The Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 was introduced at Paris in 1973, a complement to, and possible replacement for, the Dino 246. It was the first of a long line of mid-engined ‘junior’ Ferraris, a 2+2 coupé originally badged only as a Dino, with a three-litre V8 placed amidships. In 1975, however, Ferrari would drop the Dino brand designation from the 308 GT4 and place the prancing stallion emblem on the car.
Its design was controversial from the start. Firstly, it came from Bertone, in fact from the gifted hand of Marcello Gandini, a departure from the long tradition of Pininfarina designs. And secondly, while sleek, it was wedgy – a trapezoidal design typical of Gandini works of the time. So typical, in fact, that the car was compared to Gandini’s Lamborghini Urraco, another wedgy 2+2 design.
The 308 GT4 was not an aberration, however. Enzo Ferrari had been intimately involved with the design from the start. He took particular interest in all phases of the design, including the ordering of extra interior styling bucks, including seating, to get everything just right.
Ferrari purists – as well as Pininfarina, naturally – felt betrayed. For over a decade, the image of Ferrari was the curvaceous design sensibility of Pininfarina, like the front-engined V12 models and the classic Dino 246. Now, the latter two-seat coupé would have to share the showrooms with the upstart GT4 for a couple of years until its retirement.
The rebadged GT4 would also share the showrooms with the new Pininfarina/Fioravanti-designed Ferrari 308 GTB, a short-wheelbase, two-seater version of the 308 platform with the same engine.
The contrast was remarkable; Gandini’s trapezoidal and austere 308 GT4 next to Fioravanti’s sleek and curvaceous 308 GTB. Often placed side-by-side in Ferrari showrooms, it was an impressive display of carrozzeria rivalry, even while both were working for the same marque.
With this as background Gandini, Bertone and Enzo Ferrari would meet in 1976 to discuss the possibilities of a new concept car, one that was free of any constraints of possible production. The only real constraint would be that the car was to be based on a 308 GT4. It was decided that the voluptuous curves of Pininfarina were not going to be improved upon by Bertone, so Gandini proposed a more radical wedge, extending the themes shown in the design of the GT4.
“I did not see much point in designing a Ferrari that looked like a Ferrari, as the designers at Pininfarina and others were very much capable of doing so,” Gandini would later recall. “If we had to do a concept on a Ferrari base, I believed that we needed to look at something radically different than what would be expected.”
The results of the explorations of Gandini and his team were shown at the 1976 Turin Motor Show – a strange, angular car that appeared on the Bertone stand wearing a prancing horse badge. It was the Ferrari Rainbow, a two-seat sports car with a radical wedge shape.
Actually, the Rainbow was really a composition of trapezoids; the wheel arches, the windscreens, various body panels, all gathered into a forward-thrusting wedge shape. The production 308 GT4 has enough curves to soften the trapezoids in its design (particularly the glasshouse), but the Rainbow dispensed with all that in favour of a flat-panelled, angular composition that looked very aggressive from the front.
At the rear, however, the wedge seemed less dynamic and aggressive. Gandini’s signature cut-off wheel arch, combined with the extra mass on the rear quarter panel, made the Rainbow look ponderous and a bit overfed. The crispness of the folds of the roof and rear fascia was not enough to counter the extra mass of the wedge. It’s as if the sweet wedge-y lightness and joie-de-vivre (or Italian equivalent) of the FIAT X1/9 did not scale to a larger car, even though the production 308 had been shortened by 100 mm to create the Rainbow.
The interior was highly influenced by the production car, and incorporated some of the same parts and trim. And why not? Enzo Ferrari had been intimately involved with the design of the production interior of the 308 GT4, so there was no reason to wander far afield from such a successful design. Still, there was a bespoke instrument panel, less cockpit-like than the production car, an austere assemblage of gauges and controls in a simple black frame.
The roof was the real attraction, to both Turin show attendees and industry experts. It was a hardtop panel that folded back and then down behind the rear seats, creating a targa from a coupé. The roof also had a rectangular panel of smoked glass that acted as a sunroof when in place overhead and allowed vision through the rear windscreen when folded behind the seats. Although it was a manual assembly, not an electric one, it was still a vast improvement over a traditional targa as there was no extra storage space needed for the roof panel. The roof also inspired the name – a sheltered coupé that opened after the rain to blue skies, and yes, rainbows.
In the end, the Rainbow was just not enough of some things, and too much of others. It did signal, however, the emergence of Gandini’s “hard wedge” phase of his career, and some interesting cars came from that period. One that seems a more mature descendent of the Rainbow was Bertone’s Jaguar Ascot concept car of 1977. Although Jaguar’s management wasn’t thrilled with the Ascot’s design, plenty of others were. The Citroën BX, also a Gandini design, drew inspiration from the Ascot.
As for the roof, there were a couple of 21st-century reinterpretations by Ferrari of the flip-back panel concept. Firstly, the limited-run 575 Superamerica featured a rear-hinged, electrochromic glass panel, whose powered frame simply rotated backwards to sit upside-down on the rear deck. Then, most recently, the idea reappeared on the Ferrari 458 Spider of 2011-15. In this instance, it was a two-piece aluminium hardtop that electronically folded away under the rear canopy in 14 seconds. The current 488 Spider uses the same system.
Sometimes a design doesn’t emerge in its best form, yet can find an influence and expression years, even decades, afterwards. The Rainbow seems to be one of those cars – more influential than successful.
Note: Blue-tinted photos next to the Alpine lake are by Rainer Schlegelmilch