Robert Opron – In Memoriam

By their works you will know them…

Citroën CX. Image: likewheels

On the 29th March, automotive designer, architect and artist, Robert Opron departed this life, aged 89. According to an obituary published on the Citroenvie website, while he was believed to have been in failing health, the cause of death was officially attributed to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Opron’s career was by most accounts illustrious – having enjoyed an early stint at Simca (1958 – 1960), it would encompass lead design roles at both Citroën (1962 – 1974) and Renault (1975 – 1984), in addition to some fruitful later work as a freelancer for centro stile FIAT in the late 1980s/ early 1990s. However, his legacy, especially at the latter two more storied French carmakers, was abruptly truncated – in the former case by his flat refusal to work under Peugeot, and in the latter it would appear, by internal politics.

Creatively speaking, his decade-long stint at Citroën was probably a career highlight, overseeing the facelifted DS of 1967 (a truly daunting task for any young designer), albeit one which had been initiated by his predecessor, Flaminio Bertoni, prior to his death in 1964. The trio of groundbreaking SM, GS and CX models which followed from 1970 – 1974 were largely responsible for the codification of Citroën design throughout the following two decades.

It has been stated that the primary reason Opron was viewed as a desirable appointment by Renault was Billancourt Management’s keenness to secure the services of the CX’s creative overseer – the feeling being that the Gaston Juchet helmed R30 was not entirely the luxury saloon Renault felt it needed. And while Opron’s tenure at Renault amounted to something of a mixed bag in creative terms, the R25 he delivered in 1984 certainly can be said to have been an appropriate riposte.

It could equally be asserted that both Citroën and Renault’s design quality suffered following Opron’s respective departures – that of Renault’s only recovering in the wake of Patrick le Quément’s appointment in 1987, whereas at Vélizy, it’s quite plausible to suggest it has never quite recovered – although how much of this is down to stylistic leadership alone remains a point of debate.

Robert Opron (left) during his stint at Renault, with Marcello Gandini (centre) and Gaston Juchet (right). (c)

Opron’s qualities as stylistic overseer remain a matter of debate – (Jean Giret latterly describing him as the best senior designer he worked under); but what is inconvertible is that during his tenure, he not only bolstered Citroën’s design strength, but proposed a far-seeing proposal to set up a North American design studio for Renault, during their ill-fated alliance with AMC. He also seemed content to accord his colleagues their due – unlike many contemporaries of his seniority, who to this day assert stylistic ownership of designs for which they never drew a line.

A modest and cultured man then, and one who despite a growing recognition – especially from within double chevron enthusiast circles, remains something of an outlier in automotive design terms. Judging from his biography, it’s unlikely he was particularly interested in fame, or its trappings, living out his time since retirement (he officially retired in 1992) in the house he designed in Antony, Hauts-de-Seine. Nevertheless, both his creative palmarès and his legacy to the art of car design deserve wider recognition.

A good start would be L’Automobile et l’Art by Peter J. Piljman, which covers his career in lavishly presented book form, a publication which received a thorough review here. An equally well crafted overview of Opron’s futuristic 1959 Fulgar concept for Simca is recommended reading here.

Robert Opron: February 1932 – March 2021. RIP

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

43 thoughts on “Robert Opron – In Memoriam”

  1. Good morning Eóin and thank you for a fitting tribute to a great designer. It’s difficult to choose a single Opron design as marking the zenith of his career, but I’ll opt for his masterful facelift of the DS, an extraordinary challenge given the beauty of the original. The new front end modernised the car and perfectly complemented its flowing lines:

    Rest in peace.

  2. This is a case of beating my own drum, but I genuinely believe that DTW’s readership would appreciate these tributes to Opron, as a supplement to Eoin’s excellent obituary: (Patrick le Quément on Opron) (Designers & critics on Opron’s legacy)

  3. Those are indeed worth a look, Christopher.
    If I had to choose two cars from Opron´s ouevre, it would be the CX and Renault 25. The R25 is a remarkable design as it looks like nothing else and doesn´t look strange. The same goes for the CX, drenched in Citroen cues but not a melange. It takes considerable skill to manage that.

    1. I always thought the big problem with the R25 was the Renault badge…

    2. For a complete car (as opposed to a facelift) the Renault 25 would also get my vote, especially in these lovely warm colours:

    3. Mervyn: do you mean the typography of the Renault badge or is this a teeny little bit of badge snobbery? I have to candidly admit that when a car journalist (as I have read many times) say that x or y car is good for a, b and c reasons but the badge is a problem is not telling me what he or she thinks of the car but what he or she thinks other people think. That´s really not their job, not in a review anyway. It´s okay for you not to like Renault but I wouldn´t call it a “problem”. I am reformed Opel-hater, who for years swallowed the conventional wisdom that it was okay to write “nice car but it´s an Opel/Vauxhall” and I rebelled. And anytime I see that rhetoric I get a wee bit provoked. Sorry! I need another Dubonnet!

    4. A LWB Renault 25 is on sale for almost 20,000 euro in Berlin. There are 10 25s for sale on and most of them cost around 5,000 euros, with one for around 2K. There are 60+ CXs on sale. It seems the Renault 25 is not that much appreciated.

    5. How odd – the Citroën and Renault sold in roughly similar numbers (1 million CXs versus 750,000 Renaults), yet the survival rate of CXs is much larger. I would guess that more CXs were bought privately and looked after by enthusiasts, whereas 25s were bought as business vehicles, used, and then scrapped.

      Heuliez only produced 832 LWB 25s, so that one is rare. There’s an ‘as new’ one for sale in Spain.

    6. At least the Renault 25 has its fans here on DTW. Ironically, I think it was closer to what Renault was trying to achieve during its later ‘Createur d’Automobiles’ period than the wilfully eccentric Avantime or Vel Satis.

    7. Charles: the main reason for the difference in the survival rates is that Renault do not make cars people fall in love with. How such an ethos can persist across decades inside a company is explained by the same way local and national cultures persist, I suppose. Although we could be interested in a local culture to do with food or social customs, you could see car companies as kinds of communities situated in spaces and where values can in a cumulative way prevail over the free-will of individuals inside the companies. We imagine we have free will and so we do yet we also must acknowledge the general cumulative effect of the values of the society or community we live in. In the Renault community the aim is conventional engineering which leads to fundamentally good but rather bland entities. The visual appearance can run counter to this. There´s a large batch of very appealing cars from Renault. I would guess that good looks are not enough to make one want to keep a car.

    8. This 25 interior looks properly comfy with it’s warm colour palette (although it’s a shame the dashboard cowl is still black).

      Is it tasteful (as opposed to fashionable, which it clearly is not)? I’m not sure. It would be considered vulgar in a domestic house interior

    9. It looks very comfortable and inviting. It also looks like the sofa in the play ‘Abigail’s Party’, but that doesn’t matter.

      I know that someone (on Top Gear?) once wondered why we should have car interiors with materials and colours which we wouldn’t tolerate in our homes. I think that’s a bit of a dead-end argument, as a car interior has a very specific purpose. Why shouldn’t it have its own aesthetic values?

    10. The R25 isn’t a bad looking car, but quite frankly it leaves me cold. I’ve never driven one, but been a passenger a couple of times. Apart from a noisy engine, some squeaks and rattles and the futuristic, yet annoying, talking computer it struck me as completely unremarkable.

    11. Good morning Charles. I had exactly the same thought about ‘Abagail’s Party’ when I saw that photo. Great minds etc! For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the BBC production is well worth hunting down.

    12. Opron was a bit like the chap at Volvo, Wilsgaard: there isn´t an Opron style. Each project was handled according to the needs at the time. You could say the same about Le Quement who also has the knack of channelling good ideas rather than stamping a personal look on his cars.

  4. A live well lived has come to an end. Not sure which car is the highlight of his career. I’ll settle for either the SM or CX. I have a soft spot for the A310 and SZ as well, but not to the same extent.

    1. It probably looked good at the time, but I don’t think the facelifted R25 has aged well. I much prefer the original without the wider lights and reprofiled bumpers. I wonder if M. Opron had any input into it?

    2. Given that Opron departed Billancourt in 1984, it’s probable that Gaston Juchet, who succeeded him as styling chief, oversaw the facelifted model, which to some extent, dropped hints of its eventual successor – the less than lovely Safrane. The 25 and Alpine GTA which followed were to some extent, logical and more pragmatic progressions of CX and SM aesthetics. Both were fine designs in their own rights, and deserve a better hearing, in my view.

      Thanks to all for your comments and a warm welcome to Marc.

  5. I love that he looked as French as the designs he was responsible for. If there was a more successful facelift than that of the DS, I can’t think of it. I love that he refused to work under Peugeot. I remember seeing the new Renault 25 at the motor show and being blown away by it.

    Rest in peace.

    1. “If there was a more successful facelift than that of the DS…….”

      Series three XJ, perhaps?

  6. Thank you for the tribute – it’s inspired me to go and find out more about his life.

    His job interview with Bertoni at Citroën was ‘unusual’, to say the least. When Opron showed Bertoni his drawings, Bertoni said that he didn’t like them, and pushed them to the floor. Opron then told Bertoni to get stuffed. He nevertheless signed his contract to join Citroën a few days later. He actually got on quite well with Bertoni, subsequently.

    As M. Le Quément says in his tribute on Christopher’s DFT site, Opron appears to have been somewhat sidelined at Renault. It always surprises me how often experts are employed and then ignored, especially in the creative industries.

    RIP, M. Opron.

  7. No question, Opron was a great one.

    And yes, DS-Facelift, SM, R25 and all the others were very, very good.
    But for me, he turned the light on in 2000 when he did the Ligier Dragon Fly. Hardly any design on four wheels has ever triggered such a “want to have” feeling in me. And it shows how young this old man still was in his old age.

    1. Looks like fun, like a cross between an Ariel Atom and a golf cart!

    1. Eoin: I have read the article about the GS, and I enjoyed it. What I actually meant was that the GS is a good candidate for being Oprons greatest achievment, but those things are of course subjective..😊

    2. Good point. Nice and all as the R25 and Fuego were they are, as it were Phil Collins (he had excellent producers such as Hugh Padgham) compared to the GS as Eno.

  8. Eoin: I have read the article about the GS, and I enjoyed it. What I actually meant was that the GS is a good candidate for being Oprons greatest achievment, but those things are of course subjective..😊

  9. I love 1980s Renaults, most of which I suppose had Robert Opron’s seal of approval at the very least and maybe even a bit of his hand in them. Even the bland Renault 9 has very good proportions and a kind of airiness or lightness to it, especially the early first-gen versions. But this is so subtle as to be easy to miss, and then you’re left with just the blandness.

    1. Hi Cesar. I’m afraid the appeal of the Renault 9 was lost on me. I must take another look at it.

    2. Hi Daniel and Richard,

      Indeed, the trouble with the poor Renault 9 is that those subtleties don’t really show in photographs and finding a proper one on the streets to look at with renewed eyes is nearly impossible now. Having said that, there is a rather tatty but original R9 near my home so I’ve recently had a chance to see it in the metal and really sink in its design and proportions. It’s tiny and compact by today’s standards, of course, but what I find most interesting is how high the floor behind the rear wheels looks.

      Here is what I mean:

      The bottom of the third volume is so high that the inside of the rear wheel centres are completely exposed without having to lean down too much. I think this quirk, together with the narrow wheels, gives it an air of being on tippy toes in typical old-school French fashion.

      I mean, I’m not singing undeserved praise for the R9, it is bland, but looking at it in the metal with the benefit of years passed by, I can see a subtle virtue to it.

    3. Hi Cesar and Richard. Thank you for your comments on the Renault 9. I can see that it is nicely proportioned and a pleasantly ‘quiet’ design, but I have just been a bit indifferent to it. This is partly because my first experience of the 9 was when my brother-in-law’s brother (or my sister’s brother-in-law!) replaced his Renault 18 with one. I really liked the 18’s subtle bodyside curvature and thought the 9 looked ‘flat and boring’ by comparison.

      I think my issue is with the horizontal crease lines in the bodysides of the 9. There are three of them, which I think is one (or two) too many for a small car. The indented area between the lower two creases makes the bodysides look ‘weak’ and ‘thin’ to my eyes.

      This is, of course, just a personal viewpoint. If I find time, I might play with the 9 to see if I can ‘improve’ it!

    4. Not the 9, but a previous effort on my part to clean up the side profile of the 11. Original vs my modified version:

      Better, worse, or neither?

    5. Hi Daniel,

      Funny enough I actually like those crease lines on the R9 🙂 Here’s a video of an almost perfect R9 on sale a few years ago in KGF Classic Cars. Look at that spotless beige interior Richard!

      By the way, the videos in this channel are strangely soothing and mostly feature regular cars and sometimes the occasional oddballs and marketing specials. I love watching them and hearing the click and clack of the door mechanisms, so soothing. Oh, I’ve just revealed my car geek side, haha!

    6. I remember that R11 reinterpretation from when I didn’t participate here. Well done but sorry, here I prefer the original. If I can say that I see the quiet subtleness of the R9, I have to say that I positively love everything about the R11, especially a high spec version with the side plastic, blacked out tailgate, and spoiler!

    7. The double crease on the bodyside, was I suppose, meant to be seen as one indentation instead of two lines. The creases are too far apart. Still, making a small saloon look acceptable is not easy and this one gets it right.

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