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Concept cars and prototypes – they’ve always had an almost magnetic attraction for enthusiastic visitors at automobile exhibitions all around the globe. They showcase an optimistic glimpse of what the various marques have planned and their visions of the future.

These hypnotic cars – artistic sculptures in their own right – exhibit sci-fi levels of technology and are effectively the canvas for a car designer’s wildest dreams. But rather than remaining two dimensional sketches, they are brought to life in real world creations, and then left to the engineers to develop solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had. Sometimes these concept cars are so ahead of their time, that their designs and ingenuity don’t make it into mass production until several years later – if ever…

For many years, the now dethroned Italian designhouse Bertone, had a close working relationship with Toyo Kogyo, better known under their automotive name, Mazda. In 1981, the Japanese car manufacturer ordered a new prototype carte blanche from Bertone, with the sole requirement that it be based purely upon Mazda mechanicals.

The Mazda MX-81 Aria from 1981.

Bertone split the period second generation Mazda 323 into atoms and then reassembled it all with sharp futuristic proportions and vast quantities of glass. Mazda were already building cars with a modern touch to the practical requirements set by their market segment. This new concept car was an attempt to look even further into the future, to see just how far they could stretch the 323 platform in the hands of visionary designers. The concept was dubbed the MX-81 and took shape as a refined and sporty 4-seater coupé.

The proportions were formed to take the dimensions of the mechanicals into account, which was at this time still an all new way of designing a concept car. It resulted in a distinct yet unadorned look where every element complimented the next in a fully integrated design. It combined the refined with the minimalistic, while its vast glasshouse making up virtually half of the body offered up a light and inviting interior. Especially the rear seems to be an important element of the design. The huge transparent surface which makes up the rear window and complete rear hatch blends in perfectly between the vertical rear lights in the C-pillars – witness of many hours being devoted to a balanced and interesting design.

The distinct rear of the Mazda MX-81.

A colourful and flamboyant interior in the Mazda MX-81 – and quite innovative too.

The interior of the MX-81 became an innovative result of Bertone’s previous experience with designing dashboards. Bertone were renowned for their innovative and futuristic interiors. On the MX-81, in order to free up more space in the cabin, the traditional steering wheel was done away with and replaced by an all new circular belt mechanism running around a rectangular frame. In the middle of this belt were various push-buttons and a CRT display giving the driver all the information which would normally be found on a variety of traditional gauges.

Both Mazda and Bertone have regularly publicised their successful partnership in the past. Mazda have also claimed that they let themselves inspire from the MX-81, and utilised several design solutions from the concept car in their regular mass produced models during the following years. In 1985 – approximately four years after the Bertone design study – Mazda introduced their brand new third generation of the 323 model, and while it’s a perfectly acceptable econobox hatchback design, I truly struggle to find many – if any – ingredients borrowed from the lavish MX-81 menu. The extravagant and pioneering Bertone concept was clearly a touch too futuristic for Mazda, who sadly shied away from its brilliance. Whether the Mazda customers of 1985 saw this as a loss too is difficult to say, but there’s no denying that the very ordinary 323 certainly sold well up through the eighties.

The third incarnation of the Mazda 323 from 1985.

Of course, diehard fans of the Bertone designhouse will immediately see the MX-81 link with the equally sharp and futuristic Bertone concept for the Volvo Tundra which saw the light of day as early as 1979. However, Volvo were too conservative to dare put the Tundra into production, just as Mazda were too conservative for the MX-81.

But Bertone’s inspirational direction of design during that period was not totally lost. In 1982, Citroën launched its new BX model range. It too was a Bertone design and it was clearly heavily inspired by the Tundra with lesser elements of the MX-81 thrown in there for good measure. Citroën were no strangers to innovation and thus had the courage to put it into production. After having sold more than 2.3 million Citroën BX, production finally ceased 12 years later in 1994. Today the BX is an up and coming classic car respected for being one of the last Citroën’s to carry the true Citroën DNA with a flair for being daring and different.

Would Volvo have benefitted from being just a daring with their 340 model? Would Mazda have benefitted with their 323 model?

Bertone’s concept Volvo Tundra from 1979.

Bertone’s concept Mazda MX-81 from 1981.

…and Bertone’s productionalised Citroën BX which was introduced in 1982.


9 Responses

  1. kim

    A forgotten forerunner,perhaps even closer related to the BX design wise would the very forgotten 1977 Reliant/Anadol FW11. It is almost, apart from minor details, identical to the BX. Also check out the Jaguar Ascot to find the BX roots. The BX, Volvo Tundra, FW11 and Ascot were dewsigned by Gandini, the MX-81 was as far as i know a Marc Deschamp design.

  2. Anders Bilidt

    I must confess that I simply love all those futuristic concept cars and prototypes which toured the major car exhibitions throughout the seventies and early eighties! This MX-81 Aria is a perfect example of this…

    @kim, in all honesty, I feel the Reliant FX11 resembles the unloved 1978 FSO Polonez more than it does anything else!

  3. kim

    @anders-bilidt It does, if you look at the silhouette, but if you look besides the the outline,the Reliant has quite a few things in common with the BX. The Gandini trademark with bumpers forming part of the square wheel arches for instance. The Polonez was designed by Gandinis biggest rival Giorgetto Giugiaro. The biggest difference betweenthe FW11 and the BX shape wise would the vertical front where the BX has more of the Tundra. (To me the Tundra looks miles away from the BX, except for some details are around the front corners). And the lack of the opera window, which btw, some BX didn’t have.

  4. Anders Bilidt

    …and the 1978 FSO Polonez??

    Either way, I personally think the Mazda MX-81 Aria looks heaps better than either. And so does the Volvo Tundra btw…

  5. kim

    Here all three..same silhouette, bt only almost as the Polonez has more of a humpback, the FW11 clearly looks more BX than Polonez. Off course it does, same designer..

  6. kim

    @anders-bilidt so can i, but i see more similarities between the BX and the FW11,wheel arches and bumpers (TOTALLY different on the FSO), tailgate profile (TOTALLY different to the FSO), B post (vertical on the FSO)… But yes the silhoutte is similar..

  7. Dave Leadbetter

    Back to the Mazda… I like the description of “distinct yet unadorned” which I think sums up the Mazda philosophy pretty well. They are arguably one of the few current manufacturers that still engineer everyday cars for the driver and the whole “Skyactiv” tag goes far beyond a series of engines into a whole philosophy of making everything lighter and more responsive. Best of all they still “right size” their engines so you can still have a family car with a normally aspirated 2.0 whereas most others will sell you a gutless 1.0 Turbo. But I digress…

    Rather than the MX-81 being a complete dead end I can see a strong resemblance to the late 80s 323F in the front end, not just the fact is has pop-up lights but the line of the bumper and positioning of the sidelights inset under the main lamps. You don’t need me to confirm the circular belt steering control didn’t make it however… The Volvo Tundra is one of my favourite concept cars of the era but the MX-81 runs it a close second.


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