Plan B

A concept with a backstory.


Editor’s note: Owing to a mix-up on the chronology of the Car magazine article, the text has been altered to reflect the correct date.

It is hardly an unusual occurrence for a design concept to begin life as one thing before emerging some time later as something else — such after all is the speculative nature of freelance car design. This was certainly the case at the height of the design-consultancy era, when proposals would often undergo significant change to accommodate altered realities.

In 1974, the Italian house of Coggiola displayed a pretty concept coupé proposal at the Paris motor show. Dubbed Sylvia, the car was shown by Opel — intended it is said as a proposed replacement for the existing 1900 GT — it made a couple of appearances (also at Turin, later that year) before disappearing, like most such concepts into obscurity.

Although ostensibly a Coggiola design, the concept was in fact designed by British stylist, Trevor Fiore[1], who had by then made a name for himself with work for, amongst others, Fissore, Bond, TVR and Trident. A tidy, well composed shape, while the Sylvia might appear a little on the anodyne side to modern eyes, it was by contemporary standards, rather modish. Russelsheim clearly didn’t bite, and since GM’s European satellite was in retreat from the US market by this time, there was little impetus to replace the existing car — the Manta being considered entirely adequate for domestic and European tastes.

Image: allcarindex

But there appears to have been another strand to the Sylvia story. In his coverage of that year’s series of motor shows, Car magazine’s Douglas Blain outlined how the Sylvia concept had been initially proposed as a potential replacement to the MGB GT. Furthermore, as Blain told it at the time[2], the proposal had been sanctioned both with MG and British Leyland’s approval and was based squarely upon the existing car’s hard points and running gear.

However, it appears that BLMC management developed eleventh hour reservations about the concept and asked Coggiola to remove all traces of Octagon branding from the car — the rationale at the time being that it would distract from existing product — a not wholly implausible concern at the time. Opel’s lightning bolt was substituted and the rest is now (50-year old) history. There are however a number of inconsistencies to Blain’s story which require unpicking.

BLMC may well have considered a stand-alone replacement to the MGB; it is after all known that several in-house proposals were in the running as the Seventies dawned. However, once Donald Stokes and the BLMC board decided upon the TR7 programme, the die was cast for MG. Certainly to imagine that there was funding available for two entirely separate sports car programmes running simultaneously stretches credulity — even allowing for BLMC’s known propensity for ill-judged product planning. Furthermore, by then, production of TR7 was already well in hand. So once again, the timing on this appears somewhat suspect.

Image: allcarindex

Leaving this aside however, it is perhaps worth asking whether the Sylvia concept would have made for a credible MGB successor? One of the the characteristics of the Italian carrozzieri was their ability to craft designs which could conceivably be realised as anything. Hence, Sylvia made about as credible an Opel as it did a putative MG. Certainly, it was a well executed, contemporary shape, well suited to US market tastes (hatchback notwithstanding) and it could be argued, a better judged effort than Harris Mann’s somewhat love-it-or-hate-it wedge-shaped bolide[3].

Not that it matters now. BLMC went in a very different direction and we all know how that worked out. But if Blain was correct, it does present a fascinating alternate narrative. Maybe BLMC ought to have had a plan B?

[1] Trevor Frost, whose mother was Italian, used the pen-name of Fiore in the professional realm. His resume, in addition to work for Fissore and Coggiola also involved a stint at Vélizy, at Citroën’s styling studio and was briefly in the running for the job at Browns Lane which ultimately went to Geoff Lawson in 1984. He continued to work in a freelance basis until his retirement.

[2] According to Blain, BLMC made no secret of the fact that they had made this last-minute change of heart, making his own disdain for the decision obvious.

[3] It’s doubtful, had he been there to observe it, that Giugiaro would have had much of a memorable nature to say about Fiore’s design.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Plan B”

  1. I had never heard of this car or the story before. When I first saw the picture, I thought it must have become a Lotus – looking quite a bit like an Elite or Eclat. Nice article, thanks.

  2. The Opel GT had no externally sccessible luggage space because its fuel tank sat in the extreme rear end.
    In this car you can see the Opel’s fuel filler neck protruding through the hatchback which does not make too much sense in my eyes.

  3. The side profile reminds me of a slightly shorter Triumph Lynx, which was being worked on around this time I believe. I wonder if there was any influence in either direction?

    1. Great article Eóin thank you. I had no idea about any of this, great to learn something new.

      Richard, yes I see the resemblance too. When you think about it, Triumph at the time had the potential to have a decent sized range of such cars all with a strong family resemblance; the Lynx, the Bobcat, the Broadside, the SD1 if it had (righty) been made a Triumph, and now this. Pity it never worked out.

  4. Another schoolday for me. Never knew about this car. The side profile reminds me a bit of downsized Lamborghini Jarama.

    1. That really confirms it as MGB based. The more important water temperature and oil pressure gauges are right in front of the driver, the less frequently looked at speedometer and rev-counter are in the centre. 😉

    2. It seems to be fitted with a 108SR Radiomobile 8-track unit, which is very high-end and was commonly fitted in British luxury cars. I believe it says ‘Stereo 8 Radiomobile’ on the unit fascia.

  5. From the Opel Sylvia GT and Opel Black Widow to the Opel GT2 and Isuzu Piazza, not forgetting too the mid-engine GT/W Geneve (it is claimed online there was another Geneve with a V8) and Vauxhall GTs (that includes the Vauxhall XP-867), GM Europe were certainty not short of options to either be produced alongside or replacing the Opel GT and that is not discounting the existence of other Viva/Kadett/Chevette derived GT projects.

  6. On the question of the Sylvia GT being a credible MGB successor, with some tinkering at the front and body-coloured bumpers would answer in the affirmative.

  7. I don’t quite get the reference (#3) to Giugiaro – it looks similar to his “Aces”, particularly Diamonds and Clubs, but pre-dates them. I do regard him as the greatest man to ever hold a pencil, but Fiore wasn’t too bad – even if not in the same league.

    1. “Legend has it that designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, then entering the zenith of his career, said ‘My God! They’ve done the same to the other side as well’ when he first saw the TR7 at a motor show.”

      By the way, I think this car looks a lot like the Volvo 1800 ESC, also by Coggiola.

  8. Was anyone out there with a measuring tape? The MGB wheelbase is 120mm shorter than the Opel’s overall length of the Sylvia is about 110mm greater than the MGB. You would scarcely notice.

    Of course nothing that happened in BLMC at that time is beyond belief, so our Tasmanian friend’s story deserves some credence. The MGB was a spent force even in 1973, expensive to make, selling only on a certain vintage charm, and cheapness where exchange rates were favourable.

    The real reason for BLMC’s panic is likely to have been unfavourable comparisons with the TR7, to be revealed in January 1975. Fiore’s design was more conventionally attractive, Mann’s was more ‘challenging’ but met real-world safety requirements and still looked good – what’s most interesting about that design is that – Marinaflaps aside – it’s totally alien to anything else BLMC introduced in the 1970s or afterwards.

    1. The press kit (see link above) says the wheelbase is 2430 millimetres, the Opel GT’s is 2431, MGB’s 2311.
      There also is no leaf spring in sight under the rear of the car.

    2. Agreed, between the Opel badging on the model, the instruments and now the wheelbase, it must have been an Opel study.

      Plus: having it meant to be a replacement for the (rapidly aging and apparently not very profitable) MGB GT, would it make sense to anyone to base it on the old car’s hard points and running gear? Moving to a new platform would inevitably move hard points and therefore the look of the vehicle, so why bother?

      I *might* have believed the story if it was based on the (then new) TR7 platform, with Triumph building the 2-seater and MG building a 2+2 hatchback based on many of the same parts. But then again, this is BLMC we’re talking about…

  9. Now here’s a question, to which I don’t have an answer.

    The Sylvia’s wheels look like the elusive Italian items which were copied for the Rover SD1’s extra-cost magnesium wheel option.

    The SD1 wheels pre-dated the Sylvia – this picture is said to be from 1972:

    The Rover wheels were five-stud, the Sylvia’s have four. Any ideas?

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