• Matteo Licata

Flaminio Bertoni: Designer Extraordinaire

Quite a few outstanding automobile designs have been, at one point, been regarded as works of art. But how many cars have been styled by an actual artist?



Flaminio Bertoni, born near Varese in Northern Italy but emigrated to Paris by 1931, sought recognition for his artistic endeavors all his life. Yet, to this day, he remains pretty much an unknown for everyone except Citroën enthusiasts who, like me, venerate him for having styled the Marque's most iconic models.


The Museo Flaminio Bertoni, hosted within the larger Volandia museum complex, successfully strikes a delicate balance between Bertoni the artist and the industrial designer by displaying the cars loaned by the Citroën "Conservatoire" together with several of Bertoni's sculptures in the same area.

Nowadays, it's hard to imagine just how sleek, rakish and modern the Citroën Traction Avant looked in 1934, upon its presentation.

Attracted by sculpture since a young age, Bertoni expressed his ideas at Citroën's "bureau d’études" mainly through scale models.

His sketches look and feel like the preparatory sketches of a sculptor, quickly fixing his ideas on paper before carving them in three dimensions.

Legend has it that Bertoni created the Traction Avant's shape within a single night of feverish work on a scale model that André Citroën approved the following day.


Nowadays, it's hard to imagine just how sleek, rakish and modern the Citroën Traction Avant looked in 1934, upon its presentation. Thanks to its unibody construction and front-wheel-drive configuration, it sat so low that it didn't need running boards on its sides, which was quite radical for a family saloon at the time.


The Traction on display is perhaps one of the most common models of the range, a post-war 11BL in black. Equipped with a 1911cc inline-four engine, this is a so-called "Legére" model, which differs from the regular 11B model by its narrower track and shorter wheelbase.


The 2CV is instead represented by a Spécial model from 1990, the very last year of production. This is kind of a pity, as I think an earlier model would have been a better fit with the rest of the exhibition.

Although much of the 2CV's aesthetic was pretty much defined by its engineering parameters, Bertoni's touch nevertheless made it look less of a farmer's tool than the original prototypes.

The DS became an overnight sensation when it was unveiled at the Paris motor show in October 1955, gaining worldwide acclaim as an absolute design masterpiece.

But the elephant in the room, or, perhaps more appropriately, in this case, the shark, is, of course, her majesty the DS.

Like the Traction Avant it was meant to replace, the DS was the brainchild of chief engineer André Lefebvre, who tasked Bertoni to develop a shape as aerodynamic as a raindrop. That's what led Bertoni to seek inspiration from marine creatures: the DS had no imposing radiator grille but a shallow "mouth" under its finely sculpted front bumper, with "eyes" almost popping out of the smooth body that gently tapers towards the tail, much like a fish.


The DS became an overnight sensation when it was unveiled at the Paris motor show in October 1955, gaining worldwide acclaim as an absolute design masterpiece. However, Bertoni resented not having his contribution publicly recognized by Citroën, which, in keeping with period industry practice, never gave public credit to individuals within its organization.


The black beauty on display is a rare early DS19, still equipped with a plexiglass rear window due to Citroën's supplier having yet to learn how to manufacture such a wraparound, curvy piece of glass. Although later DS models were improved in all areas, these early DSs are the ones that fascinate me the most, as we so rarely see them.

The earliest DS dashboard design would look modern even today as it was styled like a piece of furniture rather than an engine room's control panel, as it was on all other cars in period.

For how much I love classic Citroëns, pretty is not a word I'd use to describe the Ami6. It has, however, charm and personality by the bucketload

Flaminio Bertoni was never fully satisfied with the DS's rear end, which he had to hastily modify in the last stages of development, coming up with these lovely cone-shaped indicator mounts. Funnily enough, this is the part of the car that perhaps changed less over the model's nearly 20 years of production.


Coherently with his flamboyant, idiosyncratic character, Flaminio Bertoni's favorite creation wasn't the celebrated DS, though, but the rather baroque and contrived Ami6, presented in 1961 and for years among France's best selling cars.


For how much I love classic Citroëns, pretty is not a word I'd use to describe the Ami6. It has, however, charm and personality by the bucketload; I'll give it that!


The model's defining feature certainly is the inverted rear window, which is a clever solution to an apparently insurmountable problem: designing a three-box saloon within the size limitations of the 2CV's chassis. Within the given length, a more conventional roof design would have severely limited the headroom for the rear passengers, so Bertoni came up with this unmistakable shape. It may not win any beauty contest, but the Ami6 was a cleverly designed car and Bertoni's last one.


Flaminio Bertoni was suddenly killed by a stroke on February the 7th, 1964.

From then on, the reins of Citroën's design were taken by Robert Opron, but that's a story for another time...

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