The man who got past the Citroën DS. Robert Opron Giant of French car design interviewed. Moving Citroën on from the biggest of design icons is just one of Robert Opron’s achievements, as he recounts to Guy Bird. Portraits Peter Guenzel.
Robert Opron’s Design track record is bulletproof. His masterpieces for Simca, Citroën, Renault and Alpine represent the very best of French car design from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. Add later work for Alfa Romeo and Ligier and there must be 30 million vehicles on the road either designed by Opron or made under his supervision. Now 85 and still lauded for his work – he recently won Car Design News’ 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award – he has, we discover, a life story as interesting as his back catalogue.
His path to greatness was unconventional. Not that you’d suspect it on first meeting this affable Frenchman in his modernist but cosy house just south of Paris, chock-full of classic chairs and lights, model aeroplanes and cars, African artefacts plus a large jazz and classical record collection and an incredible stereo with an enormous pair of speakers. Small of stature, casually dressed and a little hard of hearing – blame a pierced eardrum from a childhood accident on a railway – he’s not an obviously radical designer-in-residence.
Opron was born in Picardy, northern France, in 1932. His early years were governed by his workingclass father’s military career, which meant living in French-controlled Africa for long periods. He recalls it fondly. ‘I was practically raised by African women, the mothers of my friends,’ he explains via an interpreter. ‘My mother was living the life of a white person in Africa, in a closed milieu I never accepted. I would like to have painted myself black and been born in Bamako, Mali. I love Africa. Without it I might not have done anything in my career. I learned liberty, nature, kindness and solidarity from my time there.’
Africa was also where his love of cars blossomed. ‘Petrol in Africa during World War Two was only for military people. All the colonial ex-pats had beautiful cars up on bricks as a result, including a Hudson Terraplane I used to have an afternoon nap in. I loved the smell of that leather. The scent of cars inspired my later work.’ He recalls making his first maquette ‘using a razor blade on palm wood – from scratch, it wasn’t a kit – with metal cut from old tin cans’.
Despite the romantic recollections, the war took a great toll on Opron’s family with upheaval to and from Africa and many close encounters. His father fought in battles and was a prisoner of war before escaping. Others were less lucky. ‘My wife Genevieve’s father was a railway engineer and in the French Resistance. He was deported and killed by the Nazis. It gave us a lot of anxiety but also a strong will to survive.’ Opron pursued an education in fine arts after the war with an eye to becoming an architect, but he got tuberculosis at 18 and spent time in a sanatorium. ‘I failed all my studies through circumstances beyond my control. But it wasn’t a problem, the school of life is not bad. I also learned about engineering from the books of Genevieve’s father.’
After recovering, aged 20, he finally found work in 1952 designing sugar-manufacturing machinery – ‘I told them I had an industrial design qualification!’ – but took an engineering course while there. In 1954 he moved to an aircraft company in Toulon to design instructions for workers who couldn’t read or write – ‘I learned every part of a plane by heart, it was a good learning curve’ – before starting his car design career with Simca in 1957 after a family friend’s introduction. One of his very first projects was the incredible Simca Fulgur. ‘The Tintin weekly comic gave Simca a brief to design a car for the 1980s,’ says Opron.
‘I was the most junior and nobody else wanted to do it. I had an astrophysicist friend who knew lots about spaceships and said it should be hydrogen-powered.’ In 1960, as Simca needed to shed staff, Opron was offered two years’ redundancy with a clause precluding work for rival carmakers during that time, so he joined furniture design firm Arthur Martin. But he quickly became bored and, as Genevieve cheekily interjects, ‘He put on loads of weight too!’ So he answered an advert in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro from ‘a big industrial group looking for a form designer’. At that stage he didn’t even know the job was for Citroën. But after impressing the head of personnel he was asked back to see Flaminio Bertoni – the designer of the DS, Traction Avant, 2CV, HY van and Ami 6 sedan. The second meeting didn’t go so well.
‘Bertoni was late,’ he recalls. ‘He looked at my work and then tipped up my portfolio with his cane and all of my artwork came flying out. I said “Monsieur, pick them up.” He did. Then he added, laughing, “You interest me,” to which I replied “Perhaps, but I’m not interested in you.” I picked up my portfolio and left.’ Vowing not to work for Citroën, he was surprised to get a job offer and changed his mind. ‘When I talked afterwards with Bertoni, he said he acted like that to see how I would react, and he liked my reaction.’
Opron came to appreciate Bertoni greatly as a mentor and a friend. Despite his boss’s incredible track record, this was a time when car designers were rarely known outside their companies. ‘He wasn’t well paid,’ says Opron. ‘We worked with plaster in a grubby studio in a run-down old building, but it was a nice atmosphere. I really discovered the form of cars from Bertoni.’
After Bertoni’s death in 1964, aged just 61, Opron steadily gained influence at Citroën and moved to a 1000-square-metre studio where new designs could be realised more quickly. One of his first jobs had been to restyle the Ami 6, and he also put forward a strikingly angular single-volume people-carrier proposal in 1964 which bears a striking resemblance to the first Espace of 1984, launched two decades later when Opron was at Renault design. Meanwhile, Citroën wanted to update the DS. How did Opron feel about redesigning such an icon?
‘I wasn’t worried because it was a logical evolution,’ he claims, fairly convincingly. ‘For the new look we had to fight the vultures who wanted to give it an American-style grille. Bertoni had done the first sketch, with several ideas that were not technically possible, then I penned the sketch for the production model. I did the front of the new DS with integrated headlights. The turning lights inside were the idea of an engineer called Magés. I wanted to evolve the design even more, but the public reaction was positive.’ Soon after came the long, low, aero-inspired SM, arguably Opron’s greatest work. ‘The management wanted a small rally car,’ he recalls wistfully, ‘but I persuaded them to make a prestige Gran Turismo. I created this touring car with two extra seats in the back. It’s aged quite well.’
While influenced by the DS’s curves, the more angular and faster-backed SM was also notable for its fully enclosed front face, which housed the headlamps and numberplate. It was quite a departure aesthetically. ‘I had a different style from Bertoni,’ Opron says. ‘I attached more importance to the value of rhythm, which consists of alternating between softness and a sort of acidity, something more pointed, which gives harmony. I don’t like the style of Gandini, that’s always the same. Very square and angular. There can be harmony in what he does and he’s a friend, but we disagree about this.’ Opron valued Gandini’s work sufficiently to seek his collaboration in later years at Renault on the 5 Turbo, 1984 ‘Supercinq’ and others.
At this point in the interview, as we foolishly turn down lunch, Genevieve offers us whisky and Pringles to keep us going while Opron talks music and art. ‘When I was young we had no radio or TV, so records and artworks were very important. Every night we’d analyse our encyclopaedia and I’d paint miniatures from that book, from Braque to Picasso.’
During his Citroën years, Opron also oversaw the design of the GS family hatchback and the larger CX fastback and estate, which won Car of the Year in 1971 and 1975 respectively. His favourite is the CX. Why? ‘Because of its simplicity, but I would have liked to have got rid of the bumpers.’ Despite those models’ success Citroen was a financial mess. It went bankrupt in 1974 and merged with Peugeot in 1975.
During the uncertainty, Opron was headhunted by Renault, where he stayed for nearly 11 years. His design hits there included the stylish Renault Fuego coupé, the less stylish Renault 9 (Car of the Year 1982), the Renault 25 and the Alpine V6 GT. But only the 25 stands out from that time for him, and it’s left to his wife Genevieve to proffer a reason: ‘The press feedback was that it was nice because it looked like a Citroën, which suggests it had Robert’s mark on it.’ Ill-advised investments in AMC along with rising production costs eventually led to a personnel shakeup at Renault, so Opron departed at the end of 1985. The next year, Fiat came calling.
‘It was really interesting and it changed my life. I learned Italian and moved to the outskirts of Turin on a hill with a beautiful view. Unfortunately Fiat was unmanageable and very complicated. The heads of the coachbuilders were giving backhanders to management to get work.’ Even within this tricky situation, Opron still created a masterpiece for the group’s Alfa Romeo brand, working with a young architect called Antonio Castellana and using a fast design process involving aeronautical specialists. The result was the 1989 SZ, like no Alfa before or since. Its brutally angular exterior bodywork was far from the feminine and flowing lines usually associated with the marque, but as the years have passed the SZ’s prices have steadily increased, in part due to its rarity and also through a growing appreciation of its design.
‘It got called Il Mostro [The Monster] but Alfa chose it because it was bold and different,’ says Opron. ‘Our model was chosen above rival proposals from Giugiaro and others, and I believe it changed the way of doing things at Fiat. We had a 1:1 physical model made in wood in about 15 days. I’m proud of that.’
After compulsory retirement from Fiat in 1992, aged 60, Opron set up his own design consultancy, working for Ligier – notably the Dragonfly concept shown at the 2000 Geneva Motorshow – plus some proposals for Piaggio. Now in his mid-80s, he’s unsurprisingly taking things more easily. He still thinks deeply about car design but he’s far from a collector himself, owning only a Citroën 2CV convertible whose design he has tweaked, and a Mercedes B-Class which he describes as ‘just a tool’.
As to where future car design might go, he’s drawn to simpler designs and cleaner fuels. ‘As I age, minimalism is attracting me. I don’t believe in electric cars, I believe in hydrogen power, in driverless cars guided by satellites. Through those two parameters you can imagine the future of the car.’
Given what he has achieved versus what is being created today, how does he think his era compares? ‘I’m proud of working in the “middle ages of the car industry” because I questioned what is beauty and we created cathedrals. Hundreds of years into the future, the car will be recognised as the most important object of the 20th Century as it replaced 40,000 years of the horse.’ Let’s hope Robert Opron’s part in that history will continue to be remembered.
‘Bertoni looked at my work, tipped up my portfolio with a cane and all my artwork came flying out’