The incredible story of two Montreals

Gandini’s and the one Alfa wanted

Photo credit: FCA Heritage, Museo Storico Alfa Romeo

It’s tough being an artist in the car world. Whereas traditional artists have the freedom to take their brushes and produce whatever they like on their canvas, the artist/car designer has to try and find ways of avoiding, or getting round, various constraints that may be imposed on him — constraints deriving from the technological requirements of the car he has been asked to “create”, the various laws and regulations in force, various marketing considerations, and, no less important, the tastes of the client company’s management. While this situation is just about acceptable for a regular designer, for a true artist like Marcello Gandini it can be a source of real frustration. We need only recall his memorable rejoinder to Chrysler president and CEO Lee Iacocca after the latter, having taken over Lamborghini and found Gandini’s Diablo, an innovative creative masterpiece, practically complete, decided he wanted the Chrysler style center to put its stamp on the car.

The definitive prototype of the Montreal ready to be shipped to the 1967 Montreal Car Show

The result was the magnificent model we all know so well — magnificent because it stemmed from Gandini’s basic idea —, but it was actually far less innovative than the version originally designed. When the car was ready to go on the market, Iacocca asked Gandini to put his name to it: “Of course”, he replied “you can have half my name”. Clearly, this is how much of the car he still felt he “owned”. A similarly incredible incident came in 1967 when Gandini was chief designer at Bertone. He had designed an Alfa Romeo for the Montreal Car Show. The model was in fact called the Montreal.  “We had prepared two specimens” Gandini recounts, with a smile that nevertheless fails to conceal a trace of bitterness even now, more than forty years on. “Everyone loved that car. It was wide and low. Its only defect was the four-cylinder engine, which didn’t really match the expectations it generated”.

Wide, low and sleek, but with a feature that seems clearly out of place: the two tiny exhaust pipes denoting the presence of a small 4-cylinder engine, certainly inadequate given the size and sportiness of the car

It was a huge success and Alfa decided it should go into production.  “At that point, I expected it would be given a larger engine. Instead, the strategy chosen by the company was rather different: it was decided that the four-cylinder engine should remain and the car itself should be made narrower”. It goes without saying that if you “squeeze” a car, the harmony of its lines is bound to be affected. However, that is what the customer wanted and Bertone, whose team included Gandini as chief designer, complied. The car, no longer the same of course, was subsequently approved. But then came another twist in the tale: a counter-order from Alfa, which had decided to change the engine after all, replacing the four-cylinder with an eight-cylinder unit. “We were sent a very tall, cumbersome new engine”.

Even though the version that went into production was narrower and taller than the original prototype, the side is true to Gandini’s design

Once that was installed in the car, it was immediately obvious that the whole design would need to be reviewed again. “I had to redesign the car to make it taller. Basically, first they had wanted it narrower, now they wanted it taller! Yet, anyone seeing the original prototype at the Automobile Museum in Turin will admit that it remains a pretty impressive car, even today.” This comment, very elegantly put, entirely in keeping with the style of the man, shows that Gandini still harbors feelings of regret over what happened, even though the version of the Montreal that eventually went into production is now a popular collectible model. But the fact is, the artist in Gandini was prevented from expressing himself as he would have liked, and this denied us the chance to enjoy the result of his brilliance.

The final version of the Montreal with its eight-cylinder engine is increasingly sought after among today’s collectors