Sunday, June 21, 2009

MegaGamma: Rallying call to reality

Fighting their way clear of the modern-car quagmire, ItalDesign have shown that the alternative need not be a bitter pill. Ian Fraser reports after sampling this sweet new medicine

From CAR Magazine, August 1978

Megagamma (by retromotoring)

THE CAR, AS IT STANDS RIGHT NOW, is rather like a sci-fi film in which a large family of space travellers is trapped inside a capsule that has landed on an unknown planet. Although the travellers are in-breeding and amplifying their own genetic shortcomings as well as feeding on each other's flesh, no one is game to open the hatch to find out if there is an inhabitable environment outside - just in case there isn't. They all know that they should - and eventually must - open up because their position is untenable. At this point the plot should throw up the hero who, against all opposition and indecision, releases the locks and steps outside. The other voyagers, unconvinced and unprepared, simply slam shut the hatch and get on with their own private downfall, unable to cope with the newness that they keep telling themselves they always wanted.

The real-life automotive script is no different. Everyone knows that, despite the oddities and novelties that each generation produces, nothing fundamental is really changing. Sometimes it's drummed up as the brave new world but is generally just a regurgitation of the same old theme of painful mistakes being doomed to perpetuity. That's why the plot needs - and, indeed, has - heroes. The heroes keep emerging, some more ignored than others because their 'come on out and join me' prattle is not impressive.

Now, though, there is a new hero with a thoroughly impressive and convincing argument. We still don’t know whether it's strong enough to shake the others fully but it is the best case so far presented. Typically, the way out comes from a design organisation that has seen through the car and is not totally committed to it in the abstract sense. ItalDesign, though better known for cars than anything else, also design furniture, flying machine interiors and work in various other areas. From this perch they are apparently able to see the car in its truer purpose, and free from the awkward symbolism in which it is emeshed. Thus, the MegaGamma, which made its debut at Turin this spring, is a plea for rationality based on the civilised transportation requirements of convenience and comfort. It is part of the argument that there is room for only two types of vehicle: the low, fast sports car and the convenient, comfortable saloon, epitomised by the MegaGamma concept. Anything in between would essentially be a compromise serving neither master satisfactorily.

Ideal worlds don’t come as easily as that, though. The marketing men, who are the real prisoners in the capsule, the ones who argue against the change which would diminish their authority, are unlikely to relinquish their hold or be flexible enough to visualise the potential of uncompromised concepts. In a commercially orientated and inspired environment, the MegaGamma is an unsuppressed statement that had to be made. It is a strong statement, too strong to be ignored by anyone with a modicum of commonsense, an impassioned cry in the metallic wilderness.

At the Turin Show, the MegaGamma was politely received but obviously not clearly understood. ItalDesign report 'some interest' but no indication of any manufacturer proposing to take up the design for a production vehicle. Which is an enormous shame, for the MegaGamma is not only a profound statement but also a mobile reality, as we have since discovered. Based entirely on Lancia Gamma saloon mechanical components, the MegaGamma is a going concern, albeit a costly, hand—built one, heavier and more elaborate than it would be as a productionised vehicle. As with all ItalDesign vehicles, the MegaGamma would be relatively easy to put into production utilising the firm's expertise in manufacturing techniques (quite an amount of their energies are now devoted to designing production facilities for a variety of industries).

Although it looks relatively large, the MegaGamma is really quite small. Sitting on the production Gamma’s standard 8ft 9in wheelbase, the ItalDesign car is a foot shorter overall, the reduction occuring at the rear end, where there is almost no overhang. The height, however, is increased by a shade under 10in. A two-box structure, rather like the VW Golf, to which it bears a striking resemblance from some angles, particularly three—quarter rear, the MegaGamma is far from being a square—rigger. The bonnet slopes steeply and, in fact, just clears the tops of the engine ancillaries, while the deep windscreen is steeply raked. There are oblong headlamps and a vaguely Lancia grille, while the almost circumferential bumper-bar houses fog lamps just above the chin spoiler. It’s a hatchback, of course, although the high strengthening lip means that luggage must be heaved high before it finds a resting place.

The rear window has a wash/wipe system, while the deep windscreen is swept by a single wiper. Electrically adjustable external mirrors supplement the quite normal interior rear-view arrangements. ItalDesign alloy wheels help relieve the weight of matt—black below bumper bar height, itself a necessary adjunct to break up what would otherwise be an excessively deep—sided appearance. The side windows are themselves deep, their sills being about a third the way down a normal occupant's torso, thus giving the interior an essential light, airy appearance.

The irony of the MegaGamma is that the interior is exactly what the vehicle is all about, but the exterior appearance disproportionately influences the acceptability of the whole. So, while the exterior of the MegaGamma could almost be described as definitive, the cabin tends to be an exaggeration, at least as far as equipment is concerned. It's deliberate, of course, intended to separate the MegaGamma from the comparative austerity of the not dissimilar Alfa Romeo—based taxi programme (Volvo did one, too) executed in conjunction with the New York Museum of Modern Art some two
years ago. In retrospect, the taxi project was probably a mistake, putting the shadow of a commercial vehicle application ahead of the more challenging goal of advanced private transportation.

Compensation comes in the form of a thoroughly exotic interior harmoniously combining traditionalism with the electronics of the age. All four doors open wide and present the occupants with both illusion and realism. The illusion is that the cabin floor is incredibly high, which it is not; it simply rests on the tops of the side members — over which you must step in a normal Gamma, anyway — and the central tunnel. You step onto a floor rather than down into one. Conversely, you step directly down onto the road and not up, over the sill, then down to terra firma. The high roof line gives ample head clearance, the top of the vehicle being just about at eye-level for a 5ft 10in person, minimising the postural change from sitting to fully erect. The advantages of the configuration becomes fully apparent when you are actually installed in the MegaGamma and ready to roll. There is little restriction of the seat dimensions because there is less need to compromise them, so everyone gets the chance to sit comfortably with good vision. Rear compartment legroom is to limousine standards and there is electrical adjustment for reach as well as inclination, the controls being incorporated in the full cabin length elbow-height, gutter cum—armrest.

Electrical adjustment is also used for the multiplicity of positions available for the front seats, and the driver, additionally, has powered control over the two exterior mirrors. A la Citroen CX, all the minor-function driving controls are available within finger tip reach from the single—spoke steering wheel. The various adjustment buttons, incidently, are direct from the Fiat Ritmo. The instrument panel is a little like Times Square at night, with its digital read-outs and banks of warning lights, while the Japanese Emix Corporation have built in an electronic memorizer that reveals, on request, various items of information relating to service intervals, etc. It's just a reminder system, but could be programmed easily enough to provide other time/distance data. It also works as an ordinary standard—keyboard calculator, useful for working out average speeds and fuel consumption. The centre console incorporates the air—conditioning as well as the American radio/cassette. Trimmed in cloth with leather stripes that match the beige fascia and door coverings, the interior of the MegaGamma is nothing if not luxurious, the burr walnut cappings adding a touch of the old world.

In view of the wide range of rear—seat adjustment, it comes as a surprise to realise that the MegaGamma is able to take full advantage of its hatchback configuration. The Seat upholstery is attached to the tubular frame and suspension with Velcro strips and can be quickly removed (what you do with the cushion and backrest is another story), the frame folded and the interior converted to a load-carrying role. With the back seat in the passenger position, there is still ample luggage space, the rear shelf hinging up with the fifth door to improve access.

Although the driving position is high, in the same way a Range Rover's is high, the MegaGamma doesn’t actually feel tall. Because it is based on an inherently good chassis anyway, the vehicle handles in a perfectly acceptable way and, judging from the drive we had, lacks the vices that would enable even the severest critics to point the finger of scorn. However, it cannot be overlooked that the Gamma is one of the most roll-resistant vehicles on the market, making it the perfect base for this application. It would be something less than successful on, for example, one of the very compliant suspension French cars, however well suited the mechanical layout may be. Visibility from the MegaGamma is excellent with a good all round view of the road, and the short bonnet offers real advantages when working in close company with either mobile or stationary objects, as do the flat, protected sides. Of course, the pedals and steering wheel have been re—angled to suit the higher, more forward driving position but the ergonomics have not suffered. Although there is a risk of a bus-like feel about the pedals and wheel, the atmosphere of the MegaGamma overcomes any doubts in this area. However, the use of the five—speed manual gearbox seems to be something of an anachronism in this context; an automatic such as the AP four—speed unit would be ideal, since it is destined for the Gamma next year anyway.

Ease of access and the very comfortable rear seats once you are aboard are very convincing factors in the design of the MegaGamma. It is an incredibly good way to travel with no obvious disadvantages: the seats themselves are extremely well proportioned while the legroom is exceptional. If anything, there is a surplus of headroom, which ItalDesign themselves admit. When and if they take the MegaGamma a stage further, it will probably also be a shade lower.

In the long term, the designers see the MegaGamma concept as being a base on which manufacturers could build alternative vehicles. One is a taxi, with a sliding passenger door and fold-down occasional seats like a London taxi; another adaption could be a minibus; or, with a higher roofline, a commercial vehicle. Meanwhile, though, the tangled problem of convincing the Mark One Motorist that he really would be better off with something like this remains. The ocean nibbles at the bottom of the established cliffs, but the landslide can be an awfully long time coming.

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