Celebrating Robert Opron, the Magician Who Turned Carmaking into ArtPosted on 2021-12-29
At the heart of every classic car is a vision, first outlined on a piece of paper and then turned into reality. And this vision is nothing else but the reflection of the soul of the visionary, his fantasies and aspirations, his wildest dreams and deepest desires. The life story of the visionary embeds itself firmly in the most subtle and inconspicuous details of the design of his car, making the machine come to life with a touch of personal connection, passion, and affection. This strong bond between a classic car and its designer transforms automotive design from a mere craft into a magnificent, dazzling form of art, wherein the artist and his masterpiece are not only related but also interdependent.
If the art of classical music is often associated with names like Mozart and Beethoven, that of fashion design with figures such as Coco Chanel and Georgio Armani, then who is that outstanding persona in the art of carmaking? The first name that comes to mind is Robert Opron, a man whose fascinating life story led to an equally fascinating collection of classic gems which rank first on the ultimate list of favorites of every vintage car enthusiast. While Charles Aznavour was the legendary chansonnier of the 20th century, Robert Opron was one of the greatest champions in the realm of automotive design of the same era, leaving behind a marvelous assortment of classic treasures along with a mark in history that is never to perish.
Even though Opron was born in Picardy, northern France, he spent most of his childhood in French-controlled Africa (more specifically Algeria, Mali, and Abidjan) because of his working-class father’s military career. Reflecting on his journey in Africa, Opron said in an interview: “I love Africa. Without it I might not have done anything in my career. I learned liberty, nature, kindness and solidarity from my time there.” Despite his immense love and affection for life and for the people around him, Opron had to isolate himself in a sanatorium as he contracted tuberculosis at the age of 18. Two years later, Opron had to leave his beloved continent and move to France in pursuit of education at the École des Beaux-Arts in Amiens. Only after a year, however, Opron transferred to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he had the privilege to study architecture under Auguste Perret - one of the leading French pioneers of the architectural use of reinforced-concrete construction. Within the scope of eight years, Opron had the opportunity to explore a wide array of fields ranging from sculpture and painting to architecture, which provided him with a firm foundation, both theoretical and practical, for his subsequent success in the realm of automotive design. However, Opron did not get involved in automotive design right away, and instead developed an immense interest in aircraft, as a result of which he later received a pilot's license and took up aerobatic flying. In 1954 Opron was fortunate and talented enough to be hired by aircraft builder Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Nord. As he had a remarkable aptitude and skill set in cockpit design, the young creative gained the opportunity to work on the Nord Noratlas aircraft, offering himself the right space and moment not only to further develop his existing knowledge and experience but also to collaborate and learn from the experts in the industry.
Early Career Steps
Opron’s exceptional intelligence and expertise enabled him to start working at Simca as early as at the age of 26. One of his first projects at this French automaker company was designing the Fulgur - an exceptional bubble-top car which was meant and designed to encompass atomic power and voice control. This innovative idea was a response to a challenge from the weekly Franco-Belgian comics magazine “Journal de Tintin,” which invited all participants to design a car with imaginative, futuristic qualities for the 1980s. To make his sketch as creative and ingenious as possible, Opron took the time and effort to consult with his astrophysicist friend, who helped the young designer to fuse the unconventional concepts of atomic power and voice control into his car design. Along with designing the Fulgur, Opron also redesigned the 1959 Simca Chambord Présidence V8 cabriolet which was then used by the beloved French president Charles De Gaulle. When Opron’s department was eliminated in 1961, the automotive designer was given a two-year severance payout, but he also had to agree to a non-compete clause, according to which he had no right to move to any other automaker. And because Opron did not have the right to work for other automakers, he decided to use his design-related knowledge and skills for another field - that of houseware and house appliance production. By joining the houseware production company Arthur Martin, Opron received the opportunity to immediately become Director of Style, which was the direct consequence of his keen eye for detail, hard and dedicated work, and a boundless passion for beauty and elegance.
Comeback to Automotive Design
Despite his success in the houseware and house appliance industry, Opron decided to retake his road to the automotives - the place where his mind and heart were at absolute harmony. However, the comeback was not as easy and trouble-free as one would expect for such a talented artist like Opron. When he applied to work for Citroën for the first time, Flaminio Bertoni - the chief designer at Citroën at the time - threw Opron's portfolio right on the floor, without a second thought or consideration. What is even more shocking is that Flaminio told Opron that he did not find his work particularly exceptional or stunning, a response that was a real offence for Opron, to say the least, given all the recognition and popularity that he enjoyed at all his previous workplaces. However, after three weeks Flaminio revealed that he was simply testing Opron’s attitude and temper. Not only did Flaminio end up offering Opron a job at Citroën, but he also decided to himself become the young designer’s mentor. The interesting irony of this story is that Opron became the person who succeeded Bertoni as Citroën's chief designer only a few years later, in 1964, as a result of his remarkable success and ingenuity to design a number of wonderful masterpieces for Citroën, including the SM coupé, the GS, and the CX.
2001 was the year where Opron left his career as a designer. 20 years later Robert Opron also left the world, as a result of COVID-19 complications which led to his unexpected death at the age of 89. Despite his physical absence in this world, his legacy will forever stay in the history of automotive design, constituting the basis of many future models that are today an indispensable part of our rich and sumptuous inventory at Vintage Car Collector. Opron’s genius is enshrined not only in the luxurious designs of his cars, but also in a number of awards. In fact, Opron was one of the few designers who was nominated for the 1999 Car Designer of the Century competition. Moreover, in 2016, Opron received the Car Design News' Lifetime Achievement Award - a merit received only by those who stand out with their exceptional talent and contribution to the realm of automobiles. Given Opron’s understanding of the subtleties and secrets of what makes a good design, and admiring his dedication to the art and craftsmanship of carmaking, we would like to end our article with the legend’s own words:
“The dolphin, the leopard, the swift, they each move at a speed consistent with their environment, each using a minimum of energy. What a great lesson for a stylist.” — Robert Opron
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