Concept Car of the Week: Mazda MX-81 Aria (1981)

19 February 2016 | by Karl Smith

Frequently concept cars, even if they appear to have emerged from a blank slate, are anchored to the underpinnings of a production car, both to rein in costs and to explore new possibilities for an established model-range. Such was the case when Mazda approached Bertone in 1981, looking for a concept car for its stands at that year’s car shows.

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Bertone was given carte blanche on the project, with just one stipulation: the design must use the existing mechanicals of that year’s Mazda 323/GLC, Mazda’s workaday compact model. And under the design leadership of Marc Deschamps, the studio produced a sporty two-door, four-seat coupe that looked nothing like the sedate, boxy 323.

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The characteristic Bertone wedge was prominently displayed. The geometry of intersecting, almost-flat surfaces defined the Aria, with a low nose and gently rising beltline that defined a surprisingly large glasshouse. The result was an exceptionally open cabin as well as a visual lightness to the whole car. It's perhaps even more striking now, when cars are becoming ever more difficult to see out of.

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The generous glazing extended around to the tailgate, where the glass projected down into the rear fascia – the virtually equal split between body and glass is clear to see. The tail-lights were integrated into the C-pillars, a very early version of a design element which would become so commonplace a generation later.

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Inside, the Aria had four individual seats, the two front seats swivelling for ease of ingress and egress. The IP displayed Bertone’s experience with electronics and push-button displays and controls – something that has become de rigueur once more.

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But the singular defining feature, the one the Aria is most remembered-for now, was its steering mechanism. Instead of a traditional wheel, a belt ran around a rectangular frame that held push-button controls and, at the centre, a CRT screen displaying information normally shown on gauges. The theory behind the arrangement is sound – the controls in the central hub stay in place, but we imagine actually steering the Aria must have been tricky, to say the least. And, a generation of safety features later, the notion of a Cathode Ray Tube aimed at your chest in an accident seems barbaric…

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While it fulfilled its role as a crowd-puller at the shows, the MX-81 Aria was never meant to be a futuristic 323 as such – it was too radical, with too much glass, for a start. Certain details of the design, however, would make it into Mazda designs of the latter 1980s. The nose, for instance, would appear in only slightly-modified form on the later 323F.

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Followers of Bertone design will recognise the Aria as a development of ideas seen in the Volvo Tundra concept (1979), which itself was deemed too radical for production. However, the design language of both of these coupes would find a production expression in the Bertone-designed Citroen BX of the early 1980s.

And that steering belt? It seems that the Aria was the only time it would appear in a Bertone concept. But perhaps with the advent of by-wire systems and semi-autonomy, the time is right to rethink the humble wheel once more.

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