Bertone Ramarro

The C4 Corvette goes to the party

Although Bertone was Italy’s oldest custom coachbuilder, it never lost its flair for the future. It proved this in 1984 when its design chief, Marc Deschamps, bodied the latest Corvette so spectacularly that his Ramarro still looks avant garde today.

In his fourth year with Bertone’s Stile SpA, Marc Deschamps was challenged to create something new from the C4 Corvette gifted to the company by GM Design Staff.

Born in Belgium in 1944, Marc Deschamps may be the greatest car designer you know nothing about. After apprenticing with Peugeot and Simca, he was mentored by the great French journalist Jean Bernardet, who introduced him to the Italian houses. Marc found a place with Ghia but inevitably clashed with its owner, the choleric Alejandro de Tomaso.

Deschamps next moved to Bertone in Turin, but this proved premature, and he left to help Guy Ligier with his sports and Grand Prix cars. In 1976 a meeting with the legendary Robert Opron led to a place with Renault, Deschamps contributing to the sensational 5 Turbo. When Marcello Gandini left Bertone in 1979, Marc moved to the renowned Turin house to head its design under the direction of Nuccio Bertone. There he began a dozen years of phenomenal creativity for both visionary concept cars and happy design customers.

Although sketches contributed to some aspects of the Corvette-based Ramarro, many features were worked out in clay in scale and at full size.

While Bertone had a factory in the Turin suburb of Grugliasco, where Pininfarina and ItalDesign also resided, since the 1970s the design and the building of full-scale models and concept cars took place at Caprie, some twenty miles to the northwest toward the French border. There Nuccio Bertone established a separate company, Stile SpA, which carried out those functions with a fifty-strong staff. This was an efficient and productive “skunk works” with eight designers and engineers, eleven model makers, three interior experts, and some thirty metal-shop craftsmen and other workers.

All the group at Caprie were passionate about cars, eager to explore new ideas for customers and in the form of concept cars. The latter offered an opportunity to keep the cadre motivated about their work. Participation in the creation of a dynamic running sculpture brought the sort of enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. These were reasons why the program at Stile SpA always included the concept cars that were star attractions at motor shows all over the world. Bertone’s team not only enjoyed but also needed this inspiration.

At Caprie, Bertone’s company Stile SpA had superb purpose-built facilities for automobile design. The Ramarro’s model-in-white still wore the Corvette’s wheels.

In what seemed a coal-to-Newcastle exercise, a brand-new sports car was delivered to Bertone at Caprie after its appearance at the Geneva Salon in March 1983. It was the long-awaited and eagerly received new C4 Corvette by Chevrolet, designed as a coupe with a lift-up rear window and removable roof panel. Completely reengineered by Dave McLellan and restyled under Irving Rybicki and Jerry Palmer, it was distinctively European externally and had a spectacular instrument display internally. Renamed “Design Staff” in 1972, the General Motors operation gifted the Geneva Salon car to Bertone to do with it as it saw fit.

“Nuccio Bertone drove the Corvette around Turin for several days,” wrote John Lamm, “to get to know the car and sense the reaction to it. The Turinese loved the car just as it was. During those days the new Corvette also spent time in the courtyard outside the studio, visible to the designers. Initially they wondered what they could do to provide a new, fresh version of this well-styled automobile, but after a period of frustration a few ideas took shape on paper. The challenge of rebodying the Corvette took over. More concepts followed and enthusiasm grew as a theme and shape began to develop.

Bertone’s craftsmen put in long hours to get the Ramarro ready for its 1984 debut, here shaping the front panel from dimensions marked on the sheet metal.

“With the Corvette already a ‘muscular’ car,” Lamm continued, “Bertone designers led by Marc Deschamps began to look for ways to redefine that muscle, to slim it. Using the existing chassis and drive train dictated that the cowl area remained basically unchanged. For the sake of aerodynamics Bertone gave the car a very low nose, which they also wanted sealed as much as possible, taking in just enough air to give some flow around the engine.

“To achieve the low nose,” added Lamm, “the mini spare tire was moved up front ahead of the engine, swapping places with the radiator, which now resides at the very rear of the car. It’s hoped the trip to the wind tunnel will prove that with the wedge shape, the low gentle roof, and the short high tail, the airflow will remain attached to the body and then be sucked down into the air intake just behind the rear window. The cover over this intake is opened and closed thermostatically and the airflow is aided by three electric fans.”

The Ramarro’s wedge-line profile and the upward lift of the rear of its greenhouse show well from this angle. The slots in which its doors slide forward are prominent.
A side view emphasizes the 10 inches of the C4 removed at the rear of the Ramarro. It gives the effect of picturing a huge hand propelling the car forward.

The wheelbase of 100 inches would remain unchanged, but to European eyes the C4 was over-generous with its length. It needed to be shorter, but by how much? In sketches they assessed reductions of 2, 13, 15 and 20 inches from the C4’s 176 inches. Their choice was 13 inches chopped from the length, 10 inches at the rear and the rest in front. The height was little changed while width increased by almost 5 inches.

Bertone’s engineers under Eugenio Pagliano earned their pay with their execution of the concept car’s doors. They decided on doors that first swung bodily outward and then slid forward. “Typically, door lengths on two-door coupes are long,” Bertone explained, “making them both cumbersome and a problem when close-parked to other cars. Getting in and out can sometimes be very difficult. There needs to be a state of delicate balance in the opening mechanisms to achieve optimum ease of operation. Provision must also be made for the doors to slide forward without interfering with the hood, as well as the front wheels, which protrude quite a distance in full-lock position.

A striking automobile deserves a striking background, which Bertone’s photographer certainly found for the Ramarro. Its tri-color paintwork did not show up well, however.

“Considering the complexity of these problems,” added Bertone, “it is not surprising that sliding doors are hard to mount except on cars or vans with very high sides. Even then they usually slide rearwards. The engineering finesse reflected in the sliding doors is certainly worthy of a truly exceptional prototype. Selection of sliding doors obviously influenced the formal aesthetics of the body sides. The need for wide ribs and tracks for the doors and hinges to slide along suggested continuation of this feature along the entire body side.”

“As on the production Corvette,” explained Road & Track’s styling expert Jonathan Thompson, “there is a longitudinal recess that serves as a join for the body panels, but it rises much more sharply and has a deeper recess—somewhat reminiscent of the Lamborghini Espada’s—behind the front-wheel arch. Another similar slot is found just above the rocker panel. These are necessary for the door mechanism. The recessed rear facia contains the taillights—which glow red through green-tinted plastic—the radiator-air exit and a slim, gray-painted horizontal strip.

“The nose is particularly effective,” Thompson added. “With a rear-mounted radiator, the car has an almost unbroken forward surface. The four main headlights are neatly set behind flush plastic covers while low-mounted driving lamps retract into the undersurface of the bumper when not in use. Rising toward the rear of the car from the outer corners of the main headlight housings are two crisp dihedrals.  These edges also provide the demarcation for the subtle three-tone metallic golden-to-green paint scheme.

The doors first opened outward, with their windows, and then slid forward to allow access. The advantage they offered in tight spaces was exceptional.

“The entire roof is dark,” said Thompson, “with very little definition between the smoked glass and the pillars. The interior, while innovative, is more subtle than one has come to expect from show cars. The main novelty is the seats, attached to the center console rather than to the floor. Finished in brownish, lizard-textured olive greens and beige, the seats and instrument panel have an unmechanical and curiously inviting appearance. I say ‘unmechanical’ rather than ‘nonfunctional’ because it remains to be seen how much side support and adjustment the seats will provide. The seatbacks and headrest swing forward to give access to the small luggage area behind the seats, the rest having been usurped by the rear-mounted radiator.”

Unified fore-and-aft control of the seats was managed by a rotary knob above the center tunnel. Bertone kept the C4’s digital panel while placing minor and HVAC controls in a Mondrianesque central box, angled toward the driver. A main feature of this was a rotary control for the automatic transmission’s functions. In all, with its lizard-textured upholstery in two-tone color the interior was a sophisticated blend of fashion and design.

Caprie’s engineers reached for top-level technology in fitting the ex-Corvette with Michelin tires of low aspect ratio, replacing the 16-inch Goodyear Eagles. The sizes were 280/45VR-17 at the rear and 240/45VR-17 at the front. Except for their all-weather tread pattern, the tires were identical to those used for Formula One racing until 1983. Matching the original C4 five-stud pattern were special Bertone-designed light-alloy wheels. Although looking like two-piece wheels, they were integrally cast with vents that centrifuged air into the wheel interior to provide brake cooling.

Cooled by three fans, the radiator at the Ramarro’s rear had a thermostatically controlled cover that adjusted the amount of incoming air according to the engine’s needs.

Names such as “Condor” and “Photon” were considered for Bertone’s Corvette, but the final choice was “Ramarro,” called “euphonious, rolling off the tongue somewhere between Ramada and Camaro.” It brought with it the theme for its livery, for the ramarro is Italian for a lively green lizard that’s prolific in the countryside around Caprie. This in turn provided inspiration for the hues used inside and outside the Ramarro as well as the textures of the upholstery.

Working throughout 1983 on the Ramarro’s creation, Bertone aimed for its display at the Turin Salon in the spring of 1984. For its own motives Fiat pressed for the show’s delay to November, so Bertone switched its sights to the Los Angeles Auto Expo, taking place in June 1984 just before the Olympics in the same city. An American launch was very much in Bertone’s interest, because it was now producing the Fiat X1/9 under its own name and marketing it actively in the United States.

Road & Track’s John Lamm visited Stile SpA during the final preparations of the Ramarro, which did not differ greatly from those of any design organization readying an all-new concept car: “They had the tired, gray-eyed look of soldiers too long on guard duty. Yet the only guns involved were for spraying, soldering, and gluing, along with welding torches, wrenches, and, perhaps most important of all, the broad-faced hammers of the metal shapers.

Lamps were at the end of the bar across the Ramarro’s tail, past which warm air escaped from the engine’s cooling fans. A small Corvette emblem kept the faith.

“Because of the pressing deadline,” Lamm continued, “some of the men hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours each night for the past week and very little more in the three weeks before that. That’s the way it is when Carrozzeria Bertone’s workshops are rushing to complete a new prototype. But as the process nears its end, what were once just ideas sketched on paper become a complete automobile and the hours become worth it. There will be plenty of time to sleep later—after the car has been photographed, tested in the wind tunnel and finally put on an airplane to Los Angeles for the car’s international debut.”

A hit with both the media and the public, the exotic Ramarro toured auto shows both in the States and around the world. Although there was some talk about the building of a small series of cars following this design, this failed to achieve liftoff.

Access to the interior was easy with the fully open door. The Corvette’s digital instruments were set into the dark panel running the width of the dash area.

The Ramarro won the respect of its peers. In 1985 it received the Car Design Award from Auto & Design magazine for its “bold ideas,” which gave “the Chevrolet Corvette an entirely new personality.” It also demonstrated that the potential of the front-engined sports car was not at all exhausted, that the popular mid-engined alternative was not yet dominant. Even today that lesson may be learned from the magnificent Ramarro.