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Dreams of Future Past: The SIMCA Fulgur Concept Car

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(Pic from autopuzzles.com)

 

 

The story of the Simca Fulgur concept car does not begin with either a designer or an auto manufacturer. Instead, unusually, it begins with a popular weekly Franco-Belgian comics magazine, “Le Journal de Tintin” (Eng. “Tintin”, Dutch edition title. “Kuifje”) which included various series including the title series, “The adventures of Tintin.” Although primarily aimed at young readers, the magazine adopted the slogan, “The Magazine for the Youth from 7 to 77”.

 In 1958, Le Journal de Tintin invited car manufacturers to imagine a vehicle that could travel on the roads of the world in 1980. Unfortunately, this offer was not taken up, and SIMCA themselves were one such refusee, with its most important designers unwilling to take part in what they considered to be a wacky or crazy project, and with the company being taken up with more practical concerns. At the same time, a young designer at SIMCA, Robert Opron, mentioned the request by Le Journal de Tintin to a friend - astronomer and astrophysicist Pierre Guérin - who argued that Opron should try and convince his superiors of the importance of the project. He argued that Le Journal de Tintin was a very popular magazine read by many adults, and during their conversation, the two men wondered if 2000 would be a more relevant and interesting date for the concept car proposed by Le Journal de Tintin to aim for.

 The SIMCA concern was a product of the 1930s, originally a subsidiary of FIAT charged with manufacture of FIAT cars in France. The company grew in importance during the 1950s, becoming the second biggest automobile manufacturer in France and becoming more ambitious. In 1958, Chrysler Corporation acquired a 15% stake in SIMCA and became the North American distributor for the firm’s cars. Partly because of the company’s need for a reputation for innovation, and partly because of Robert Opron’s persuasive arguments, SIMCA accepted the challenge laid down by Le Journal de Tintin (the only company to do so), and tasked Opron with producing a proof of concept prototype of a year 2000 automobile. At this time, Opron was a junior designer at the firm, having joined SIMCA in 1957 where he was working (under a designer who had worked at Pininfarina) on minor projects only, such as logos and hubcaps. Now, together with the assistance of at least one other designer, Opron set to work on designing a concept car for the advent of the next millennium, to emerge as the 2-seat Fulgur prototype. As Opron himself has said (quoted in Chapman (2009)), “It was a fun job. It was the sort of job you gave to the office youngster - but when they [Simca] saw that it made quite an impact with the public, they started to make use of it.”

 

 

 

SIMCA Fulgur proof of concept prototype seen here with Colette Duval in the driving seat (see text for details) and, below, the Fulgur layout from "Robert Opron, l'Automobile et l'Art" by Peter Pijlman (pics from spct2000.files.wordpress.com):

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fulgur-layout.jpg

 

 

 

 The shape and (proposed specifications) of Opron’s Fulgur bore some connection with concurrent interest in flying saucers and spaceships, especially in the USA, yet the prototype also took account of current European tastes and financial restraints. Thus the vehicle was small in size and did not use any of the flashy chrome elements still popular on American cars.

 The Fulgur was immediately publicised in Le Journal de Tintin with an illustrated article on the vehicle published in the 11 December 1958 issue of the magazine. Furthermore, the magazine included a story, “L’affaire ‘Fulgur’” in one of its comic strips, “Les aventures de l’agent ‘P.60.’” for 13 issues between January and April 1959. In more official and “adult” venues, the Fulgur proof of concept prototype was an immediate sensation when displayed in Paris and at the Geneva Motor Show in 1959; the prototype was shown together with its amazing technical sheet detailing a host of innovations that the designers thought would be commonplace by 2000. It goes without saying that the exhibited prototype, with plastic-covered metal chassis, did not actually incorporate the futuristic innovations specified, although it could probably have travelled, albeit rather slowly, on the road and a witness is recorded as seeing the Fulgur being driven slowly in ordinary traffic during the time of the Chicago Motor Show of 1961, probably as a publicity trip/photo shoot.

 The spacious cabin of the proposed production Fulgur was to be both sound-proofed and air-conditioned; its plastic bubble was anti-reflective and offered excellent visibility to the driver. The super comfortable seats were influenced by the celebrated 1956 lounge chair design of Charles and Bernice “Ray” Eames, and they had variable flexibility, built-in headrests, and could rotate to facilitate access to the vehicle.

 

 

 

Perhaps readers of this topic can make up their own caption to this dramatic Parisian street scene featuring the SIMCA Fulgur prototype (pic from Reddit at i.red.it):

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The Fulgur was intended to be controlled by an on-board computer or  "electronic brain" that could respond to voice commands input by the driver. The car was also equipped with a dual radar that constantly monitored the road, and it could connect to a control tower while driving on the motorway. The computer could stop the vehicle independent of human intervention in the event of an obstruction being detected, and ultimately could transport the occupants from A to B without any human actions being necessary. The steering wheel of the Fulgur was very similar to that of an aircraft and the dashboard was a model of purity and ergonomics, being dominated by a radar screen. There appears to be some confusion as to whether the car on major roads was meant to actually be powered via electric cables integrated into the highway or whether electromagnetic guidance on the road only was performed via these cables. Whatever the case, the projected main source of power was electricity from six fuel cells (hydrogen batteries) which would provide sufficient charge for 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles), the two electric motors being in the rear wheels; the steering at lower speeds was executed through the front wheels. 

The Fulgur was to be provided with an adaptive electromagnetic suspension system with constant trim, providing unparalleled comfort - especially necessary given that projected top speed was almost 300 kph (185 mph) on a highway/motorway; headlight  brightness  also adjusted automatically with speed. Perhaps the most dubious innovation postulated for the Fulgur was the retraction of the two front (steering) wheels when the vehicle reached a speed of 150 kph (95 mph) while two gyroscopes were brought into action to keep the vehicle balanced on its rear wheels. In this mode, the V tail and its rudders stabilized and directed the vehicle. It has been suggested that the V tail of the Fulgur was inspired by the Air Fouga/Potez Air Fouga C.M.170 Magista jet trainer, tested in 1952 and a successful French aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

 

 

Concept meets reality at the turn of the milennium; The Peugot 307 versus the SIMCA Fulgur concept car (note the mirror images of Colette Duval in both vehicles) - pic from spct2000.files.wordpress.com, and below, the Dinky SIMCA Fulgur with box - pic from worthpoint.com:

fulgur-and-207.jpg

 

 dinky-simca-fulgur-mib_360_4cfa0cb0272daada01920e6e23157995.jpg

 

 

Press kit from the New York International Auto Show (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):

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In addition to the positive reactions garnered at Paris and Geneva in 1959, the Fulgur was also a hit with the public at various shows in the United States between 1959 and 1961, and it was still a crowd-puller in the latter year at the Chicago Motor Show. The French vehicle even participated in a spring festival organised in Montreal, Canada, in March 1960 organised by Chrysler, and it is rumoured that the car also featured at a motor show in Tokyo. Anxious to make the most of all the publicity in Europe and elsewhere, SIMCA called on the services of a well-known and attractive French couple, parachutist and model, Colette Duval, and automobile stuntman Gil Delamare. After Colette’s early career as a skydiver from about 1951-56 had encountered mixed fortunes, she then founded a fashion boutique, then a nightclub. Between 1958 and 1986 she also played in 10 films. She died in 1988, aged just 57. Colette Duval can be seen in various contemporary photographs of the SIMCA Fulgur.

 It is with some sadness that I have to conclude this topic by saying that the Fulgur prototype, which had been so prescient in some of its ideas for the future of road vehicles, was to end its life unceremoniously on the scrap heap.

 

 

 

Rear view of the SIMCA Fulgur prototype at the Chicago Auto Show of 1961 (pic from chicagoautoshow.com), and below, the Fulgur protoype at the Geneva Motor Show in 1959 (pic from autopuzzles.com):

SimcaFulgur1961Web442.jpg

 

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 FURTHER NOTES ABOUT ROBERT OPRON

 Some information on this designer in the context of the Fulgur appears in the main text but it is worth making some additional notes about him. Robert Opron, automobile and aviation enthusiast, was born in France in 1932, obtaining his first job as a designer in 1952 for a factory that processed sugar beet. In 1954, he joined the staff of the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiqus du Nord (SNCAN), where he contributed to the development of the cockpit of the Nord 2051 Noratlas. He was also engaged in flying and aerobatics from the 1950s. A friend of Opron’s who knew the head of personnel at SIMCA managed to get him a job at SIMCA in 1957, and it was during this period at SIMCA that Opron worked on the Fulgur concept. Ironically, given his work on the Fulgur project, SIMCA abandoned its style department in 1960-61 and Opron lost his job. The management offered him 2 years severance pay which included a non competition clause whereby for a limited period, Opron could not work for another automobile manufacturer. He therefore transferred his styling skills to fridges and cookers while working for a firm that designed/manufactured home appliances and bathroom equipment - a job that did not suit his main interests. In 1961-62, Opron spotted an advertisement published in a major Parisian daily in which a major unidentified carmaker was seeking a designer. The company was in fact the Citroen concern, which on recognising Opron’s design credentials and potential, hired him. On joining Citroen, Opron worked under Flaminio Bertone, himself one of the most important twentieth century automobile designers, and Opron himself was to be responsible for the acclaimed shapes of the Citroen SM and the Renault Fuego. Indeed, Robert Opron was to be known for cars he designed in France and Italy from the 1960s to the 1980s, and he was one of the 25 nominees for a 1999 competition in America to choose the “Car Designer of the Century”.

 

 REFERENCE

 Chapman, Giles (2009), “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Vehicles”. Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London, for The Book People Ltd, St. Helens.

 

 TEXT ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 Particular acknowledgement is due to the article by Rénald Fortier, Ingenium, entitled “It was fulgur, fulgur, fulgur, fulgurable”, 11 March 2019. Ingeniumchannel, Ingenium Museums. Online address: (ingeniumcanada.ord,channel/articles/it-was-fulgur-fulgur-fulgur-fulgurable)

 

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