CCotW: The Italdesign Aces (1973-’79)

26 January 2018 | by Karl Smith

Giorgetto Giugiaro needs no introduction to the readers of Car Design News. His life and work have been the model and envy of car designers worldwide, as both his concept and production cars are a source of inspiration, discussion and debate in any car design setting.

Yet a few of his cars remain underappreciated, overshadowed by his more flamboyant or influential works. Such is a trio of concepts designed by the Italian Master in the 1970s, each named for a different ‘Ace’ card in a standard deck.

Today we take a brief look at Italdesign’s ‘Ace’ cars.

Asso Di Picche (The Ace of Spades) – 1973

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Italian design, German coachbuilder, German target client

In 1973, coachbuilder Karmann approached Giugiaro, looking to his design talents to inform the design of a project they might sell to Audi, a special edition sports coupé based on the enormously successful Audi 80.

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Audi 80 underpinned Giugiaro’s Asso di Picche concept

The resulting wedge-shaped coupé was almost nothing like Harmut Warkuss’ crisp, but boxy production Audi 80. Giugiaro channelled his wedge shape designs from the Maserati Boomerang and Alfa Romeo Caimano, among other designs. About the only thing that suggested any Audi 80 lineage were the quad headlights and horizontal taillights.

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Quad headlights are the only indication of ‘Audi’ at the front mask

Giugiaro and Karmann had agreed that for the project to have any chance of approval with the Audi leadership, it would have to use virtually all stock Audi 80 underpinnings – engines, suspension, front-wheel drive, and so forth.

However, Giugiaro did shorten the rear end and lengthen the front to get a more dramatic wedge shape and sporty stance.

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Asso di Picche interior – dramatic cylindrical IP elements

Inside, the most dramatic element was the composition cylindrical instrument clusters. Into these cylinders were set the gauges, warning lights, climate and entertainment controls.

Additionally, the single spoke steering wheel, and leather draped across the seats and interior surfaces in a curtain-like fashion, seemed an exotic departure from the functional but staid production interior of the standard-issue 80.

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The car was a composition of triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids

But it was not to be. Karmann introduced the Asso di Picche at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show and approached Audi about building a limited-edition car, but Audi had other priorities – and had previously rejected some wedgy proposals for the Audi 80 in favour of Warkuss’ boxy design.

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Giugiaro‘s own VW Scirocco ended up getting in the way of Asso di Picche

What’s more Audi’s parent, Volkswagen, was gearing up to produce the Scirocco, which would appear the following year in Europe, followed by a successful launch in North America. Volkswagen did not want to distract from its forthcoming sports car, which was, of course, yet another Giugiaro design.

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1979 Lancia Delta – claimed to have been influenced by Asso di Picche

Giugiaro would later claim the Asso di Picche would influence his design for the Lancia Delta of 1979. Of course, other concepts like the Maserati Medici and the Lancia Megagamma came along first, and they also showed the influence of the Audi-based concept.

Asso di Quadri (Ace of Diamonds) – 1976

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Asso di Quadri – conceptually the same as the Asso di Picche

Disappointed, but undaunted by Audi’s rejection of their sports coupé proposal, Karmann and Giugiaro would team up again in 1976. The brief was conceptually the same: a standard issue coupé that could be transformed into a wedgy sports car. This time the BMW 320 (E21) was the basis for a sports car proposal, which would receive the name Asso di Quadri – the Ace of Diamonds.

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The Asso di Quadri was based on BMW’s 320i coupé

The design clearly showed the influence of the previous Ace, but also of the Volkswagen Scirocco. The wedge nose was still there, this time in black, with rectangular quad headlamps and BMW kidneys. The glasshouse was still a trapezoidal shape, but the large trapezoidal C-pillar was made considerably thinner, much like the Scirocco.

Underneath, mostly standard BMW underpinnings were employed to keep costs down. As a result, unlike the Audi proposal, the Asso di Quadri was rear-wheel-drive, also using a standard BMW two-litre, four-cylinder engine.

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Rectangular headlamps and BMW kidneys graced the front mask of the car

Again, the proposal, introduced at the 1976 Turin Motor Show, was pitched to the BMW leadership, who rejected it.

Many reasons have been cited over the years, such as the design being too radical for BMW at the time, or that BMW was focusing on competing head-to-head with Mercedes and did not want to waste resources on a car with limited market.

Asso di Fiori (Ace of Clubs) – 1979

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Asso di Fiori – the third time was the charm for Giugiaro

Yet, still undaunted, Giugiaro returned to the wedge coupé theme one more time, when approached by Isuzu, for whom he’d designed the classic 117 coupé while at Ghia back in 1966. The 117 had gone into production in the 1960s and by the end of the 1970s was ageing (albeit gracefully), making it out of step with the design trends of the day.

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The Isuzu 117, a popular early Giugiaro design while he was at Ghia

Isuzu asked Giugiaro to update the car for the 1980s, with the only stipulation that his design would need to be placed on the Isuzu Gemini chassis (the Japanese version of the Chevrolet/Vauxhall Chevette).

Once again, Giugiaro pulled the wedgy coupé design out of the drawer and updated it for the Gemini platform. Isuzu, knowing Giugiaro’s work very well, gave him free rein and stepped back from the design and engineering process.

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Asso di Fiori is perhaps the best design of the Aces

This time, it was a success. The introduction of the Isuzu Asso di Fiori occurred at the 1979 Geneva Motor Show and it was a smash hit. Journalists, Isuzu dignitaries and visitors from other manufacturers crowded the Italdesign stand.

Isuzu approved the car for production within 48 hours of its debut. Giugiaro and engineering partner Aldo Mantovani were asked to fast track the car for the assembly line.

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Based on an Isuzu Gemini chassis, the concept car was right-hand-drive

The Asso di Fiori had the same basic massing as the two previous Aces, but a more rakish composition of elements. The nose tapered down almost to a point. Exterior gutters and channels were eliminated.

The sloping character line that ran just below the shoulder hid the hood shut-line and the bottom shut-line of the rear hatch, making the car seem more like a single piece than many contemporary cars.

The interior was more traditional, but Giugiaro couldn’t resist an innovative steering wheel control combination that allowed fingertip control of most interior functions. It’s standard in modern cars, but was almost unheard-of then.

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Interior had fingertip controls at the steering wheel

There was great excitement at Isuzu about the forthcoming sports coupé, but the wait would be agonizing.

Mantovani and Isuzu management had insisted on Giugiaro approving any changes to the concept’s design and engineering, no matter how small. A great honour to be sure, but the extra approval process for elements as small as bolts or washers slowed development to a crawl.

It would be 1981 before the Isuzu sports coupé, now called the Piazza (Impulse in North America) would appear in dealers’ showrooms.

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Difficult to tell if that cat is impressed by this most dramatic of wedges

Still, Giugiaro was vindicated at last. The wedge form and detail innovations like flush glass had at last come to the market, while both the form and the details would be a part of car design throughout the 1980s.

Why was the Ace of Clubs successful when other Aces failed? Familiarity and timing seem as good an explanation as any.

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Finally Giugiaro's wedge coupé had become a production reality

Isuzu had worked with and respected Giugiaro, having had a winning design with the respected and strong selling 117. They commissioned the Ace of Clubs, it was not a project done on spec.

Also, the Japanese were ready – as they had been in the 1960s – for a fresh infusion of Italian design. Both Audi and BMW were in the midst of an image transformation and Italian wedges were not in the brief for their respective brands.

Asso di Cuori (Ace of Hearts)

As for the final Ace, the Ace of Hearts, it does not exist. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps now, in his ‘retirement” Giugiaro might bless us with a final design, a 21st century Ace. What shape might that car take, a generation removed from the Isuzu concept?

We can only dream, and hope…

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Asso di Fiori photographs by Rainer Schlegelmilch
Human model and photobombing cat, unknown.