A display by the Citroën Car Club UK at the opening of the
exhibition in central London. Click for larger images
Traction Avant monocoque construction, 1934
1938 2CV Prototype
Mathis 333, 1937
One of the most influential European automotive designers of the 20th century, Flaminio Bertoni, the designer of the Citroën DS, is the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
The Design Museum exhibition comprehensively covers Bertonis design career, with photographs and drawings from his earliest days in Italy, scale models and sketches for the Traction Avant, one of the rare Aluminium pre-war 2CV prototypes (never shown before outside France) and the superlative DS.
Flaminio Bertoni (not to be confused with Nuccio Bertone) was born in 1903 in northern Italy. His first job was working for local coachbuilder Macchi as a joiner and then draftsman, whilst in his spare time he studied sculpture. He quit Macchi in 1929 to set up his own studio where he painted, sculpted and took on design commissions with his work being exhibited at major national exhibitions.
In 1931 he fell in love, but with his mother against the relationship, he closed his two studios to leave with his pregnant girlfriend to marry and establish himself in Paris. He was soon hired by Citroën to work with a small engineering team at the beginning of the two year development of the Traction Avant. The car had a monocoque body, front wheel drive, rack and pinion steering, overhead valve engine and independent suspension all exceptionally advanced features in their own right, but combined together for the first time in this, the most advanced car in the world in 1934.
Bertonis design may not have contributed as much as the cars technical specification and resultant performance did to its sales success and subsequent status as one of the most significant pre-war cars, but his design was an important part of the Traction Avants appeal. Apparently defining its core forms using a plasticine model over a single night, Bertoni worked contemporary automotive forms into the cars modern proportions and created a distinctive, avante guard and yet comfortable design.
Throughout the 30s, Bertoni spent much of his time producing paintings and sculptures, which were shown at numerous exhibitions and received many awards, although the time he spent devoted to his art prompted his wife to leave him. He also undertook a project to design a three-wheeled vehicle, called V3R, for the company ERSA of Courbevoie that reached production in 1954 as the Mathis 333 and a project to design a van called the TUB.
In 1935 he started working on the Citroën TPV (Toute Petit Vehicule) or Bécassine (Snipe) which later became the 2CV. War intervened in the 2CVs development and Bertonis Italian nationality in France caused brief difficulties both at its beginning and end.
During the war Bertoni continued to work at Citroën, began a diploma in architecture, filed several patents, continued to produce and exhibit art, and met a new woman.
The design development of the 2CV took a new direction after the war, most significantly moving from aluminum to steel in its body, although the aluminum bodied Junkers JU-52 aircraft inspired corrugations were employed on the 2CVs hood, as they were in the H-van that soon followed.
Launched in 1948 to a mixed critical response, the 2CV was a huge sales success and responsible for mobilizing much of the rural population in post war France. Bertonis design was iconic. Simple, distinctive, functional and yet with well integrated curvaceous forms, good balance and a definite animalistic quality (as its sometime moniker Tin Snail suggests). Radical at the time, and always unique, the 2CV took a while to be accepted but soon became part of the French landscape and exemplar of part of French national identity.
The replacement for the Traction Avant was the next major project for Bertoni, who by now had married again, obtained a degree in architecture and was receiving more prizes for his sculptures than ever before. The project was called the VGD (Voiture de Grande Diffusion mass market car) and it became the car that received more superlatives, made more of an impression and was more of an advancement in one step than any car created before or since; it was the Citroën DS.