The people's car

Exhibition - John Reynolds on the forgotten Italian designer who gave us the 2CV

Most artists must content themselves with seeing their work reproduced in very limited numbers and exhibited only in galleries. But Flaminio Bertoni, the Italian sculptor, architect and automobile stylist whose centenary is currently celebrated by the Design Museum in London, was more fortunate. The total combined production of his designs for Automobiles Citroen eventually reached more than 8.3 million. During the 1950s and 1960s, his creations were visible in almost every street and car park in western Europe, while his work as a graphic designer became more ubi-quitous still. It was he who redesigned the double-chevron badge seen on the front of every Citroen made today to give it a distinct modern look.

As the Design Museum exhibition shows beyond doubt, Bertoni's achievement was to create the exteriors of four of the most individual, influential and instantly recognisable automobiles ever manufactured, all of which are now hailed as cult cars and icons of industrial design. Yet he remains a relatively unknown figure, even among those drivers who own and admire the cars he designed.

The exhibition covers Bertoni's 32-year-long employment at Citroen, from 1932 to 1964, and includes original cars, design drawings and models, as well as contemporary publicity material, all drawn from the Citroen museum and archives in Paris. The centrepiece is a rare example of the TPV (for "toute petite voiture" - the original, pre-war version of the 2CV), one of three prototypes recently discovered at Citroen's test-track at La Ferte-Vidame, where it had lain hidden in a barn since 1938. The remainder of the 250 pre-production examples were destroyed at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Bertoni was born in 1903 in northern Italy, not far from Lake Como, and began work at the age of 15 as an apprentice at a carrozzeria, or coach-builder's, in Varese. In 1923, aged 20, he made his way to Paris, where in 1924 he briefly found work as a bodywork designer and model-maker at the Citroen factory at the Quai de Javel. Between 1929 and 1931, he ran his own design consultancy in Varese, supported by his freelance activities as a graphic artist, illustrator and book-jacket designer. Evidently, the venture did not prosper, as by 1932 he had rejoined Citroen to work on the development of new models. These included the Traction Avant, the world's first mass-produced front-wheel-drive car, introduced in 1934.

The financial strains involved in introducing this revolutionary car at the height of economic depression led to Andre Citroen's bankruptcy. He died in 1935 and the firm was taken over by its major creditor, the Michelin tyre company. The new management's first act was to lay down the specification for a People's Car, the TPV, intended to motorise France's rural population. This ultimately entered production after the war in a greatly modified form, as the 2CV, which was manufactured continuously for 42 years be- tween 1948 and 1990.

Following the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, this frugal little machine became fashionable among the intelligentsia. The 2CV was followed in 1955 by the hydro-pneumatically sprung DS19. In 1999, the DS was voted Product of the 20th Century. Now acclaimed as Bertoni's masterpiece, it was a car so sophisticated that it would surely create a sensation were it to be introduced tomorrow.

Bertoni, a small, dark and extremely energetic man with a large, square head framed by thick sideburns, was a workaholic who never stopped creating. During his years at Citroen, he maintained an impressive output of accomplished architectural drawings, charcoal sketches, clay statuettes and busts of his family, friends and colleagues. As one of the very first designers to develop his ideas in three dimensions, with plaster and Plasticine models rather than sketches, Bertoni was blessed with an "electronic eye" for shape and form. One acquaintance described him as a sorcerer in his cave, bustling around his trough of plaster and constantly chewing aspirins to fend off the incessant migraines caused by a near-fatal motorbike accident he had during the war, which left him partially crippled. While convalescing, Bertoni took a year's leave from Citroen to study architecture at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, gaining the formal qualification he had always sought. Later, in 1961, he was awarded the distinction of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for his work as a sculptor.

Bertoni died suddenly in 1964 at the age of 61, struck down by a cerebral haemorrhage. Under the Michelin regime, research and development activities at Citroen were conducted in total secrecy. Thus, throughout the greater part of his career there, Bertoni worked in virtual anonymity. So complete was this ignorance of his work that, until recently, his work on the DS19 was still being attributed to the Italian styling consultancy Bertone.

The Design Museum exhibition should reassert his place alongside other heroes of 20th-century automobile and industrial design such as Raymond Loewy and Harley Earle. The one minor fault in the exhibition is its name: "When Flaminio Drove to France: Flaminio Bertoni's designs for Citroen". There is no evidence that when Bertoni journeyed between Italy and France before the war he drove there by car, or even that he owned a motor vehicle at the time. On these trips, he always travelled by train. It was not until the 1950s that he could afford to become a motorist, first driving a Traction Avant and then, later, an ID19, with its pedals modified to suit his injured leg and foot.

"When Flaminio Drove to France: Flaminio Bertoni's designs for Citroen" is at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 (0870 833 9955; or visit www.designmuseum.org) until 12 October

John Reynolds's book Citroen: daring to be different will be published by Haynes later this year