By their works you will know them…
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.
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