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Citroen designer Flaminio Bertoni

Photo illustration of Flaminio Bertoni.

Photo illustration of Flaminio Bertoni. Credit: Wheelbase Media

What is it that compels an automotive designer to add a curve here or a sweeping line there?

Does the arc on a hood symbolize a turn in the designer's own life? Do the dips and bends signify a turning point, a crisis or a resolution? If so, Flaminio Bertoni's design work makes complete sense.

One of the 20th century's most gifted automobile designers, Bertoni was responsible for creating the bodywork of classic and stylistically diverse vehicles as elegant as the industry has ever seen.

A designer primarily for the French automaker Citroen, Bertoni left a remarkable stamp, one that was fresh, vibrant and beautiful. His vehicles drew adoring crowds. He was admired, respected and copied and never duplicated. Not that it was easy getting there.

Follow Bertoni's own path and you'll see as many curves in his short life as dips and changes in his design.

His bio reads like a novel: loss, love, success, war and death. Born on Jan. 10, 1903 in Masnago, a small town in the Como region of northern Italy, Bertoni discovered car design by accident.

After his father's death in 1918, Bertoni was forced to leave technical school to earn a living and support his family.

A curve . . .
Already a skilled draftsman, he found a job in the planning department at Carrozzeria Macchi, a local body maker in the nearby town of Varese. In his spare time, Bertoni studied sculpture and even opened his own art shop in Varese.

After a battle with management, Bertoni began designing his own body styles until Giovanna Barcella came along. In 1931, against his mother's advice, Bertoni married Barcella, closed his shops in Italy and moved to Paris. The moment would prove historic.

A bend . . .
Within a year, the couple had a son, Leonardo. Two days after the birth, Bertoni was offered a job at Citroen, a company renowned for creating some of the world's most innovative designs with an obsessive commitment to research and development.

Bertoni flourished.

He created Citroen's first design studio in the 15th district of Paris, a 50- by 40-foot office. Armed with capital and resources, Bertoni was asked to develop an all-metal body for Citroen's next model, the Traction Avant. With its voluptuous curves, the Avant was a ground-breaking front-wheel-drive car that allowed space for passengers on a light frame.

Amazingly, Bertoni created the car in one night by molding a model from plasticine, perhaps the first time a model of a mainstream car was not done using a traditional sketch.

Launched in 1934, one critic described the vehicle as "so new, so bold, so full of original ideas."

But having thrown himself into his work, Bertoni neglected his home life. His wife, Giovanni, eventually left him just five years into their marriage.

A dip . . .
Bertoni charged forward, creating a small vehicle called the TPV as well as a three-wheeled vehicle called the V3R. All were significant departures from mainstream automobiles. All were groundbreaking pieces of machinery.

As busy as he was for Citroen, Bertoni still created vehicles for other manufacturers and even designed an Italian bus with the cabin above the engine.
World War II halted production and left Bertoni in a tough situation. A motorcycle crash during a service call for Citroen left him hospitalized for a year with numerous injuries.

The DS 19 solved his ills.

A straight line . . .
The successor to the Traction Avant, and nicknamed "The Goddess" by critics, the DS 19 was years ahead of its time.

It was Bertoni's masterpiece, offering a radically new suspension and braking system and a plethora of man-made materials. His single-spoke steering wheel was one smooth, sensuous curve. His dashboard consisted of three curves with small dials and a tiny glove compartment.

It was the combination of Bertoni's work: The opulence of the Traction Avant with the modernity of the TPV. It stole the 1955 Paris Motor Show.

Citroen took orders for 750 cars in the first 45 minutes. By the end of the day there were 12,000.

Bertoni just moved on, drawing, sculpting and winning international awards. He also turned his attention to architecture. In 1956, he invented a new system of family housing that was put into place in St. Louis, Mo., where 1,000 houses were built in 100 days.

Bertoni designed one more Citroen, the Ami 6, a vehicle with sharp lines and a rear window design that would influence styling throughout the 1960s. But it did not match the TPV (later known as the 2 CV) or the DS 19 in terms of innovation.

Professionally, Bertoni continued to collect prizes for sculpture and design.Personally, his life would be a roller-coaster. He would marry again. He would die young.

On Feb. 7, 1964, at just 61, Bertoni died after an epileptic seizure.
Helios Ilo Tarbuyo, an editor in Paris, would write: "He was a higher spirit and a noble soul. He was part of the elite which soars over that which one dares to call human society."

Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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