To launch a design practice in any field of creative endeavour, be it architecture, interior design, graphic design, or automotive design, is a risky venture at best.
The skills needed to sustain a practice over the long term are difficult to master and do not always cater to a designer’s personal and professional strengths. The failure rate is high, and even those who succeed may spend a decade or more struggling to establish themselves and create a steady clientele.
So when a practice lives to see its 20th birthday, it is an occasion worthy of celebration. Especially when that practice is Italdesign, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s automotive and industrial design practice in Italy. It had been quite a twenty years for Giugiaro, and the designs he produced in those two decades changed the automotive world.
Think of just a few of the notable concepts: the Maserati Boomerang, the Italdesign Capsula, the Lancia Megagamma, and the Lancia Medusa. His practice produced some truly innovative designs for production cars, too. Think of the Hyundai Pony, the Isuzu Piazza, the Maserati Bora, the Lancia Delta, the DeLorean DMC-12 and the FIAT Panda. And there is, of course, the car that may be his ultimate contribution to automotive history, the Volkswagen Golf.
Yes, it was certainly a time of celebration. So what would a designer like Giugiaro do? Create a car, of course. In fact, he created three cars – and of course, at least one would need to be a sports car. Well, maybe two… and who but Giugiaro would need to propose a future for the MPV, a format he pioneered?
The early design of the Giugiaro’s anniversary car resembled a roadster version of the Machimoto concept of 1986. Further development included a chassis based on a Lancia Delta HF Integrale (also designed by Giugiaro), and a new engine by Audi, a 2.2L turbocharged five-cylinder engine producing 250bhp. The decision was made to mount the engine amidships, with a trunk behind and passenger compartment and spare wheel storage up front.
Along the way, the car acquired a name: the Aztec.
Giugiaro claimed the design of the Aztec was influenced more by spacecraft than automotive or natural forms. It was clear he wanted a science fiction touch to this anniversary wedge. But he also wanted a bit of familiarity and classic feel, so the roadster or speedster format was adopted, with a dual pod cockpit and dual half-height windscreens.
An enormous wing stretched over the rear deck. The sleek flanks were broken by lower windows – supposedly for vision in tight quarters – and by some strange panels that seem to tessellate at the rear wheels. What were they?
The Aztec wore its science fiction credentials on its sleeve – literally. The panels just ahead of the rear wheels on both sides of the car had all sorts of storage and monitoring controls accessed by a number code typed into the side, or accessed through voice commands.
The panels interrupted the sleek purity of the Aztec wedge, but their dissonance highlighted the overall design and gave it an exotic machine-tech look instead of a platonic geometric wedge or sleek rocket shape.
At the interior, gullwing doors allowed access to the dual pods of the cabin. The occupants were separated by a central cowling, so they had to communicate by microphone.
The driver was on the left, but the passenger, more like a co-pilot, also had a wheel and a keyboard to control various on-board functions. As with so many Italdesign proposals, multiple controls were on or around the steering wheel for easy reach. An early sat-nav system was in the centre console, tilted toward the driver.
Extending the futuristic design theme, Giugiaro and his team created a coupé version of the Aztec. The coupé, named the Aspid, was essentially the same car as the Aztec, but with a streamlined canopy that swept over the over the cockpit and down to the rear deck.
The Aspid, too, had a dual-wheel interior, and similar controls, but the driver and passenger were inside a single cabin and so did not need to communicate electronically.
And finally, a surprise departure from the wedgy sports cars, Italdesign extended the Integrale chassis some 300mm to create an MPV, the Asgard.
The interior seated six, with a driver’s bucket seat flanked by a twin bench. Three individually adjustable bucket seats sat behind. A storage area was placed at the rear, containing a small rear-facing jump seat rising out of floor.
The interior was not as radical as the Columbus concept of a few years later, but the exterior was sleek like the Aztec and Aspid, with strong horizontal lines, and seemed in motion, even when parked.
The Aztec design intrigued a Japanese industrialist, who obtained a license to produce 50 copies. Some 18 were actually built, at an estimated price of $750,000 apiece (about $1.44 million, or £1.037million in today’s money).
The Aspid did not go into production but did influence the design of Giugiaro’s ID 90 coupé of 1990.
The Asgard seemed like a wry comment on the boxy state of the MPV at the time. One has to wonder: had the design of the Asgard been adopted, would the SUV craze have even got started? The Asgard is the sleek monoform of the future that wasn’t to be – at least, not yet.
Italdesign celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It is now part of the Volkswagen industrial empire, and the Giugiaros, father and son, have formed a separate practice, GFG Style, which offers similar design services at a more intimate and more modest scale – a different type of practice from the large industrial/design days of a quarter-century ago.
But birthdays past are not forgotten, especially one that produced a remarkable trio of futuristic concepts that have been so inspirational for decades.