Driven by Design: Alfa Romeo Duetto
(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)
Photography below by Afshin Behnia and Saam Gabbay for Petrolicious
In spite of its humble, utilitarian roots the masterful designers at Pininfarina managed to massage the Alfa Romeo Duetto into a pretty, eternal design. If you’ve ever seen one drive past then you know that its silhouette is a pure ‘speed-form’; it’s a rolling, directional sculpture, like a hurtling raindrop.
But “how hard is it to create a beautiful, quick-looking form?” you ask, Homer. It’s actually not difficult at all. Until you consider that your design has to carry people, their luggage, and keep everyone safe while cruising over hills at speeds reserved for celestial bodies. Even that isn’t so hard when you begin with a clean slate. The Alfa Romeo Duetto, or Spider as it was later named, however, was based on Alfa’s four-seat 105 coupe that began as a shortened Giulia sedan floorpan.
And this is immediately obvious when you look at the Duetto’s proportions. The bulk of the visual mass exists around the rear wheel. It’s effective for communicating rear-wheel drive (which it was), but it’s atypical for a front-engined roadster because you want the form to speak to the power up front. Additionally, it lacks the Bertone-designed GTV’s long hood, short deck look because the trunk area is about the same size as the hood’s (as it’s only a two-seater based on a four-seater chassis).
It could also be argued that the Duetto’s stance is a little tall. Again, you have the Giulia sedan’s long wheelbase to blame. It’s hard to hide that length when the body is so lithe.
So why is the Duetto so pretty? This is where Pininfarina’s designers’ mastery enters the equation. Realizing that the proportions were difficult at best, the designers massaged the form and surfacing to emphasize their directional qualities. That meant tapering the trunk so that in profile it appears to end in a point and adding the sheetmetal graphic that begins in the front wheel-well and seems to mimic the car’s form as it ends (it actually doesn’t: while the back seems to end in a point there is actually a slanted vertical surface below the bumper).
That body-side cutout also reinforces the body’s gesture. The detailing, as one would expect, is sparse but tasteful. Surely, the obstacles that Mr. Battista Pininfarina and Mr. Franco Martinengo overcame were great in creating the Duetto. This ability to fool the eye and to pull beauty from such a strange proportion makes them masters, but sadly their masterpiece was dishonored in subsequent versions.
The coda-tronca (kamm-back) that made its way onto the Spider ruined the cut-out side graphic that had so effectively hidden the car’s proportions. And the ugly bumpers, mandated by federal laws, not only lengthened the overhangs but also got rid of the visual point on the front. Further adding insult to injury, the plastic cladding that was sacrilegiously festooned on the car added visual weight relegating the car to a bloated cartoonish version of its former self.
That it always sold well is a tribute to its sporty nature and a function of relatively flat cost creep. But one must never confuse later versions for the creative genius behind the first Duetto. Its beauty is truly enhanced by the designers’ knowledge required to make it thus and its modest roots.