The Visionary Yet Forgotten 1976 Alfa Romeo Taxi

DECEMBER 2019

All the way back in 1976, the Museum of Modern Art curated a project to propose realistic solutions to the taxis of the time. MoMA drafted a design specifications manual that required the concept taxi to "use less energy, reduce air pollution, and cut traffic congestion, as well as provide safe and comfortable accommodations for passengers and luggage." [1]

Among others, Alfa Romeo developed a working prototype with the legendary designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who has designed some of the most successful and influential cars in history, ranging from one-of-a-kind supercars to mass-market vehicles. The concept Alfa Romeo taxi was a visionary fusion of efficiency, accessibility comfort, and a touch of unmistakable Italian elegance.

The Alfa Romeo Taxi on view at the MoMA in 1976

In Giugiaro’s design of the taxi, spacial efficiency was key. The taxi’s length is only 4 meters (157 inches), which is a meter (39 inches) shorter than the 1970s New York Checker Taxi. While it was a compact design to cut traffic congestion, Giugiaro did not compromise its roominess. It can accommodate up to five passengers, three facing forward and two facing the rear. The passenger-compartment is even larger than the famous London taxi. Furthermore, a large tinted glass roof visually augmented the spacious experience. It must be a wonderful experience to follow the New York skyline through the glass roof while sitting in an Alfa Romeo.

Illustrations of the taxi's spacial efficiency

The taxi was designed to accommodate wheelchairs as well, which was not a common feature in the 1970s public transportations. Its folding front seats created the space for a wheelchair, and its retractable ramp provided easy entry and exit.

It was also one of the first to have sliding doors, an innovation that makes for better ease of access and saves even more space when it is on the street. However, unlike most of today’s MPVs, the outside door handle of the taxi is near the back instead of the front; I suspect this makes it more difficult to open.

Another novel feature was the rubber belt encircling the body of the car which prevented damage caused by minor collisions and thus reduces maintenance costs. Considering the taxi’s height, Giugiaro designed vertical rear-view mirrors to provide better visibility to the ground.

While the taxi had a heavy focus on utility, Giugiaro did not forget to charm the audience with his exceptional styling. The exterior angular lines and steeply raked windshield were the less-extreme versions of his 1970s signature wedge-shaped supercar design. The trapezoid line of the front bumper not only paid homage to Alfa Romeo’s iconic front grille design but also subtly highlighted the manufacturer’s logo.

The seats’ upholstery is washable for easy maintenance and hygiene. In my opinion, the decision of using brown other than black upholstery creates a more cozy atmosphere, which is a rare characteristic even in today’s taxis. The folding armrests in the rear seats add extra comfort when there are only two passengers.

Closing Thoughts

The 1976 Alfa Romeo Taxi was not a product of “call in the designer last minute to spray smell on something” but a collaborative result of user-centered design thinking and realistic, efficient engineering. However, even well-executed visionary ideas sometimes suffer from what American designer John Maeda called “microworld of high-fives” [2]: in which designers and engineers have a mindset of what good design should be based on their privileged background and experience; without sufficient presentation and explanation to reach common understanding, this mindset alienates other disciplines that are also crucial in pushing a product further. In the end, although it was well-designed, the Alfa Romeo taxi was not able to galvanize change in the industry at the time. I wonder if it indeed fell into the trap of “microworld of high-fives”.

Photos courtesy Museum of Modern Art, Alfa Romeo, and Ital Design.

Siguang Ma

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