There’s nothing quite like a concept car to prove that you can indeed mix the exotic and exquisite with the practical and mundane. Why should fancy gullwing doors be reserved for likes of the fabulous Mercedes-Benz 300SL from the fifties? How about a gullwing door for every member of the family?
Giovanni Michelotti was at the very top of his game during the seventies. Of course; who penned the prettiest designs will always be a matter of opinion. But there’s no denying that of the various Italian carrozzeria which had managed to survive the sixties and early seventies, it was Studio Michelotti which was punching out successful designs at a rate which no one else could even dream of keeping up with. He was the master of creating stylish yet functional and fully production ready designs such as those created for Triumph starting with the little Herald and leading as far as the elegant and upmarket Stag. Having done a fair amount of work for Lancia earlier in his career, they eventually approached him with the simple request: “Design something new within the segment of four-door vehicles”.
However, that’s not necessarily the easiest of challenges. While the words of that request appear very carte blanche and would have left Michelotti the freedom to go in any direction he pleased, the restraints and restrictions of keeping the four-door family car concept both functional and practical really don’t leave much wriggling room for the designer.
Michelotti decided to approach the exercise not just from a design perspective, but also in the spirit of seventies automobile development, with a keen eye on passenger safety. The result was launched by Lancia and Michelotti at the 1974 Turin Auto Show: The Lancia Mizar.
The whole concept was based on the Lancia Beta 1800 Berlina which had been introduced two years earlier. Technically the Beta was really quite an advanced compact saloon for its time with a transverse-mounted twincam engine, front-wheel drive, 5-speed transmission, rack and pinion steering, and both independent suspension and disc brakes at all four corners. Of course, in hindsight we all know that the model quickly came to be marred by quality issues. Designwise, it was an interesting enough design with its subtle shovel-nose, but hardly groundbreaking.
While the Mizar also utilised a sloping rear window design similar to that of the production Beta Berlina, it was in fact an entirely independent design. But for sheer visual impact and where Michelotti truly did succeed in “designing something new within the segment of four-door vehicles” was the use of four individual gullwing doors! To the best of my knowledge, no other car design to this day has wauwed the public with four separate gullwings.
But there was even more to it than that. For starters, while both the factory Beta Berlina and the Mizar concept had similar sloping rear windows, it was only Michelotti’s design which actually utilised the practical aspect of having a full-size hatchback. Despite the hatchback looks of the Beta, it only had a normal boot opening. The Mizar also went with a degree of the popular wedge theme, and even had those oh-so-cool pop-up headlights which were in vogue during the seventies but normally reserved for low and dashing sportscars.
Beyond the different and daring styling of the Mizar, there were also several safety features incorporated into Michelotti’s design. For starters, with the doors creating vast cut-outs into the roof, the body shell was instead strengthened by integrating a full roll bar into the B-pillars and across the roof. This concept was later to be adopted by Volvo. There was also a requirement for side impact barriers in the doors, which Michelotti overcame by fabricating huge aluminium boxes within the doorsides. Despite using aluminium this however made the doors fairly heavy, so all four doors were assisted by gas-filled struts attached directly to the roll bar in the B-pillars, thereby making the substantial doors feather-light to operate. All four doors even had double locks to be sure they wouldn’t spring up in an accident.
The safety theme continued on the inside where the massive glasshouse with a very low set window base for the side windows aided outward visibility and thereby active safety before such a term had even been invented. The dashboard – and pretty much every other surface of the cabin – was smooth and padded, which at the time was also a fairly new development in the quest for improved safety measures. Amusingly though, the Mizar was not equipped with seatbelts, which really contradicts all their other achievements with the Mizar concept. The design of the body apparently left nowhere to mount the seatbelts, so the only option was integrating the seatbelts into the actual seats. However, the team found that this option wasn’t compatible with Lancia’s stock Beta seats. Yet they still decided to retain the Beta’s contoured factory seats as they were found to offer excellent comfort and support – and they no doubt also kept the development cost of the Mizar from spiralling out of control.
The Mizar certainly managed to introduce some interesting features. Granted, the design works better from certain angles than it does others. The high-set rubber bumper in that tall and stubby nose looks a little odd, but on the flipside, the roofline, large glasshouse and those funky gullwing doors work surprisingly well together. The Mizar of course never reached production, but Michelotti proved yet again that it was indeed possible to combine extravagant styling elements with the practical and still achieve an overall aesthetically attractive design. Only the question remains; should Lancia have gambled and put the Mizar into production? If nothing else, it would have certainly been a statement. But would it have been enough to save Lancia from their undignified fall from grace? Sadly, I don’t think so – that would have required much more than a gullwinged family car. But what say you dear reader?
ViaRETRO bonus-information: The small Swiss coachbuilder, Felber FF, specialised in boutique cars. In 1976 – two years after the introduction of the Lancia Mizar – they introduced their interpretation of the Lancia Beta Berlina. The nose cone of Michelotti’s Mizar concept, albeit with wider twin headlamp pop-up lights, was grafted onto a stock Lancia Beta Berlina, which was also given larger and vertically placed taillights and not least a large glass hatchback opening. I’m not entirely convinced that it was an improvement over either the stock Beta or the concept Mizar, but I suppose it was at least something different which was probably enough for Willy Felber and the handful of customers who bought one.