One of the 20th century’s most gifted automotive designers, FLAMINIO BERTONI (1903-1964) was responsible for designing the bodywork of such classic – and stylistically diverse - cars as the elegant Traction Avant, supremely functional 2 CV and alluring DS 19.
Of all the totems of daily life that the French writer Roland Barthes celebrated in his book Mythologies, none moved him more than the Citro?n DS 19, the car that his compatriots had nicknamed “the goddess”. “It is obvious that the new Citro?n has fallen from the sky in as much as it appears at first sight as a superlative object,” he wrote. “The DS – the goddess – has all the features of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science fiction.”
Barthes was not alone in his admiration for the DS 19, which drew adoring crowds from the moment it was unveiled at the 1955 Paris Motor Show. The ‘goddess’ was the product of years of research and development by Citro?n’s extraordinarly gifted team of engineers led by the former Grand Priz champion André Lefèbvre and its Italian chief designer – Flaminio Bertoni.
Born in Masnago, a small town in the Como region of northern Italy, Bertoni discovered car design by accident when, after his father’s death in 1918, he was forced to leave technical school to earn a living to support his family. He found a job as an apprentice joiner at Carrozzeria Macchi, a carmaker in the nearby town of Varese. Bertoni’s skilled draughtsmanship won him a job in Macchi’s planning department and, in his spare time, he studied sculpture. By 1924 he was head draughtsman at Macchi but, five years later, he resigned after a row with the management and set up his own studio where he juggled commissions from local carrozzeria with his private passion for sculpture.
Bertoni’s studio flourished until in 1931 he fell in love with Giovanna Barcella, a young woman of whom his mother disapproved. Hoping that Bertoni would marry a cousin instead, she forbade him from marrying Giovanna. Bertoni responded by closing his studio in Varese and moving to Paris with Giovanna, whom he made his wife. The following April their son, Leonardo, was born and two days later Flaminio Bertoni was offered a job at Citro?n.
By the early 1930s Citro?n was renowned as the world’s most innovative carmaker with an obsessive commitment to research and development. Its chevron-shaped corporate symbol was modelled on the gears designed by its founder, André Citro?n, who, shortly after Bertoni’s arrival, ploughed his personal fortune into the development of the company’s next new model, the Traction Avant, a ground-breaking front-wheel drive saloon car.
Other manufacturers had already produced front-wheel drive cars, but with engines so big that there was too little space left for passengers. A new recruit to Citro?n’s engineering team, André Lefèbvre, had developed a design which went a long way towards solving this problem. While he completed that process, Bertoni was asked to develop an all-metal body, which would make the car lighter than the partially wooden vehicles of the day. Together with Lefèbvre, he produced a car in which weight was evenly distributed and air flowed freely to increase speed. The final component was the shape of the vehicle, its “lines” which Bertoni is said to have created in a single night by moulding a model from plasticine rather than a traditional sketch. Hailed as a triumph when it was launched in 1934, the Traction Avant was described by one critic as: “so new, so bold, so full of original ideas”.
Developing the Traction Avant was so expensive that it drained Citro?n financially and, months after the launch, the company was taken over by the tyre maker Michelin. Luckily for Bertoni and Lefèbvre, Pierre Jules Boulanger, the Michelin executive who took charge (and would continue running the company after André Citro?n’s death in 1935) was a champion of innovation. His first project was to commission the TPV, or Tres Petite Voiture, the “very small car” which he envisaged as Citro?n’s equivalent of Volkswagen’s best-selling Beetle. Boulanger wanted a car which would transport four people and fifty kilos of potatoes at up to 60km per hour. Again Bertoni was responsible for the bodywork. He conceived it to be completely different to the opulent Traction Avant with its voluptuous curves. The lean, linear styling of the TPV, which Citro?n planned to unveil at the 1939 Paris Motor Show, was inspired by the angular Modern Movement aesthetic and by the aircraft from which Lefèbvre had borrowed many of the technical innovations in the car.
Busy though he was at Citro?n, Bertoni still worked for other manufacturers, notably Carrozzeria Baroffio for which he designed a bus with the engine placed above the cabin. He also continued his sculpture, which he exhibited widely. This left him with so little time for his family that in 1936 Giovanna took Leonardo to live with her back in Italy while Bertoni remained in Paris.
When World War II began Citro?n suspended its plans to launch the TPV and, fearful that the Germans would discover it, secretly buried the six prototype cars and hid all the plans and sketches. After Italy entered the War as a German ally, Bertoni was arrested as an “enemy of France”. He was freed by the Germans but spent the rest of the war shuttling between France and Italy and recovering from a motorcycle accident at Citro?n, which left him with one leg three centimetres shorter than the other for the rest of his life.
After the War Bertoni returned to Citro?n to prepare for the long-delayed launch of the TPV, which was finally presented – as the 2 CV – at the 1948 Paris Motor Show. Light and spacious with front-wheel drive and flexible suspension, the 2 CV was praised for its functional attributes, but the public was less entranced by its angular lines. Initial orders were slow but, over the next forty years, Citro?n was to manufacture more than 5 million 2 CVs.
Bertoni and Lefèbvre were already hard at work on the DS 19, the successor to the Traction Avant, which Boulanger billed as: “the world’s best, most beautiful, most comfortable and most advanced car”. Functionally the DS was years ahead of any other car of the time with a succession of innovations: from radically new hydro-pneumatic suspension and dual-circuit braking systems, to a plethora of man-made materials, which Lefèbvre (who prided himself on being the first Frenchman to wear a nylon shirt) had insisted on using. Again he and Bertoni were equally determined that their car should be beautiful. When Lefèbvre asked for a single spoke steering wheel, Bertoni designed one in a smooth, sensuous curve. His dashboard consisted of three curves with pared-down dials and a glove compartment commanding half the space. The elegant lines of the DS’s body combined the modernity of the 2 CV with the Traction Avant’s alluring opulence.
The DS 19 was the sensation of the 1955 Paris Motor Show. Citro?n took orders for 750 cars in the first 45 minutes and for a total of 12,000 by the end of the first day. Paris-Match magazine put it on the cover with movie star Gina Lollobrigida at the single spoke steering wheel. When the DS 19 was exhibited at the 1957 Milan Triennale it was raised on to a pylon to show off the beauty of Bertoni’s silhouette.
Now drawing as well as sculpting and winning prizes at the International Free Art Show in Paris, Bertoni also turned his hand to architecture. In 1956 he invented a new system of family house building which was put into practise in the US city of St Louis, where 1,000 houses were constructed in 100 days.
The DS 19 would remain his – and Lefèbvre’s – masterpiece as an remarkable fusion of form and function. Dogged by ill health, Lefèbvre was forced to retire from Citro?n in 1957, but Bertoni stayed on to design his final car – the Ami 6. Unveiled in 1961, the Ami 6 did not match the 2 CV or DS 19 in terms of functional innovation, but Bertoni’s jaunty lines – notably the reverse-raked rear window – were a key influence on car styling throughout the 1960s.
As a reward for his years of work in France, he was named a Master of Arts and Letters by the French culture minister André Malraux in 1961. The next year he won yet another prize for sculpture at the International Free Art Show. After his death in 1964, Bertoni was hailed for his remarkable talents both as an artist and one of the 20th century’s greatest automotive designers.
Discover more about Flaminio Bertoni at flaminiobertoni.it
1903 Born in the town of Masnago in Como, northern Italy.
1918 Forced to interrupt his studies at techical school in Varese by the death of his father, Bertoni finds as job as an apprentice joiner at Macchi, a local carmaker.
1923 Travels to Paris at the invitation of a group of French technicians who had admired his draughtsmanship on a visit to Macchi.
1924 Returns to Varese and to Macchi where he is appointed head draughtsman. He combines his work there with a private passion for sculpture.
1929 After a row with Macchi’s management, he resigns to open his own studio where he divides his time between car design and sculpture.
1931 Having fallen in love with Giovanna Barcella, Bertoni moves to Paris when his mother forbids them from marrying.
1932 Hired by Citro?n.
1934 Launch of the ground-breaking Citro?n Traction Avant, or ‘front- wheel drive’ car which Bertoni developed with André Lefèbvre.
1935 Starts work on the development of Citro?n’s TPV, the Tres Petite Voiture which will be launched in 1948 as the 2 CV. Bertoni also completes a bus for Barfoffio in Italy and continues his sculpture.
1939 With the outbreak of World War II, Citro?n shelves plans to launch the 2 CV.
1940 Bertoni is arrested by the French authorities after Italy joins the war as a German ally. Freed by the occupying Germans, he returns to Citro?n but is seriously injured during a motorcycle service check and hospitalised for a year.
1944 After the liberation of Paris, he is arrested again and imprisoned, only to be cleared of all charges. At Citro?n, he continues work on the TPV and the successor to the Traction Avant, the DS 19.
1948 Citro?n launches the 2 CV at the Paris Motor Show.
1949 Bertoni completes the architecture degree which he began in hospital after his motorcycle accident in 1940.
1955 The DS 19 is hailed as “the goddess” after its launch at the Paris Motor Show. Citro?n sells 12,000 cars in the first day of the show.
1956 Bertoni’s radical system of family house construction is adopted in St Louis, Missouri where 1,000 homes are built in 100 days.
1957 The DS 19 is exhibited at the Milan Triennale suspended on pylons to show off the beauty of Bertoni’s bodywork. Lefèbvre retires.
1961 The Ami 6 is unveiled as Bertoni’s final design for Citro?n.
1964 Flaminio Bertoni dies in Paris.