CHRIS BANGLE NEXT GENERATION / #Fiat-Tipo-175
We talk to the controversial American about his first complete car design – the Coupé Fiat.
Fiat’s distinctive slashes were inspired by previous concepts rather than art. Below: painted-metal dashboard was a clever touch to lift the interior.
Clockwise, from above: stylish stacked tail-lights; Bangle wanted the bonnet to be front-hinged; filler cap was prompted by a night at the movies.
Throughout the 1990s, controversial stylist Chris Bangle challenged the status quo with his radical work. Malcolm Thorne talks to him about his striking and memorable Coupé Fiat.
PHOTOGRAPHY LAT/FIAT/CHRIS BANGLE ASSOCIATES.
When the wraps came off the Tipo 175 Coupé Fiat in 1993, both press and public alike were deeply divided. Here was a model to challenge preconceptions of beauty and purpose – this was, after all, an Italian sports coupé, and with such territory comes the burden of expectation. Superlative and effortless style is a requirement, not merely a desirable option.
To some, it was a lesson in unrivalled daring, an objet d’art that exuded the most sophisticated and forward-thinking of design language. To others, it was a mishmash of ideas and fussy detailing. But love it or loathe it, you couldn’t ignore it.
The world was warned of the impending shock when Fiat Group design chief Nevio Di Giusto gave a clear message of intent in 1992, hitting out at the “soap bar” styling of rivals’ products. “The totally rounded look can be attractive,” he told Autocar at the time, “but it finishes up by making all cars similar.” That’s certainly not an accusation you could make about the Tipo 175, although things could have turned out very differently.
The production car was largely the work of Fiat Centro Stile’s hitherto unheard-of designer Christopher Edward Bangle – a man who, for the past two decades, has been the motor industry’s pre-eminent agent provocateur – but the initial concept came from an outside concern.
“Pininfarina had the idea to develop a coupé on the basis of the Tipo,” recalls Bangle today, “and Piergiorgio Tronville [father of the Uno] explained that the only competitors to the Fiat Centro Stile designers would be the Farina guys.
Because at that time I had lost just about every competition possible at Fiat, I asked him if we had any chance of winning. He responded quite calmly: ‘Let’s put it this way – it’s their idea, they are doing all the engineering, they are producing it in their factory, they will put their name on the side of the car… what do you think?’”
In such a context, Bangle and his team could afford to be radical, and they didn’t disappoint: “As underdogs, we had the advantage of not being expected to win, so we could be experimental. We put forward many proposals that I am sure look a lot weirder or worse today than they did then. My car started strange and got stranger before I got my act together and made something drivable and which could be produced. We never saw Pininfarina’s exterior work, but I believe that later it had much influence on the Peugeot 406 Coupé. Of course, they won the interior and it matched the car well I think.”
The cockpit was undeniably one of the Tipo 175’s defining features. In an era where cabins were dull expanses of black and grey plastic, the inspired use of painted metal for the fascia and door panels was a bold move, but it was nothing compared to the audacity of the outer skin.
Bangle and his team flirted with outlandish ideas, and everywhere you looked the new Fiat astonished and amazed. Mindful that its new model needed to stand out from the crowd if it were to succeed, against all expectation the Turin management had embraced the wacky shape above the far more conservative effort from Pininfarina.
More than two decades on, Coffango – the car’s internal codename, derived by combining the Italian words coffano (bonnet) and parafango (mudguard) – has lost its element of surprise. But whereas contemporary rivals such as the Ford Probe, Rover 200 ‘Tomcat’ or Vauxhall Calibra now look hopelessly dated, the Fiat’s avantgarde shape still has the capacity to excite.
“It was my attempt to unite two worlds,” recalls Bangle. “That of the Ford GT40 and that of the Italian carrozzeria of the 1970s and ’80s. If you look carefully at the front view of the Coupé, you will see my homage to the GT40 – the headlight shapes, the flatness of the nose and the grille intake form. On the other hand, the side view and section of the car were inspired by Italian designs – in particular the 1984 Bertone Chevy Ramarro and Lamborghini Athon. They had that flattened-wheelarch theme and the overhanging shoulder section, and slicing down the wheelarches was a natural result. I was amused when in the press releases Fiat claimed that the shape was inspired by the artist Lucio Fontana [who slashed his canvases]. I had never even heard of him at the time.”
Another key element of the Fiat is the truncated Kamm tail with its stacked circular lights, yet, in spite of being a signature feature of the design, it was a late addition: “I was obsessed with a rounded rear with a pop-up spoiler. That was, of course, way too expensive, so it was only when Nevio Di Giusto ordered me to ‘come back with decent aero numbers from the wind tunnel, or don’t bother coming back’ that I settled down and boxed up its ass.”
If the devil is in the detail, Bangle must have worked hard to overcome his religious beliefs (his career path almost led him to become a Methodist minister) because the Fiat abounds with flourishes: “The doorhandle in the pillar and the mirrors – one of the more elegant designs on the market at the time, even if I do say so myself – were fun to create. Back then, I had to do all the concept plausibility studies myself before I could get an engineer interested. That meant lots of orthographic 9H pencil work.
“The fuel-filler cap came from an evening I spent watching the film Dirty Mary Crazy Larry with Moray Callum [now design director at Ford]. We were fascinated by the ’68 Dodge Charger in it, and there were a number of scenes where the camera framed the external ‘racing’ gas cap. We decided it was so cool we would go back into our respective studios and try to revive that concept. I used some real quick-release fuel caps as reference, and was as surprised as anyone that the management went for it.
“The clamshell bonnet was a fight, though, because it tested the limits of the sheet-metal raw sizes. If there was a regrettable sacrifice there, it was that my desire to have it forwardflipping didn’t make it through into production.”
Talk of the bonnet, of course, leads inevitably to the distinctive headlamps, which remain one of Bangle’s favourite features: “The ‘doublebreast’ design is what I recall the most as being a direct steal from God’s best work. The headlights kept getting pushed higher and higher due to the mechanicals. The only way to contain them was to either make retractable units or to raise the bonnet and wing line.
“The car already suffered from having wheels that were too small relative to the forms, so making the front visually bigger and heavier was not an option for me, while retractable lights were prohibitively expensive. I created them out of necessity. It then took some work to get the washer sprays to function on the extremely flattened angles of the covers, and at first glance you wouldn’t believe that they would be effective.
I recall that when we first showed the car to a top Fiat engineer, he didn’t even bother to look at it. Instead, he sort of sneered: ‘And just how are you supposed to clean those headlights?’ My boss, Ermanno Cressoni, ran up to the car and stroked them, saying ‘Con amore, Inginiere, con amore!’ [With love, engineer, with love!].”
Twenty-three years after the model went on sale, does Bangle still feel amore for the Coupé Fiat? “Whenever I see one on the road it has a sort of inevitability about it in hindsight – I was privileged to have been chosen to bring it to life.” “Indirectly, it has influenced everything I have done because it was such a stunning upset win for me,” he reflects, “and yet a wrenching emotional loss to have to abandon it before birth due to my move to BMW. It shaped me as a designer because I had to do so much of the development and pre-engineering myself.
“At club meets, I love the fanbase the Fiat has – an authentic and passionate sort of folk who think nothing of throwing their wives and kids into this cramped car for a 15-hour drive to see us. Usually I get to autograph either a kid or a car – or both – before they leave.”
That, surely, is testimony to the impact of the Tipo 175. It may have divided opinion, but how many other mass-market models of the era have been signed by their stylist?
Clockwise, from above: Pininfarina lost out on the exterior, but styled the cabin; key mimics shape of fuel-filler cap; famous double-bubble lights; engine came in turbo and naturally aspirated forms; styling sketches; Kamm tail was forced upon Bangle; neat mirrors.