Early years 2000 was a busy period at Alfa Romeo's Centro Stile, its in-house design department. Not so much for the work load which was normal but because of many organizational changes which involved the entire Fiat Auto group, or, should we say Fiat-General Motors after the March 2000 alliance. Those mergers are always made in the name of efficiency and efficiency means cost-reductions achieved by synergies.
Photo Courtesy of Italdesign and Stellantis Archives
Synergy means reduction of the number of project and production related activities to the absolute minimum. In this way the development and production costs can, at least in theory, be spread over much larger number of the final products. The Marques, with all their peculiar characteristics acquired in time become mere Brands. There is no more any intrinsic character left in each brand cars as they all share the same components with others within the Group.
There is only one “platform” for each size or market category. Same with engines, transmission, brakes, suspension, HVAC and all the components. The only “brand-characterization” is possible through styling and fine-tuning of shared components.
The old, historical Italian brands like Lancia and Alfa Romeo have already went through this process when they were “absorbed” by Fiat in 1969 and 1986 respectively. At the time it seemed big and drastic changes and limitations because both makes had their own, established methods of working and their products had clear and distinctive characteristics. But at least in those years all the players were from the same northern Italy industrial area, with similar if not the same history and culture. There were differences but at least everybody knew each other pretty well.
This time we were talking about merging not only with many car makes, all with their history and characteristics but also with different nationalities from different continents... That means not only different working methods but different cultures, different languages, even different time zones.
At our Centro Stile all the current projects in different state of advancement had been suspended and radically reconsidered in view of the new realities. The old, well known synergies assumed a whole new meaning, we no longer had to share platforms and components with Fiat and Lancia but with a number of totally new brands like Opel, Vauxhall, Saab in Europe as well as Holden in Australia and, obviously, all the American brands of GM.
General Motors has been one of the pioneers if not the inventor of employing synergies between numerous brands making part of their group so for us the main problem or at least a novelty was not so much the number of new platforms and components but a totally new way of project management. First of all their reference grid, a basic tool, necessary for spatial orientation within the project had different origin from the one we were used to. They were also using different CAD systems which meant changing hardware and software and learn to use it.
All this long and apparently superfluous introduction is necessary to explain in what state of stress and often confusion all our project and design departments were in the early years 2000. All our current projects suffered big delays as they had to be reformulated on new platforms with all relative complications.
Strangely enough the only project relatively immune to those complications was the concept Sportività Evoluta or Evolved Sportiness because it was already heavily based on the synergies with the Ferrari Maserati group which wasn't directly involved in the Fiat GM merger. Initially there were some attempts to consider the GM's Chevrolet Corvette platform as it was similar in typology of the vehicle and its dimensions but, fortunately, the “Italian” solution has been confirmed.
All this peculiar and often confusing situation had resulted in a strange situation in which most attention and internal resources of our Centro Stile were focused on the secondary and decidedly a fun-project of the concept sports car.
Apart from the usual restyling projects which for obvious reasons continued with the “old” system, this concept, thanks to its Ferrari Maserati based platform, was the only new car project that followed the usual and familiar all-Italian procedures. It was the mainstream, future range models like Alfa 156, 166 and 147 projects that suffered from all the changes, lack of clear decisions, accumulating delays.
It was in this hectic times that we were all surprised with a new Alfa Romeo concept presented during the March 2002 Geneva Auto Show by Italdesign, the Brera.
For many of us at Centro Stile it was perceived as a threat as it was clearly positioned as an alternative to our Sportività Evoluta concept. It had exactly the same, Ferrari Maserati based platform, drivetrain and general dimensions. There were no doubts for us that Giugiaro must have received detailed informations about the characteristics of our concept car project which was going on for quite some time already... Maybe somebody in the Fiat head quarters was becoming impatient and wanted to prove that it was perfectly possible to conclude a concept like this in a very short time? Anyway all the comments at Centro Stile Alfa Romeo about the new Brera concept were of “political” nature and generally negative.
Personally, for me Brera was a surprise but in a different way. I was one of very few at Centro Stile not constantly involved in the Sportività Evoluta concept project and I was not particularly convinced it was evolving in the best way, in fact I clearly preferred the alternative scheme of a light, compact central engine sports car in the Tipo 33 Stradale spirit. Therefore, in a certain way, I wasn't emotionally involved in the dispute and I was looking at the Brera concept from a purely aesthetic point of view. And I must say I liked it from the first moment.
It wasn't the overwhelming kind of liking, the one that amazes you at first but then gradually and inexorably fades away with time. I liked its general proportions, its non banal disposition of volumes and its simplicity and purity of lines. It was one of those designs that grows on you, that doesn't shout but gently invites a second look, then third... until you realize that the more you look at it the more you like it. It is a perfect example of what can safely be described as timeless design.
I limit myself to analyzing only the exterior design aspects because I regard the interiors of both concept and the later production cars as non particularly interesting.
I remember I started to gather images and dimensional data of Brera, it wasn't easy as internet wasn't very diffused yet and anyway it seemed it didn't have the press coverage it deserved.
The image I liked most was a photo of the partial, work-in-progress stage of the classic Italian “figurino” of Brera on the drawing table of Giorgetto Giugiaro. It was a typical Italian School method of car design. This first, usually 1:10 scale “figurino” or a set of all views or, more precisely, orthogonal projections is subsequently completed with sections to become “piano di forma”, a true and complete 2D definition of the 3D object. This piano di forma serves to build a physical model of the future car. It is the same method I now teach the future designers at the Automotive Design master course at Polytechnic of Milan.
I said I was gathering drawings and photos of Brera because, when it suddenly disappeared from Auto Shows, I decided to make myself a scale model of it. I guarantee you there is no better way to study a car's form than making a scale model of it, especially without a complete documentation because you have to recreate it yourself based only on photos and some partial dimensional data.
I mentioned before that at some point Brera disappeared from public view, if I remember well, with an improbable excuse of having suffered a damage in transport... I was puzzled because any damage can be repaired and an independent design studio like Italdesign wouldn't easily give up on publicity generated from showing a concept car like that at different occasions for at least a couple of years.
Initially somebody at Centro Stile was gladly convinced that this uncomfortable contender of our Sportività Evoluta had lost the contest and our proposal, named in the meantime 8c Competizione, was progressing safely and undisturbed... That was until we discovered that Italdesign was working hard on a totally new family of cars based on the new GM-Europe platform and based on the design of the Brera, that would eventually substitute both Alfa 156 and 166 cars...
Here finally was the logical explanation of the “sacrifice” of the Brera concept car. Every automotive designer knows it is relatively easy to design a flashy sports car on a classic “thoroughbred” chassis with huge wheels, long low hood and a strictly two seat accommodation with barely any practical luggage compartment.
The situation changes drastically when somebody asks you to apply the same design on a bulky front-wheel-drive, five passenger car with a full size boot. Or even worse when they ask you to make a two door, 2+2 coupe, as much as possible similar to the concept and even with the same name Brera, BUT... with the same long front overhang and relatively short and tall engine hood of the FWD sedan car... In this case the comparison is even more merciless.
That's why they decided to hide the perfectly proportioned Brera concept car, to avoid any, certainly inconvenient confrontations...
Anyway, in the Brera concept and in the subsequent 939 production project Giugiaro proved once again his professionalism. The Alfa 159 sedan and station wagon design granted these otherwise bulky cars with that unique Italian flair and made them resist very well the passage of time. The difficult, Machiavellian decision to suppress the Brera concept car in order to make everybody forget its thoroughbred proportions and accept the relatively compromised ones of the production car of the same name worked perfectly, both Brera coupe and its cabrio version were and still are very good looking sporty cars with undeniable Italian flavor.
Only when you have a very rare occasion of seeing again the original Brera concept car, you realize the substantial difference in the proportions between it and the production car. We all know the production Brera is based on a totally different chassis architecture and that, as all the series production cars, it represents a compromise. And knowing the circumstances, it is a damned good compromise.