its siblings.

    6. Hi NRJ. Regarding your posts going to moderation. This happens to me if I insert more than two photos into a single post. This happened before I signed up to WordPress and didn’t change afterwards. My work-around is to post any additional photos separately (or at least no more than two to a post).

      Hope this might be helpful.

    7. Daniel, thanks for the tip. Like you, my messages went to moderation when adding more than 2 pics but even my posts without pictures go through the queue. I found a workaround I think by using Edge instead of Chrome.

    8. That’s interesting, NRJ. I actually use the proprietary browser on my Samsung tablet rather than Chrome because DTW seemed to cause Chrome to freeze. However, I use Chrome for DTW on my laptop and it works fine there. All a bit odd.

    9. I take that back Daniel, switching to Edge didn’t help, as soon as I enter my email adress it recognises me, adds the avatar, and sends it off to the queue. I might create a new email address and start from scratch, thank you again.

  4. That concept dash is a lot cooler then the one in the actual production model.
    I’ve always been a Multipla fan, but the dash has always been a weak point as its a bit too messy – the concept version with the globe shaped fan pod actually makes it work in some deranged way.

  5. “What’s going on in the sketch bottom-right? It looks like an elevating roof for taller passengers!”

    I took it as either some sort of modular concept where the entire passenger cell can be swapped out (good luck getting that into production), or it’s simply to emphasise the unusual two-part nature of the exterior profile.

  6. The entire thinking behind I.D.E.A. is fascinating. That concept (that seemingly ‘inspired’ the Kalos) is so actual looking, it’d be totally
    acceptable today in 2020.

    VSS is rather innovative in that it (unlike the Espace and/or the IFA Trabant) employs composite panels in order to effectively shorten the length of the inner structure/bodyshell, thereby, not unlike in a racecar, effectively centralising the weight and deleting unnecessary weight from both extremities of the vehicle. It seems that the VSS bodyshell is almost an entire 100cm shorter than the car itself,
    which is a groundbreaking achievement.

    Its also puzzling to see a feature that seems to appear both in VSS and the Tipo – namely, the intentional deletion of an explicit rearmost pillar (C- or D- pillar, respectively). It’s as if they wanted
    the profile to be less ‘dependent’ from the inherent dominance of the rearmost pillar in a two-volume car (a Supercinq being a prime example), and thus ‘decomposed’ the ‘dominant pillar’ into several individual, prismatic forms. More often than not, in two-volume designs, the rearmost pillar’s prominence gives an overly aggressive, overly ‘sporty’/potent appearance to the profile, leaving an entire customer target group cold.

    Perhaps certain marketing analysis had shown that the market
    for sedan versions (eg. Ritmo vs. Regata) was not only trunk-volume triggered, but apparently there were lots of customers who deemed
    a hatchback to be visually too aggressive. In the VSS thinking, a sedan would be practically impossible (it’d be also against the concept), so perhaps they were looking for a way how to make a hatchback appeal also to the conventional, ‘typical sedan buyer’.

    The Fiat Lampo concept also reminds us, strikingly so, about how forward I.D.E.A.’s thinking was back then – it’s just a massive
    loss that their seismically fresh approach was not able
    to protrude deeper into the industry relevance.

    1. The door glass shapes are a bit late 90’s Peugeot. A 307 saloon, perhaps? Here’s the production model:

      But…see below!

    1. There’s a FIAT badge on the last one.

      Is that a clue? 😁

    2. Not the 307 and yes the brand is a clue. The 3 cars are different proposals for the same production car.

    3. Fiat Siena, a smallish three-box saloon mainly for the South American market?

      Here’s the production model:

    4. Ok this 4th proposal might help you more. I didn’t want to post it because it’s more obvious with that one

  7. Marea. Deduced from approximate size and likely vintage. I searched for Marea proposals and a related Bravo proposal turned up. ID/Giugiaro did a lot of Hyundais and this looks like one of them to me.

    1. gooddog !! Iam so happy to hear from you. I thought you might have ended up as a snack in a vietnamese truck stop café. Both you and Daniel answered at 22.44 so there’s no winner 😦

    2. Hi NRJ, Nope, I was crated and passed the time barking at CUV’s, it didn’t help.

    3. I can’t recall a Hyundai that looked like this, which was are you referring to ?

    4. S-Coupe, rear fender. He did one for Subaru too and just like with these FIATs the front and rear fenders don’t match, I think the device works much better on the Subaru.

    5. Sorry I thought you were referring to the hatch proposal you posted earlier.
      There’s a bit of Daewoo Espero too perhaps in that Dedra proposal even though Bertone was responsible for the Korean car.

    6. I believe it’s called the Scoupe (“skoop”) btw, you silly dog.

  8. Yes ! congrats Daniel, you win the chance to guess this one now. Much more difficult since we can’t see the brand but we’re still in Italy.

    1. Alfa, the 145 and 146. The second one even has wheel covers from the production car.

    2. Very good Daniel ! I totally forgot the wheels could be a giveaway !

    1. It’s quite a weird one that one gooddog but it’s interesting, it’s almost MPV-like at the front. I don’t know who was responsible for it.

    1. Hmm, that’s an interesting one, NRJ. The front looks like a Peugeot/Citroen van, the rear like a Japanese one-box MPV. Am I remotely warm?

      Where are you finding these images? They’re fascinating.

    2. The rear part is quite Toyota Previa, that was my first association. But then I saw the front…

    3. Hi Daniel, Simon,

      It was the Italian proposal for the 806/Evasion(Synergie)/Ulysse/Zeta. In the end PSA designed the MPV but it looks like the Italians were thinking ‘big’ and ‘American/Japanese’ for their van. I collect these pics here and there on the net, they come up when I do my researches and usually I saved them, I used to have hundreds stored but not anymore.

  9. I have always romanticized the IDEA of the “hand-beating carrozzeria traditions.” However, my understanding of engineering cannot help but respect the ingenuity of the “non-load-bearing composite bodypanel” from the Mantegazza led consultancy. I must admit that my knowledge regarding I.D.E.A is somewhat wanting. I have focused more of my attention on the contributions of Pininfarina to Ferrari, but I appreciate the thought that has went into your piece. I have found it very insightful indeed.

  10. Very interesting piece on a largely-forgotten carrozzeria. Interestingly, Renzo Piano was initially involved – he set up the enterprise in conjunction with Mantegazza, and apparently the notion of assembling a built-up car from sub-assemblies was his, er, idea, although his presence within I.DE.A. only lasted about a year or so. Interestingly, the design credit for the VSS is assigned to one Walter da Silva. I am a fan of it as well – one aspect I especially like is the soft curvature between the horizontal and vertical in the clamshell bonnet, which is strikingly distinct for 1979 considering everyone was still busy with razor-sharp wedges then. Doubtless Mantegazza’s background in plastic injection presses and moulding machines was influential here.

    I remember well the series of concepts based on the Bravo/a from virtually the entire gamut of Italian coachbuilders – if I recall correctly, Fiat gave them each a car and basically told them to have at it. Turin ’96, wasn’t it? Who could possibly have known that just four years later the Turin show would be all over! The 1996 show in many ways was the final public flourish for the Italian industry at large, and certainly for many of the smaller fish.

    Looking back, I.DE.A. really soared for a while there, didn’t they? For a while, it seemed like they were getting just about every Fiat Group commission going, between the Tipo Due, Tipo Tre, Palio and Kappa. A couple of points I learned recently, though. The Lybra is generally credited to Centro Stile, but in fact the base proposal chosen was from I.DE.A., albeit with notable influence from Fumia’s team, especially for the SW. On the subject, too, I recently came across some mock-ups proposed by Fumia to update the Kappa prior to launch – sort of a pre-launch facelift, proposing changes to the front and rear – that drew heavily on his themes for the Y and his rejected Lybra model. It’s quite an interesting design but I tend to think the chosen solution was the right way to go – it certainly looks less dated than Fumia’s revisions, although I have to admit to a soft spot for the k.

    I think I am also on record here as saying that the Daewoo Nubira grew out of Giugiaro’s initial proposals for the 156. I have subsequently been reminded that this might have been tricky considering he only did the Lanos and Leganza – I.DE.A. has the credit for the Nubira. You must admit, though – it does look a LOT like the Nubira, doesn’t it?

    Incidentally, speaking of crossover… I know it’s a Giugiaro design, but does anyone else think the Idea mini-MPV could easily have come from I.DE.A. if they were still designing production cars at that stage? While that period was an era when design had started to move away from the heavy dose of rationalism that I.DE.A.’s cars tended to invoke, the Idea is pretty restrained in its allocation of superfluous addenda, no? There is something about the surfacing that puts one in mind of the Tipo-based cars – not quite flimsiness, exactly, but something far from the unibloc effect that Piech-era VAG of that era was prioritising at that stage.

    1. Fascinating stuff there Stradale. I must say I rather like it. But then I preferred Fumia’s proposed Lybra as well. Those three would have made for quite a cohesive range, would it not?

      As regards the GG 156 proposal, while it’s obvious Giorgetto et al did most of the heavy lifting, one has to credit Zbigniew Maurer (if it was indeed he) for tidying it up so masterfully. I also see the Nubria. Small world in carrozzeria-land though, wasn’t it

    2. Apparently, the Fumia designs for the Lybra that are all over the web were proposed for a different platform from the one that was eventually used – the Fumia car was designed to share a platform with the next-generation Croma. When that was axed in 1992, the project shifted to the 156/Marea underpinnings. I liked the Fumia designs too, and think they would have tied in well with the Y, but for mine there’s something rather odd about the equivalent Kappa proposals? I quite like the rear treatment, although I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an improvement on the production car, but that style of front end feels somewhat forced on the k where it feels fluid (for want of a better descriptor) on the Y. More detail on the Lybra here if you’re interested, including the development of the I.DE.A. proposals:

      Click to access classicita.pdf

    3. At least that, er, challenging front end didn’t go to waste:

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