We’re not just career car nerds here at Automobile, we’re car nerds in our spare time, too. Head over to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on the weekend and you may just see one of our editors ogling the collection’s ever-changing galleries. On a recent visit, I spotted a concept car on display that I’d never seen before; it was situated in a back corner, at the end of a line of Ford concept cars, including the Probe I and Probe VI.
The placard denoted the car in question was a 1982 Ghia Brezza, painted red and riding on sweet four-spoke phone-dial wheels. My dad, who was along for the trip, immediately called out how similar its buttresses were to the Pontiac Fiero‘s, having owned one of Pontiac’s sports cars in the ’80s. But Ford actually began developing this ahead of its rival to maintain relevancy.
Ford kicked the task over to Ghia, the European design studio it purchased in 1970. The studio’s managing director, Filippo Sapino, assigned Marilena Corvasce with the task. As it turns out, Corvasce became the first woman to ever design a car for a major manufacturer. However, the individual designer doesn’t typically get credit for the overall design, so Corvasce’s name was left out of the 1982 press release, which we obtained from Ford’s archives.
Compared to more mainstream concept cars, little documentation about the Brezza exists. However, Corvasce wrote about her time designing the car in a letter. She said, “To tell you the truth I never realized I was making history as the first female designer of an automobile, because this was my job, my duty.” She continued, “Still now I think that opportunities for women in this field are the same as they were 30 years ago because, until now, I haven’t heard of another car fully designed by a woman, unfortunately.”
Rather than focusing on what we now see as a milestone in automotive design and overall corporate culture, the press release detailed the 1982 Ghia Brezza’s technical specifications. The Brezza is powered by a 1.6-liter engine sourced from the then-contemporary Ford EXP. In fact, the Brezza is based on an EXP that had been thoroughly modified, so much so that the engine configuration changed. Its mid-engine layout was intended to preempt the Pontiac Fiero’s design, and Ford said that it recalibrated the Brezza’s springs in order to accommodate the engine’s position.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the wheels are familiar to another Ford product, the Escort XR3. Ford called the paint “Italian racing red.” The red cloth sport seats, however, are from Ghia rather than Ford. From what I could see through the window in the museum, the interior still looks brand-new.
The 1982 Ghia Brezza was a fully functional concept car. Gear changes were handled by a three-speed automatic transmission, though the press release noted that a four- or five-speed manual transmission would have been an easy substitution. Like the Ford EXP, the Brezza had power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning. It was also notable for its drag coefficient, which Ghia stated was in 0.30 territory.
While the Ghia Brezza never made it to production, Corvasce’s design work and her approach to fuel-efficient performance is no less notable. Whether or not she saw her own contribution to the field as noteworthy, Corvasce would later be joined by a small group of other female designers such as Mimi Vandermolen who designed the Ford Probe, Diane Allen who designed the Nissan 350Z, Juliane Blasi who designed the first BMW Z4, and most recently Michelle Christensen who designed the second-generation Acura NSX.