Home » Marcello Gandini Is Best Known For His Beautiful Sports Cars But He Had A Gift For Small Cars Too

Marcello Gandini Is Best Known For His Beautiful Sports Cars But He Had A Gift For Small Cars Too

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I’m sure you’ve heard by now that legendary car designer Marcello Gandini has died at the age of 85. Gandini is best known for the exotic, glamorous cars he designed, the sorts of machines that, in poster form, have graced so many bedrooms (and still do, in some cases): Lamborghinis Countach, Miura, Espada, Urraco, and more; the Lancia Stratos, Maserati Khasmin, Iso Grifo, the BMW 5-Series, Ferrari Dino 308 GT4, so so many stunning, feel-the-awe-in-your-gut sort of cars. They’re legends. But what I find most incredible about Gandini was that, in addition to these expensive, glorious chariots, he also had a remarkable gift for making small, cheap, accessible cars look great, full of style and grace and sleek dignity. That, in so many ways, is the harder challenge, so that’s what I’d like to focus on as we look back on Gandini – the humbler side.

I’m pretty sure the Muira and Countach and all the others are getting plenty of attention. They always do, and it’s not hard to see why. I mean, even I can’t help it, I’m going to have to include some pictures of these cars.

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The man came up with the scissor door, for fudge’s sake; that’s the very essence of a supercar, right there.

Gand Exotics

But let’s be honest here: all these cars are way too good for the likes of me. I need to allow myself to plummet downmarket, but, happily, Gandini is down there as well, next to a big mattress he dragged out to cushion our fall into the bottom end of the market, because good design needs to thrive there, too. Let’s look at some examples of this.

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Innocenti Mini 90/120

Innocenti

Innocenti was an Italian carmaker who built BMC Minis under license, from 1965 to 1975, and while early ones were built from CKD (completely knocked-down) kits, later everything was produced independently, and the quality was said to be better than the British-built Minis. In 1974, an all-new design for the same Mini mechanicals was unveiled, styled by Gandini while he was working at Bertone; this was the Mini 90/120.

The project actually started out as a way for the Mini to be more competitive with newer small cars like the Renault 5, Fiat 127, or the Autobianchi A112 (the Renault and Autobianchi will show up again here, by the way) all of which had a more modern design than the Mini, and all featured much more practical hatchbacks compared to the Mini’s flip-down trunk lid.

BMC contacted Michelotti and Bertone to come up with styling proposals, and while the project never moved ahead in Britain, after British Leyland effectively took over Innocenti in 1972, the project moved ahead under Innocenti’s brand, with Gandini’s proposal being chosen.

Under the skin, the Mini 90/120 was pure old-school Mini, save for moving the radiator to a more expected location in front of the engine. But the rest of the design was so clean and fresh looking, you’d never guess it was all based on a car from 1959 underneath.

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The new design had a real hatchback, finally, and while it perhaps didn’t manage to beat the original Mini on interior packaging, it was a much crisper and airier design, and managed to do this while establishing its own charm and visual identity. It’s a great example of a tiny car done right.

Autobianchi A112

A112

I told you we’d be back to the Autobianchi; Gandini had such a knack for stylish small cars that he ended up designing cars that would compete with one another, like this one. The A112 came out in 1969, starting life as a scaled-down variant of the Fiat 128, at least mechanically, but given its own highly distinct look by Gandini.

The A112 was a modern, FWD, three-door small hatchback, and Gandini managed to give the car a front end that harkened back just a bit to earlier designs without feeling cloyingly retro or dated. The little car wasn’t just a box; it had hips, it had a little butt there, but it all just worked, and the end result was something that felt sporty and plucky, not some anonymous econobox. Young women proved to be a large segment of the A112’s market, too, reaching up to 35% of buyers by 1984.

These are charming as hell.

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Audi 50/Volkswagen Polo

Polo

When Volkswagen bought out NSU in 1969, part of that goal was to introduce a whole new approach to small cars, moving away from the rear-engine/RWD formula that had brought them so far, and moving to a more modern front-engine/FWD approach. NSU had already started that process, moving from the rear-engined Prinz to the rotary-engined Ro80 and the more conventional K70, and were looking to replace their smaller cars as well.

NSU was folded into Audi when VW bought them, and the replace-the-Prinz project became the Audi/NSU K50, a small, transverse-engined FWD car. The styling was handed over to Bertone, specifically Gandini (though finalized by Claus Luthe of Audi), which is interesting since VW had reached out to Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign to style the Golf, VW’s main new FWD car.

Gandini’s Audi 50 (rebadged six weeks after its introduction as the VW Polo as well) seems initially quite similar to the Italdesign Golf, until you really start looking at it, which is when you realize what a master Gandini really is.

Yes, it’s crisp and rectilinear like the Golf, but it’s also somehow leaner, hungrier-looking, emphasized by that slight forward rake of the front grille, adding just a touch of rangy aggression to the car. It’s all order and math, but there’s a bit of feral energy under that taut surface, which is why I think it’s so appealing. Plus, there’s the unexpected addition of the round fresh-air exhaust vent on the C-pillar that adds a nice bit of contrasting visual interest. It’s a lean body of straight lines punctuated with the perfect circles of wheels, headlights, and those vents. Plus, that little upward curve of that trim line at the rear– it’s unexpected, but somehow it works.

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Renault Supercinq

R5

What I like about the Supercinq is that it shows that Gandini was able to make effective designs that didn’t necessarily originate with him. While I can’t speak to Gandini’s ego, I think the fact this exists says something about his ability to be at least a bit humble, at times. The original Renault 5 was designed by Michel Boué (allegedly in his spare time?) and was something of an automotive design icon of its own. I think it pioneered the use of the lower bumper edges finishing the wheel arches, for example, something still commonly seen today.

So when it came time to update the look of the car in 1984, the idea of going to the man who designed the Countach must have seemed a bit absurd. But I think it says good things about Gandini that he did it, and did it with such respect for the original design.

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The new Renault 5, the Supercinq, manages to retain all of the crucial details of the original design but updates them into a modern (well, 80s modern) design vocabulary with such grace that you’d think that’s how it was always intended. The overall look of the car is smoothed out, feels more like a unified whole; the car feels more open and airy, details flow and fit into the lines of the body with more ease and yet still retain the character of the original.

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This is a difficult task to pull off well, and Gandini pulled it off beautifully.

Citroën BX

Bx

The BX was more of a larger family car than the superminis I’ve been talking about to this point, but it was hardly an exotic, and I just really like the design. Citroën is one of the all-time most idiosyncratic automakers, which sets some design expectations above and beyond that of most projects. The project was started in 1984, after the merger of Citroën and Peugeot, and was based on the Peugeot 405 platform. Since it was to be a Citroën, it had to get the Citroën hallmark hydropneumatic suspension, and had to feel like a Citroën, which was Gandini’s job.

The car needed to feel modern and mainstream enough for a respectable family car, but also have that Citroën je ne sais quoi, a pretty good challenge. Gandini managed it by making a long, angular, wedgy five-door hatch, with proportions that felt like they hearkened back to the legendary DS, and adding details like the skirted rear wheel and grille-less front end that somehow unmistakably marked the car as a Citroën.

It looked spaceshippy, like the future, parked in your driveway. The blacked-out section of that C-pillar, over that line of vents, the angles and chamfers, it all just worked together to feel like the best of 80s tech-optimism. This as a family car is an exciting thing, and I suspect many kids were excited to see their family spaceship come gliding up to pick them up from Brie Camp or wherever French people sent their kids back then.

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Gandini was an auto design legend, and it’s great to see all the recognition he’s been getting for his remarkable work. I just want to be sure we take a moment to remember the incredible job he did for people who couldn’t have Ferraris or Lamborghinis, and properly regard Gandini’s regular cars as outstanding designs equal to his far more famous exotics. Those everyday machines are masterpieces in their own right – and there’s a hell of a lot more of them around.

 

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Miguel
Miguel
23 days ago

It’s worth looking at the Citroën BX’s Anadol/Reliant backstory here and its Volvo Tundra connection too. All Gandini.

Pedro
Pedro
28 days ago

I wonder if, in a way, he found it more interesting designing everyday cars. They have to be mass produced, fulfill mundane tasks, fit a marketing niche, yet give the owner something to love. After all, they are dedicating a larger part of their income than a Ferrari owner is. It is the sort of challenge that an artist savors. I mean – after the Miura, supercar design was like falling off a log.

Ron888
Ron888
28 days ago

Autopian crew,is it possible to manage your own advertising on this site? I ask because most ads seem to be scams of some type.Bottom-of-the-barrel shit that’s embarrassing to see.
Actually it’s weird.If i click the upper part of the ads on this page (they’re all identical) i get a legit business,but clicking near the bottom takes me to a russian scam site.

HOWEVER after i did this for a bit,every ad then changed to a different legit business.Something’s very much not right.
I guess this is a normal consequence of outsourcing ad placement.Hell,even my youtube feed has a prominent scam ad *every single time*,and that site is owned by google.

So is it possible for you guys to sell ad space yourselves?Would that be cost effective?No pressure obviously but i thought it worth asking

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
29 days ago

Gandini was a maestro at the other end of the scale, too. Renault Magnum, an all-time favourite:

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/6a/dd/1b/6add1b3f004022a801c0f26960addef1.jpg

Joshua Christian
Joshua Christian
28 days ago
Reply to  SonOfLP500

Oh wow! That IS a beautiful truck!

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
29 days ago

It is infuriating how perfect the Audi 50 is. My god

Bison78
Bison78
30 days ago

I bought a BX new, around 1987. I sold it 3 years later due to a transatlantic move. Mine was a BX16 Estate. Nice car. I have fond memories of it. Spacious, comfortable and it even had speed-sensitive power steering, which was rare on that class of car back then.

As delivered, the car had a leak: when it rained, water came into the cabin, but the dealer fixed that and I did not have any other problems with the car.

Flatisflat
Flatisflat
30 days ago

Having recently purchased an A112 and thus being able to look at one up close on the regular, I admire Gandini’s work and am impressed by it often.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
30 days ago

Aww, the A112. I learned to drive a stick on an A112. What a great little car.

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
30 days ago

I’ll add the stunning Alfa Romeo Montreal to the Gandini legacy. RIP Marcello

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
30 days ago

The Muira was pure automotive art. Probably the only car that I would trade my damned soul to the Devil for. (I already offered up a less cherished family member, but was declined) As long as he included parts, labor, and insurance in the deal.

Philip Dunlop
Philip Dunlop
30 days ago

The second gen Renault 5 has a special place in my heart, as I was driven around in one when I was a kid by a family friend who, sadly, died in a (non-automotive) accident at 27. I’m very excited to see the new electric version hit the roads soon because they remind me of a happy time.

And let’s not forget the BX was based on a design Gandini had worked on for Volvo prior to it evolving into a Citroën – the Tundra concept.

Lightning
Lightning
30 days ago

That green Innocenti Mini <heart eyes>.

Last edited 30 days ago by Lightning
EricTheViking
EricTheViking
30 days ago

My youngest aunt in Germany had Autobianchi A112 with deep orange paint and black interior for a several years. She had one of the heaviest lead feet. So, riding in her car windy roads through the forests was one of my favourite highlights when visiting Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s as tweener and young teenager.
When she traded A112 for a three-door Peugeot 205, I was devastated. However, she was wise to choose the 1.9-litre diesel engine (biggest offered by Peugeot for 205) and figured out its torque curve to her advantages. The driving joy remained the same albeit noisier engine sound.

Toecutter
Toecutter
1 month ago

I really liked the Lamborghini Miura and Citroen bX, and as talented as the man is, I can’t say I’m a fan of most of Gandini’s designs. The Miura is really the only Lambo I truly lust after. The Countach concept was okay, but the actual production versions are IMO butt ugly. I sort of like the Lancia Stratos. His designs were generally big wedges with sharp edges, whereas my preferences tend toward the more curvy and petite.

At least the man got to live a long and fulfilling life. Most of us don’t get that much.

Last edited 1 month ago by Toecutter
Sarah Blikre
Sarah Blikre
1 month ago

I don’t know enough to sound like I know what I’m talking about, but it seems more difficult to design the smaller more pedestrian cars compared to the flashy supercars. I’d imagine there would be more constraints and it’s probably not as exciting of a project.

Cerberus
Cerberus
30 days ago
Reply to  Sarah Blikre

Definitely. There are far more packaging and utility considerations, serviceability is a factor (unless they’re German, though that’s less of a designer’s role), they have to appeal to a much broader audience, more constraints with having to use either an established platform or planned as part of a new one that will potentially underpin a wide range of different vehicles and sizes (not as much of a thing back then as today, but still a factor), and they need to be built in large numbers on as automated an assembly line as possible on a much smaller build budget. And, yes, few designers are excited by them. My best friend from school was one of the rarities. For a free-design project, he designed a recycling truck (and did a lot of research on them) where everyone else did the expected supercar (that looked like ’80s Group C variants). Last I heard, he quit the industry and was working as an artist where I’m sure he is happier. As another weirdo, I was always into extreme aero (relatively—not quite Toecutter), low weight, and simplicity for maximum vehicle lifespan, reliability, and easy repair and upgrades on minimal resources with high performance and driver connection as a natural byproduct. I realized that I was obviously from a parallel universe and it was not the career I wished it would be.

Bram Oude Elberink
Bram Oude Elberink
30 days ago
Reply to  Sarah Blikre

I would say it is almost the complete opposite. Because of all the constraints it is much more exciting to work on. It is easy to design a supercar; you may use all the extravagant materials you want, if the ergonomics don’t work 100%, who cares, it will be showcars anyway. But the small, economical cars have to work on every level. I am an industrial designer and I like those challenges.

Last edited 30 days ago by Bram Oude Elberink
Hoonicus
Hoonicus
1 month ago

Nice tribute from a perspective usually neglected.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago

I had an acquaintance who bought a DeTomaso version of the Innocenti Mini new. That was a truly bonkers car. Terrifyingly fast for something so small. Especially when it came to 100-0 percent remaining non corroded metal to dust in under 10 seconds. That must count as supercar numbers somewhere.

Jon Benet
Jon Benet
1 month ago

I always wanted a Fiat X1/9. I even looked at one as my first car. My Dad put his finger threw a painted over rust hole in the wheel arch and that was that. About as close as I ever got and probably will ever get to owning one of his cars.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

As we lose more of these longtime design superstars, who moves to the forefront? I don’t mean this facetiously, I just realized I can’t think of a single dominant car designer today (aside from Adrian, of course). I used to be able name several with ease. Part of it is that I just haven’t paid attention like I used to do. Another part seems to be that designers aren’t touted as loudly or as often as they once were. Is this just a mystery to me or it real?

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 month ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Does Ralph Gilles count?

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

I guess he certainly could, but I had no idea who he was until you brought his name up, which is kind of my point: I should be familiar with his name, at least. I wasn’t certain if it’s just my ignorance or if these folks are not as celebrated as designers of the past.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
1 month ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus
Citrus
Citrus
30 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I think it’s because all of the coach builders – Pininfarina, Bertone, Italdesign – have seen a decrease in relevance as everyone does more and more in-house. So you don’t have the hero designers that pop up to class up normal designs, there isn’t incentive to really put the designer at the forefront. After all, if the designer gets too famous they might go away.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
30 days ago
Reply to  Citrus

Good points. Guess next time I see a design I like, I’ll need to dig down and find out who’s behind it.

Philip Dunlop
Philip Dunlop
30 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

You’re probably right. The designer at the forefront of my mind from today is probably more known for being controversial than for developing beautiful designs: Chris Bangle

Citrus
Citrus
30 days ago
Reply to  Philip Dunlop

I am going to tell you about the horrifying passage of time and point out that Bangle can’t really be counted as a “designer of today” because he’s been out of the industry for 15 years. The E65 7-series was introduced over 20 years ago.

If you need me I’ll be crumbling to dust in the corner.

Philip Dunlop
Philip Dunlop
28 days ago
Reply to  Citrus

Yup. You’re probably right. As if I wasn’t already in enough of an existential funk after entering my fifth decade.

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
30 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Modern day car design is really a work of committee, unlike the days of yore when you had superstar designers plastering their names on their work

Cerberus
Cerberus
30 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I don’t think that there is a serious lack of talent, it’s just that it’s a different world now (though we’re talking Gandini in this case, and he was a superstar). Legislation, standardization, management risk-aversion, the way studios are set up, expense of low-production major design changes (in-house or external coachbuilders, which is why, when you do actually see these things, they’re 7-8 figures), and other factors restrict what a designer can do and how they can standout. Much of the same could be said about entertainment. None of these industries in their current forms are new, so nothing seems new because so much has already been done and there’s not so much room left to innovate. Production expenses have gotten higher on the high end (a lot of it in fragmented marketing trying to reach the maximum number of people in a more varied global market over the noise of increased competition from alternative entertainment sources or the glut of indies as low end entertainment costs are about the lowest they’ve ever been) resulting in more watered down stuff that relies on flash to appeal to the widest number of potential customers, which accounts for the heavy reliance on established properties and nostalgia-bait. In the past, not only were there more opportunities to innovate because less had been done, but the markets were gate-kept by large studios/record companies/publishers, reducing the available product for the average customer to choose from, there were less sources vying for customer attention, the industries were newer and more exciting, and with less available product out there, it was easier and far more common for something to become a common cultural touchpoint. I swear much of that still relates to car design and I could go on, but would veer even further away.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
30 days ago
Reply to  Cerberus

My brain hurts!

Sbzr
Sbzr
1 month ago

really nostalgic to see that silhouette coming back with the Rivian R3

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago
Reply to  Sbzr

Oh, you’re gonna be on The List 😉

Chris D
Chris D
1 month ago

The Audi 50/VW Polo has a very strong resemblance to the Ford Fiesta of that era. I wonder if they are related, or if one copies the other?

These are simple, elegant, classic and practical designs – here’s wishing that the cars of the future could look this way. Electric cars don’t have to look stupid, they can look any way the automakers would like them to. Let’s bring back hatchbacks and windows that you can actually see out of!

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris D

Don’t get too hung up on it. Styling is very much a follower’s game. Think of it as the floating roof CUV, black plastic body cladding, tablet instrument controls, engorged grills and gooey headlight trend of it’s day. Except it just wasn’t so ugly.

Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago

What happens at Brie Camp, stays at Brie Camp.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
1 month ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Did you hear about the explosion at the French cheese factory?

Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago

They’re saying it was the Swiss.

Patrick
Patrick
1 month ago
Reply to  Chronometric

I’m willing to bet that there are holes in that theory.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
30 days ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Da Brie was everywhere.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
29 days ago

I believe the British sent raspberry condolences

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Kids these days. Back in my day we weren’t sent to camp to soften up.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
1 month ago

I had no idea those Innocenti Minis existed until one showed up at a car show last year. And I didn’t know until just now that they were a Gandini design. I learned something today!

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