LONDON - Arriving at the Design Museum here, Roberto Giolito's eyes widen in surprise as he sees oversize duplications of his preliminary Fiat Multipla design sketches looming on the walls.
'So large!' he exclaims, a bit embarrassed.
Giolito, director of external design at Fiat's Centro Stile in Turin, is a modest, soft-spoken man with fine curly hair and a fashionable 'goatee' beard. He is visiting the UK's most prestigious design museum, where the quirky little people mover he helped create is the subject of its own exhibition.
The new spaceframe-based multi-activity vehicle turns heads wherever it goes, and has provoked a lot of reaction from the design community. Not only is the Multipla the star of the show here in London, it will also go on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art later this summer. The exhibit here is called il fascino della ragione, or 'the appeal of reason.'
The Multipla has received so much attention because it challenges stereotypes about the way a car should look - in particular the boxy shapes of multi-activity vehicles. Some love it, some hate it, and some laugh at it. The Multipla has been called cute, whimsical, ridiculous, other-worldly and just plain brilliant. It oozes personality in a field where personality is a scarce commodity.
Giolito insists Fiat designers did not set out to deliberately create a vehicle that looks 'goofy,' or crazy.
Rather, he is a firm believer that form follows function. A design, he believes, grows organically out of the technology employed in it. Even though this technology is much more sophisticated these days, it still imposes its own limitations.
Modern technology, he believes, calls for modern design solutions. For this reason, he is not a big believer in retro designs. The original VW Beetle was shaped for a rear-engine, air-cooled design. To impose a similar shape from the past on a modern Golf platform is not a solution Giolito would have chosen. But he is an admirer of another VW group design: the Audi TT.
He believes great designs win out over the limitations imposed upon them. That is why he likes Vespa motor scooters from the 1950s, which contained surplus aircraft parts left over from World War II.
'The Vespa is a triumph of design over poor technology,' he says.
The Multipla was a consequence of the various design parameters set by Fiat management, particularly Paolo Cantarella, Fiat's SpA's hands-on managing director who ran Fiat Auto at the time .
The car had to be designed and built on a very limited budget, and it had to be profitable at low manufacturing volumes.
It had to hold six people and their luggage comfortably, all while being built on a platform smaller than those used for typical people movers. It also had to be flexible enough to accommodate alternative fuel sources and engines, including natural gas.
Fiat's spaceframe - a structure which carries the body panels, rather than a conventional set-up where the panels are part of the main structure - provided the platform for the Multipla. The spaceframe will be used as a foundation for further derivatives based on the Multipla theme.
'In the future, we hope to keep this methodology alive with other projects,' Giolito says. Spaceframe allows panels to be easily changed for new model development without the need for crash testing and structural analysis.
The Multipla has a nickname in Fiat circles. It is called the 'coffee pot' for the distinctive separation of the bottom and top halves, particularly when the car is seen from the rear.
The Multipla starts wide at the bottom, narrows at the beltline, then widens again at the top. The positioning of the high beam lights, immediately below the cowling that also houses the windshield wipers, makes the Multipla look like no other vehicle on the road.
The Multipla's two rows of three seats each, with the middle seat set back between the outside seats, creates a 'living room,' Giolito says. The Multipla, he says, is a car built to foster good relationships between its occupants.
'You can see a lot of happy faces,' he says. 'If you are outside you don't understand why they are so happy. It is very comfortable inside. I can describe the Multipla as a car for encouraging good relations.'
When asked whether the Multipla might be too radical for some buyers, Giolito just smiles and makes an acknowledgment: 'The shape tends to polarize opinions. You either like it or you don't. The real market needs a little bit more time to accept this design.'