New Positions in Car Design

If you suffer from metamfiezomaiophobia(1) you should look away now.


Within the circle of those who habitually frequent these pages, the Italian architect and industrial designer Mario Bellini (born 1935) is most likely best known for his contribution to the facelifted Lancia Beta and the Trevi: the controversial ‘Swiss cheese’ dashboard was his brainchild. Bellini ventured into the automotive spectrum on a few other occasions as well, one of which resulted in today’s subject.

Bellini, who among other things designed lamps for Artemide, office furniture for Vitra, fountain pens, coffeemakers and Olivetti typewriters, emphasises that he always designs like an architect, regardless of the subject at hand. The cultural aspect of architectural design, organizing the world for better living, was always close to his heart. When invited by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1972 to collaborate with Citroën and Pirelli to produce an automotive exhibit for a major exhibition titled ‘Italy: the New Domestic Landscape’, he jumped at the chance.

A resident of Milan, Bellini had become increasingly worried about the damage inflicted on the countless priceless historical buildings in his beloved city caused by exhaust emissions steadily blackening and eroding their facades. There were just too many vehicles around, often being utilised in an inefficient manner as well. This phenomenon was, of course, not limited to Milan or Italy, and if something was not done, it would be only a matter of time before the damage to city landscapes (not to mention the people living in them) would become irreversible; thus Bellini set about reimagining the automobile – as well as its role in society – on a conceptual level in order to answer this challenge.

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The result, christened Kar a Sutra and sitting on a Citroën DS platform, was quite new and radical, and arguably something that required an architect’s vision to come up with. Outwardly, the twenty foot long Kar a Sutra resembled a giant Citroën Méhari with its square, plastic body covered in prominent horizontal ridges.

An important difference, however, was the presence of a very glassy top that started with a quite steeply angled windshield that began ahead of the front wheels and stretched all the way to the back of the vehicle. This created a profile in essence similar to the Renault Espace that was still well over a decade away. This top could be moved up and down to accommodate the needs and preferences of its occupants. Bellini envisioned the Kar a Sutra as a mobile space to be utilized in a variety of configurations – moving a piano, camping, having a business meeting, playing games, sleeping and having sex – which presumably was the reason for its provocative name.

Now, one could counter that all of the aforementioned activities could and can be – within limitations – performed in a regular car as well. That said, the unifying thought behind the ‘open plan’ architecture of the Kar a Sutra, however, was that driver and passengers could engage with the outside world and make themselves comfortable in any way and position they chose, without feeling cut off from that outside world.

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You will have noticed that an essential item seems to be missing in the interior of the Kar a Sutra: a steering wheel (or anything resembling an instrument panel for that matter). This is because Bellini considered the Kar a Sutra not as a marketable product but rather a catalyst for discussion, conversation and hopefully change: “The Kar a Sutra car is not a real product. It’s something to talk about the meaning of moving. A new territory, visiting around and having people involved with this adventure” explained the Italian architect in the catalogue accompanying the MoMA exhibition.

Whatever one may think about its execution, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Bellini was about fifty years ahead of his time with his mobile human space concept where traditional physical piloting of a car will literally take more and more of a back seat. “As a means of locomotion serving almost exclusively individual ends, and at very high cost, the automobile will in any case reach some critical limit in the extent of its indeterminate multiplication. It is principally in the perspective of human space in motion that the automobile must discover its own proper role, the reasons for its own survival as a positive force.” commented Bellini.

The Kar a Sutra was awarded the 1973 Premio Bolaffi Arte Design, and Mario Bellini would do design consultancy work for Renault starting in 1978. No details are available as to what exactly Bellini’s role and influence amounted to in Billancourt, but does it not seem conceivable that his basic Kar a Sutra idea helped forming the concept of the seminal first Espace?

(1) A fear of mimes, clowns and people in disguise.

Sources: Mario Bellini quotes are taken from the 1972 MoMA catalogue for the exhibition ‘Italy: the New Domestic Landscape’.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

25 thoughts on “New Positions in Car Design”

  1. Thanks, Bruno. I don’t know the exact timelines, but I was under the impression that the Espace was developed by Matra and offered to Peugeot first. One could imagine Matra drawing inspiration from the Kar A Sutra. One could also imagine Bellini pushing for the adoption of the concept within Renault when they were offered the Espace by Matra. There definitely is a resemblance, though.

    On a puerile note: I’m somewhat disappointed that the main reason for the name isn’t included in the drawings of the various activities possible in the Kar A Sutra. 😁

  2. First, thank you Bruno for drawing my attention to a more arcane substitute for coulrophobia. I’ve always felt that the crew of the Kar a Sutra don’t really do the concept any favours – there’s something of a Clockwork Orange look to them and they seem to be more in the process of trashing the concept than celebrating it – but maybe that was Bellini’s intention. This comes from the early 70s, but if we divide things strictly into decades, its philosophies are probably more of the 60s. Certainly as we got further into the decade things became duller and more serious.

    Strictly the Espace concept came from Chrysler Europe, not Renault, so it’s unlikely that Bellini was involved, but it’s reasonable to suggest that Fergus Pollock and others might have been inspired in part. Unfortunately it seems that we don’t really want to be involved in exploring new avenues. What we expect from cars is very limited. The MPV is more or less dead – it’s hugely practical, but just not cool enough.

    I’d certainly say there should have been more open-minded concepts like this within the industry, but of course there have been. Not in po-faced Europe of course, but in Japan with things like the Daihatsu Norio. Unfortunately, they remain concepts and we get the Toyota bZ4X. Is that all after nearly 140 years? To my eyes the Toyota isn’t even cool. I saw one yesterday and it just looked rather silly. And not very useful.

    1. The MPV will make a comeback in some form some day, the form factor is too good and too practical to oversee. When it comes to packaging there’s nothing more efficient than a bus, practically a cuboid with the x/y/z-axis taken to its uttermost extreme and as much rounded corners that is needed for streamlining. Buses will always be here in some shape and form and smaller buses as well. We’ll just have to wait to the next bust and boom cycle is over….

  3. Thanks for this brrrrno. There might have been something in the air regarding mono-volume vehicles at the time. Custom vans were the big thing in modified vehicles in America and Australasia, and the Brubaker Box appeared in 1972 ( and is still, sort of, available.) The Espace, and the Chrysler Minivans were inevitable, IMHO.

    And at this time Ford had the Carousel and Minimax concepts and General Motors, the GMC Transmode based on their camper, all ‘vans’ that were less ‘van-like’ and more ‘car-like’.

    1. The Brubaker Box has its roots in the leisurly California lifestyle with its surfer culture, combined with the budoir inspired custom van culture. The interior isn’t as practical with its in-built lounge furniture, it’s more like a mobile lounge.

  4. I love the concept of the Kar-a-Sutra so much, and I love Bellini for doing it. The first time I saw it I just couldn’t stop laughing and I continued laughing for the rest of the day just thinking about it. If there was one sold today I would buy it today. The only area where I think he failed is the safety aspect of it. I love the thought of a variety of activities on the move, but I also love to continue living. But yes as an art installation/happening with an automotive theme it is perhaps the best I have ever seen.

    1. Maybe Bellini’s idea was not people having sex while driving… 😊

    2. I wouldn’t be so sure. That whole generation were rebellious by nature, and sometimes I envy their moment in time. So many conventions that had to be broken down, so little time. Their minds must’ve been exploding with possibilities because there were so many new paths ahead of them if they could just break down the doors and the walls and the whole shebang. There was an optimism in the air for the future because when they looked at it the sky didn’t have a limit, literally anything and everything was possible for them. So why not de-construct the entire society as they knew it and see if there’s any other way the pieces could be put together? I so envy being in that point in time, and having that idealism and positive outlook because I fear it will be a long time untill thought may be allowed to be so unbound and unconstrained.

    3. Could we see this as a prophet before its time? Imagine it introduced by Tesla to complement its angular Cybertruck. Elon Musk would point out that truly autonomous vehicles don’t need a steering wheel and won’t have any accidents. All acceleration and retardation will be integrated with other traffic, so can be gradual enough to make seatbelts superfluous. Just hop in, sprawl where you wish and do what you want. In which case maybe update the concept with liquid crystal windows – people are so much more prudish nowadays.

    4. I had an idea for a future crash avoidance system, think regulated airspace but for cars. Just click the destination and the vehicle will take you there automatically without any accidents. Because all other vehicles are also hooked up and given its own slot in the system. In max traffic everything will happens somewhat slower but not enough to get to standstill because the system will allow everything to be in motion. No crashes because the slots are unique and out in queues, think air corridors. It works already now for air traffic, keeping ten billion vehicles in check is just a question of computational power, and we’ll get there sooner or later.

    5. I had another idea for a “flying mat” kind of vehicle. Think Mini Moke but larger and flat like a truck. Small wheels, battery pack underneath or integrated into the platform, the platform being really flat and open and situated on top of the wheels. No seats, just some kind of yokel for steering it around. For low speeds up to 30 km/h it could be used for transporting people or cargo or having a party or drinking and eating and sleeping and what have you. One could steer it with the yokel standing up or sitting down. The preferable way to use it would be to imagine it was a flying mat and just driving it sitting down or laying down on it.

    6. Although I greatly enjoy driving, I could live with the idea of a totally autonomous future. What I would not look forward to is a middle point, where much of the vehicle’s progress is controlled, yet I still have to sit looking ahead with my hands hovering over the wheel to maintain nominal control, just in case.

    7. If the system is non interference (no slot is allowed to be taken up by more than one vehicle) and all vehicles are hooked up there’s no need for human interaction. In fact I think it would be much simpler if there were no human interaction at all, because of the risk for human error. Also I see endless possibilities for re-routing traffic for optimization in congestion time. Some paths are more time efficient in different speeds, if there are congestion one way slowing down traffic an alternative way may become more effective, and the system automatically re-directs traffic that way until the hot spot has cooled down. The less humans interfere in that flow the better.

    8. Ingvar’s idea gives me Lohr Fardier vibes. There’s still a seat and steering wheel, but it’s getting there

    9. @Freerk: Yeah something like that! That’s some sort of off-road vehicle, in my mind I had it lower to the ground but slightly longer. The hand rail all around is a good feature, that’ll keep things from falling off the edge, also handy for tying things down. In my mind there would’ve been space for one or two euro pallets. But the concept is there! All technical stuff like battery pack and engines and whatnot underneath the platform between the wheels. The point of it isn’t fast transport, but a leisurly and practical usable movable platform for walking speed or slightly above, perhaps registered as a quad bike or similar?

  5. Well, what happens when an architect makes a car: it becomes an unusual object.
    It’s very easy to find it bad (to avoid the word “hate”), but it has its qualities.
    Bellini was already a prankster, but not a bad one.

    1. Thanks for this link. I’ve been at La Régie for more years than I care to mention and with the exception of the limo-like proposition I was unaware of Bellini’s contribution to the Bureau de Style. The barge often gets credited to Gandini who must recoil on every occasion! We tend to celebrate the obvious and forget the joyous experimentation on a shoestring budget.

  6. Has anyone tried the free AI image generator, ‘Craiyon’?.

    You just type in a description of what you want it to create (e.g. ‘Lancia 4-door saloon’), click on ‘draw’, and it’ll create something for you. It takes about a minute to create 9 concepts and you can repeat the exercise as many times as you like.

    At this stage, I think it’s fair to say that the results aren’t perfect. That said, I’ve seen worse…

    1. I’ve given that repeated tries over the last week. My results suggest they’ve certainly got the ‘Artificial’ bit right, but I’m considerably less sure of the’ Intelligence’ part.

    2. David – yes, I think it’s early days. It obviously has great potential, though.

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