Remembering Robert Opron

| 23 Dec 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

Robert Opron, who died earlier this year on 29 March, aged 89, became head of design at Citroën after the death in 1964 of Flaminio Bertoni.

Under Opron’s direction the company’s cars gained, with the GS and the CX, a new and contemporary look for the 1970s – and an ill-fated ‘Super Citroën’ in the shape of the SM.

An artistically aware designer with an interest in sculpture, modern art and architecture (he studied as an architect and, as with Bertoni, he would design his own house), Opron had a vivacity and flamboyance that suited the job.

Short, moustachioed and with a love of bow ties, he had begun his design career with aircraft manufacturer Nord Aviation, planes having always been a passion almost as important as his love of cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

Opron will always be most readily associated with the glamorous Maserati-powered SM, a car of which he remained proud. “It’s a very simple form. It was what we wanted it to be,” he said in 2002

In 1957 he moved to the motor industry, as a junior in the Simca styling department.

There he worked on the four-door cabriolet Vedettes made for the French presidency, and on various abortive Vedette try-outs such as two-door cabriolets and coupés.

He also carried out some preliminary studies on a two-box saloon, work that ultimately evolved into the successful Simca 1100 hatchback of 1967.

The sole purely Opron creation of these years was the Fulgur dream-car of 1958, a sci-fi fantasy vehicle sponsored by a children’s magazine.

“It was a fun job,” he once recalled. “It didn’t really interest anyone – it was the sort of job you gave to the office youngster.”

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

Opron worked with Bertoni on the highly successful Ami 6 estate, the original mock-up of which was shaped in plaster on a saloon shell. He greatly admired the three-box Ami 6 for its clever design solutions and baroque lines

Made redundant in 1960, he spent two years styling cookers and fridges for household-goods producer Arthur Martin, an interlude not remembered with any pleasure.

Opron never saw himself as a multi-discipline industrial designer in the mould of, for example, fellow Frenchman Philippe Charbonneaux.

He moved to Citroën in 1962, where one of his first tasks was to assist Bertoni in the creation of the Ami 6 estate.

There were also sundry projects to restyle the DS. Opron recalled with sadness the continued badgering by Citroën management, which wanted a more conventional and chrome-bedecked snout: “That was one of the problems we always had on our drawing boards: what could we do with the DS?”

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

Opron oversaw the finalising of the new front for the DS – at one time he sketched out a proposal with the headlamps situated behind flaps

Opron had arrived at Citroën when its engineering was losing direction and its product line was growing stale.

Transforming the Ami 6 into the banalised Ami 8 was a project undertaken through gritted teeth, working on a small 2CV-based town-car was a blind alley, and the proposed mid-range ‘Project F’ was half-baked in its engineering and inelegant in its boxy Bertoni-originated styling.

The sole exercise that had any glamour was creating the one-off ceremonial DS saloon for President de Gaulle, working with Bertoni’s long-term assistant Henri Dargent.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

The Ami 8 project didn’t stimulate Opron, but was needed to extend the Ami’s life and make its styling less contentious

For Opron, however, it was another distraction from the serious business of designing a new generation of production cars.

“It was routine stuff – I didn’t have any enthusiasm for it,” he commented in a 2002 interview.

When the ‘F’ was cancelled he had his opportunity, and the first entirely Opron-directed Citroën emerged in 1970 as the GS.

Manifestly influenced by the Pininfarina ‘Aerodinamica’ Austin 1800, although Opron always denied this, it used aerodynamics honed in the wind tunnel to compensate for the small air-cooled engine specified.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

Opron’s team worked hard on the aerodynamics of the GS – and with its hydropneumatic suspension it was an expensive car to build

From the same template came the CX of 1974. Another clean ‘technical’ six-light aero-saloon, it had the idiosyncratic feature of a concave rear window – the only way, said Opron, to have a sufficiently deep-opening boot, given that the brief was for a two-box saloon without a hatchback.

Before the CX, though, and launched the same year as the GS, came the car most commonly associated with Opron: the Maserati-powered SM.

Shaped largely by talented colleague Jean Giret, it was always an Opron favourite, despite some reticence about the generous use of chrome trim.

“The SM hasn’t aged,” he once proclaimed. “Drive about in one today, and people will stop to question you. It’s only in the details that it shows its age.”

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

The CX was stylistically in the same mould as the GS, but had an unusual concave rear window – this is a first-series model, with steel bumpers

Supported by Citroën boss Pierre Bercot, a cultured man with a love of music and poetry, these were Opron’s years of glory.

But self-indulgent engineering and commercial ineptitude had weakened Citroën, culminating in its government-encouraged absorption by Peugeot.

Opron was poached by Renault, which had come to realise how porky the big Renault 20 and 30 looked alongside the sleek and original CX.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

The Renault 25 was introduced in 1984 with a glassy elegance that has lasted well – nearly 800,000 were made until 1992

Between 1975 and 1985 Opron ran Renault’s styling department. The most signal product of this stage in his career was the R25.

Drawing on the bubble-back hatch idiom established with the SM, the big Renault has a clean, glassy classicism that has lasted well.

The Fuego, originally intended as a more upmarket model, was not so well received, and thereafter Opron’s imprint on Renault designs was less evident.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

With styling attributed to Michel Jardin, the 1980-’86 Fuego was originally intended to be an upmarket model with the PRVV6 engine. It could have been a poor man’s SM, but instead it ended up as an R18-based damp squib

The nationalised business was stuffed with a civil service of administrators.

Decision-making was tortuous, and the commercial and design processes lacking in dynamism.

Numerous and fruitless attempts to come up with a new cheap Renault to replace the R4 frustrated Opron. 

Gandini was drafted in to design the second-generation R5 and Italdesign was used for the R21. The less said about the Renault 9 and 11 the better.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

This Opron-led proposal for a small Renault, which included a pivoting one-piece bonnet and an usual treatment of the sliding-glass door windows, dates from 1976

After an unenjoyable sojourn in the United States with Renault’s then-associate American Motors, Opron joined Fiat in 1986 as design director, with a particular responsibility for advanced studies.

In 1992 he retired, with no outstanding achievements to his name during this period; in interviews he was not forthcoming on his time with the Italian giant.

In his retirement he carried out some freelancing on Ligier microcars.

Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron
Classic & Sports Car – Remembering Robert Opron

Opron’s sketch for a sporting Simca, dating from c1959 (left); this 1965 rendering looks at a DS with a sixth light and a hatcback rear

Opron was more an impressario-manager than a sculptor-creator in the mould of predecessor Bertoni.

He communicated with his modellers using precise sketches, and it was they who interpreted and executed his wishes.

Names such as that of Michel Harmand, also responsible for the CX’s ‘half-moon’ instrument pack and fingertip controls, perhaps deserve more prominence.

But as the frontman, it is Opron who is most readily associated with the GS, the CX and the SM. Spare, sculptural and dynamic, they are among the very few automotive designs of lasting merit to have emerged from the 1970s. That’s not a bad memorial.

Portrait: Dominique Fontenat


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