Late French designer did wonders at several automakers, especially Citroën. Check out a little bit of what Robert Opron did in his brilliant career
Decades ago, when globalization was not so intense, the auto industry had a richer variety. We could find traces of each company’s culture in what they did. Rather than simply differentiating themselves from the competition, they would express symbols of their origin and of the values with which they were built.
French car design would thrive in that context. They had mechanical solutions which are still breathtaking, and visual elements that seemed unburdened by the rules of market demand. One of the artists who were responsible for that beautiful time was Robert Opron, who would have turned 91 years old on this day.
Early days of Robert Opron
Born in the French city of Amiens, Opron spent his early life in North Africa because his father was on the military. He would return to France in 1952 to study architecture, painting and sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts. That degree led him to a first job in industrial design, then to another one in military aviation.
Opron entered the car industry in 1957 through Simca, where he would work on the Vedette Présidence, a cabriolet version built for Charles de Gaulle. In 1958, he made headlines because of the Fulgur, a concept car meant to preview what cars would be in 1980. Sadly, that design only became common in The Jetsons.
Even though he was made redundant in 1960, his contract had a clause that forbade him from working at another car company for two years. He spent that time in Arthur Martin, a homeware manufacturer, until he could take the job at Citroën. That is when Robert Opron really started to shine in automotive design.
The Flaminio Bertoni phase
After his initial application, Citroën invited Robert Opron for an interview with its head of design. Flaminio Bertoni was the responsible for cases of success like the 2CV and the DS and, upon seeing Opron’s Simca portfolio, threw the drawings on the floor. It is said that Opron’s inflamed reaction turned things around.
The designer started as an apprentice and helped Bertoni create the Ami 6 Break. However, he eventually replaced the Italian as Citroën’s head of design after his death, in 1964. While that station wagon was an exciting job, the new position forced him to take design tasks that were more bitter in multiple ways.
Refreshing the DS was tough because it was a design reference. Citroën wanted a more conventional look with chrome trim, and Opron knew expectations were high. The main feature on the 1967 facelift was the double headlights covered by glass lenses. It brought the car up to date without disrupting its identity.
Times of turmoil
Citroën was going through a tough phase in the 1960s. The lineup offered the low-cost 2CV and Ami and the upscale DS with nothing in between. Parallel to that, the French tax system of the time forced it to use small engines that were considered too weak for foreign markets. Both issues harmed its sales potential.
Sadly, the steps it took to change that did not actually help. Partnerships with both Peugeot and Panhard failed, investments in the Wankel engine and the hydropneumatic suspension did not bring the necessary financial return… and the acquisition of Maserati, in 1968, would only bury the company deeper in debt.
Besides the DS’ Nouveau visage, Robert Opron had to grit his teeth and create the Ami 8, a “more regular” version to boost its sales, and a midsize “Project F” started by Bertoni, among others. The new presidential car, a cabriolet DS, was a refreshing exception. However, things would really improve in the next decade.
Best Robert Opron cars
Once the Project F was cancelled, Opron quickly brought a creation of his own. The GS would take Citroën to the midsize segment with a sleek and aerodynamic shape. It featured smooth surfaces, a tapering rear end, and a four-door coupé body that ended on an abrupt cut. The latter is often referred to as Kammtail.
The same design would eventually be reinterpreted with more refinement to replace the DS: the CX came in 1974 as the new flagship car. Both received intense praise for pairing modern design with an excellent cabin room and high fuel efficiency. The latter was essential to the GS, since it used a small 1.4L engine.
The masterpiece, however, was another car. The SM used Maserati’s V6 engine, Citroën’s hydropneumatic brakes, and Robert Opron’s design talent. From the full-width glass bubble up front to the teardrop shape of the rear with the license plate above the lights, not a single element in that car had conventional style.
The GS finally made Citroën strong among midsize cars, whereas the CX proved to live up to the standard set by the DS. The SM was a niche car, so it had lower sales. However, it managed to do well in the USA, which is not a small feat. Especially considering its design had drastic changes to comply with local laws.
Those cars became memorable for being inspired. Robert Opron made aerodynamics the center of a new design identity and adapted it to their respective purposes. Those cars made a big difference in a decade when the oil crisis was forcing the entire industry to take a more conservative approach to its own work.
Sadly, those cars were not enough to save Citroën. The automaker was forced to merge with Peugeot in 1975 and that made Opron’s job redundant. The company had to focus on conservative cars, much to the frustration of its fans, while the designer had to search for a new job. That leads us to the next chapter.
New beginnings at Renault
While the SM had a stronger image in history than in the market, the GS sold over two million units. The CX, in turn, was voted the European Car of the Year of 1975. Not only was it rationally great, but also had the appeal of being the last pure Citroën car. All following projects were made after Peugeot’s takeover.
Meanwhile, Robert Opron found a new job at Renault, which did not want to fall behind its direct rivals in terms of design. His first complete work was the Fuego, a coupé whose design repeated the concern with low aerodynamic drag. It was one of the very first car models designed with the aid of a wind tunnel.
In 1976, the Alpine A310’s facelift brought a black rear spoiler which made it look modern at the expense of breaking the original harmony. Nevertheless, that and some mechanical upgrades made it sell well. The interesting part is that the outgoing design was closer to the SM than the one designed by Robert Opron.
Too many obstacles
We can say that the R25 was the most notable car of the Robert Opron era in Renault. The typically French notchback received stoic, but elegant shapes that fit well in the 1980s. That wraparound rear glass, in turn, is a nod to Opron’s distinctive visual approach – individual, rather than luxurious, according to Wallpaper.
The fact that Renault was partially owned by the State made everything slow and bureaucratic in it. Opron had too many barriers to execute his plans, which led to crescent frustration. He could never finish a low-cost project to replace the aging R4, while the R21 and the new R5 projects went to other designers.
Things became even worse once Renault partnered with AMC. The companies decided to adapt the 9 and 11 to the USA with local production, which became the Renault Alliance. That venture made Robert Opron and his AMC design counterpart, Dick Teague, to go back and forth both countries several times a year.
An Italian sunset
The last major job Robert Opron had in the car industry was at Fiat. He was focused on advanced studies there, notably the Alfa Romeo S.Z. That was a sports cars with limited production whose development was a joint venture of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Zagato design centers. It is still admired for its aggressive design.
While that car had critical acclaim, it was Opron’s only relevant creation there. The French designer would retire in 1992 and dedicate himself to occasional freelance projects. Some of them were at Ligier, creating microcars, and at Piaggio, designing scooters. Robert Opron lived his final years in France up to 2021.
While his finest works happened at Citroën, Robert Opron took his unique style everywhere he went. He created cars around the passengers and for them, rather than standardized products leaving an assembly line. Each one was an experience to enjoy, whether for its uncompromised design or pleasant interior.
- Celebrating the Gallic genius of Robert Opron 1932-2021 – Hagerty
- Celebrating the genius of the late Robert Opron – Wallpaper
- Remembering Robert Opron – Classic & Sports Car
- Remembering Robert Opron – Legendary Car Designer (1932–2021) – FormTrends
Danillo Almeida has explored his passion for cars in two distinct ways. The first one is his graduation course in Mechanical Engineering, which will hopefully lead to a job position in the field. The other one is expressing his knowledge and opinions on the matter through writing. Almeida has already contributed to blogs, stores, and websites in general writing automotive content in many formats.