"There are occasions when sitting in my Tesla Model S that I recall the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime. “And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, And you may ask yourself, well...how "
Robert Opron: The Art of the Automobile
Homage to the maestro of French car design.
There’s a book you can get called ‘Robert Opron: L’Automobile Et L’Art’.
We haven’t read it because it’s incredibly hard to find and will set you back nearly £200 – but if you Google around you can get a free glimpse of its innards.
And from those beautiful pages, as from the title, it is obvious that this is an ‘Art Book’- like the ones you might have on your coffee table; published by the likes of TASCHEN, about real artists that Andrew Graham Dixon might ‘do’ on the telly.
And that’s the point about Opron: He elevated French car design into art. When you look at those 1970s Citroëns that sailed into the world from his pen – notably the (1970) SM and later (1974) CX – you are looking at pieces of mobile art.
No surprise then that Opron is a classically trained artist who spent eight years at a serious art school in Paris, doing all the stuff that real artists do; such as actual painting, actual sculpture and real architecture.
There were no CAD packages when Opron got his automotive break in the design department at Simca back in the early 1950s, so no doubt his classical drawing skills were instrumental in his success. However by 1958- with the wacky Simca Fulgur concept (Above and Below) – we can see the trained sculptor in him coming to the fore in the seamless solidity of that finned bodywork. As well as the architect’s material inventiveness with his blending of glass and steel into new shapes and functions.
Crazy it may have been, but we can trace the same sculptural motifs – worked out on the Fulgur – through into those later Citroën masterpieces for which Opron is rightly lauded. Especially in the incredible all encapsulating aerodynamics of the SM – a car that could almost be described as aquatic in its styling.
They must have seemed radical back in the 1960s. But the 60s was a radical time. Can we imagine a manufacturer producing something with such ‘out there’ aesthetics today? Unlikely, when the focus group restricted the ambitions of most car design today is to look as much like the other cars in your class as possible.
Sure there are talented artists working in modern car design departments – and we see some of their wilder scribbles writ large in concept models at the big shows- but no one really expects to see such stuff in full production runs on modern roads. Instead, like any piece of installation art, Opron’s classic designs were, and are, intricately linked to their specific time and place.
So in an age of automotive homogeneity we can only peer back through the haze of Gauloises smoke and say longingly – vive la difference Monsieur Opron.
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