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The State of Italian Car Design




In matters of automotive aesthetic mastery, there have been only two major influences. From about 1910 to 1939, the world looked to Paris, where the best designers worked their magic. After World War II, French leftist politicians intentionally destroyed the coachbuilding industry to punish rich clients who had sustained the business. This also killed great marques: Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Talbot, et. al., thereby ending French design leadership.

An enlightened Italian communist party thought jobs more important than class warfare, allowing the flow of raw materials French communists had stanched for the carrosseries. Ferraris and Maseratis were meant only for the rich? Their money could support hundreds of craftsmen and their families. Thus was born the glorious 1945-’75 period when Italian car design came to lead the world in terms of aspirational vehicles. Today the greatest Italian design houses are either pale, foreign-owned shadows of what they once were or merely sub-brand names, like Ghia or Vignale, or even worse — like Bertone — gone forever.

We summed up the declining Italian era two years ago: “People will always remember the great works of Pininfarina, Nuccio Bertone, Luigi Segre of Ghia, and the great creators they employed, but the passion, the drive, the intensity has gone. We can regret, lament, celebrate the past, but there is no foreseeable future for Italian car design.” Since then, we’ve seen magnificent new Ferrari and Maserati models, even an attainable Alfa Romeo two-seater, so it seemed not just reasonable but also necessary to take another close look at what’s happening in Italy. Yes, Fiat is inconsequential, Alfa Romeo is near death, and Lancia barely exists. But Leonardo da Vinci’s creative spirit has lived in Italy for centuries and, as we have pleasantly confirmed, hasn’t yet disappeared.

Granstudio

Lowie Vermeersch

Lowie Vermeersch

Lowie Vermeersch
Vermeersch’s happy smile is typical of the multinational designers working in Italy. They love their work and where they do it.

Our first Torino visit was to Granstudio, led by Lowie Vermeersch, a 42-year-old Dutchman who was previously Pininfarina’s chief designer. The small design services company has 28 staff members, about a dozen of which are designers. The most spectacular of its known projects is the Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus SCG-003 (By Design, September 2015), a design at once practical, technical, and beautiful. Vermeersch went out of his way to name some young designers on his team: Giovanni Piccardo, Rocco Carrieri, and especially Goran Popovic, who had a lot to do with the Ferrari 360 Modena earlier — names to remember.

Lowie Vermeersch 02Lowie Vermeersch 02
Vermeersch admires an Alfa Spider.

We saw competently executed scale models of commodity cars done for Chinese clients. Basically uninteresting, they’re far from the extraordinary shapes that long ago built Italy’s reputation. Granstudio is an excellent design entity, but it is far from being a classic carrozzeria. Designing cars is far more complex and time-consuming than was once the case, and there is less scope for actual vehicle construction.

Torino Design

Roberto Piatti

Roberto Piatti

Roberto Piatti
Founder Piatti’s insight  was that design is in, volume is out for Torino.

Torino Design was formed in 2006 by Roberto Piatti, 55, who was managing director of Bertone Design for 10 years after spending a decade with I.DE.A Institute. Its principal activity is design and engineering services for clients outside Italy, mainly in Asia, but also with Kamaz, a Russian manufacturer. Kamaz, primarily a military truckmaker, participates in the Dakar Rally truck class, winning 13 times as of 2015.

Piatti, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, says the three big Torino design houses failed for different reasons, but there were management failings across the board. When he went to Bertone in 1996, there was not a single milling machine on the premises, nor a computer of any kind. Bertone was still very much in the ancient artisanal mode, despite having built tens of thousands of bodies since the mid-’50s, when Nuccio Bertone took the enormous risk of promising to build 1,000 Alfa Romeo Giulietta coupes. Successful and debt-free as long as Nuccio lived, Carrozzeria Bertone fell into financial disarray after his death, leading inevitably to its bankruptcy and closure in 2014.

Roberto Piatti 02Roberto Piatti 02
Car designers love models. Piatti keeps a proposal for a Bugatti EB110 in his office.

Piatti determined that a more diffuse structure was needed for the future, so he created a decentralized organization making use of external contractors for much of the design, modeling, and prototyping work. The approach has worked well, and Torino Design has built more than 200 full-scale design models in its decade of operation. Sixty people are attached to the firm now, and Piatti expects to have 100 by the end of 2017, 140 by the end of 2018. Beyond that? He doesn’t know and can’t reasonably predict.

Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera

Piero Mancardi

Piero Mancardi

Piero Mancardi
Mancardi believes there is an old-fashioned coachbuilding future in Italy.

Despite the use of the name, slogans, and insignias of the storied firm founded in 1926 and closed in 1966, today’s Touring was formed just 10 years ago. CEO Piero Mancardi’s views are both intriguing and provocative. He says using carbon-fiber moldings “makes it as easy as it was 80 years ago” to produce high-quality cars in small numbers. “If you do just five cars, you do everything by hand,” he insisted. His vision is that billionaires will order extraordinary cars to “buy part of history.” He foresees beautifully made one-off or few-off Touring-bodied cars at concours events in 40 years, being known as “the Scrooge McDuck Ferrari” or “the Bill Gates BMW,” in the manner of the “Trujillo Pegaso” or “Rita Hayworth Cadillac.”

Louis de Fabribeckers

Louis de Fabribeckers

Louis de Fabribeckers
De Fabribeckers has skill and hope.

Touring head of design Louis de Fabribeckers, a young Belgian who reinterpreted the classic Alfa Romeo Disco Volante for today’s Touring, said, “When you speak of Italian car design, you must be immersed in Italian life, not just in cars.” Given that we encountered Swiss, Japanese, American, Dutch, and Belgian designers in our four days in Torino and Milan, there is something to be said for that view. Being steeped in design sensibility as one is in Italy does have a strong influence. De Fabribeckers sums up his optimism with, “I see a beautiful future for Italian coachbuilt cars.” Then he adds, “I’m pretty sure. I am more than convinced.”

Mancardi insisted, “For 50 years, bespoke cars were not available. Now they are coming back.” He said only Touring is able to make such cars “under one roof,” ignoring the fact that immediately adjacent to his offices Zagato does exactly that.

Carrozzeria Zagato

Andrea Zagato
Yes, Zagato inherited hiscompany, but its success today is to his credit.

Zagato remains the only historic Italian coachbuilding operation still in the hands of the founding family. Third-generation CEO Andrea Zagato, 56, has found a solid modus operandi, building a dozen basically identical new bodies on an existing platform, making use of the underlying chassis’s homologation for emissions and safety. In some cases, as with Aston Martin, Zagato licenses production by the OEM. He also found a way to resurrect some cars that don’t actually exist but once did. In the exhibition hall at Zagato, in addition to some Alfa Romeo roadsters created by his grandfather, Andrea Zagato displays a ’50s racing Porsche. At first glance you think it is a 550 Spyder, but it’s a 356, overhung rear engine and all, as bodied by Zagato more than 50 years ago. The original was destroyed, but drawings still exist, and Carrozzeria Zagato is willing to reconstruct six of any no-longer-extant car it ever made before ending that particular design for good.

Stephane SchwarzStephane Schwarz
Schwarz has worked in many countries, but his spiritual home is in Italy. He’s happier in Milano than anywhere else

Stephane Schwarz
Schwarz is a Swiss design trailblazer.

Actually, Carrozzeria Zagato today represents the fusion of two distinguished Italian enterprises, in the sense that Marella Rivolta Zagato is the daughter of Piero Rivolta, once the youngest CEO in the automobile industry when he took over Iso Rivolta at the age of 25, after his father died in 1966. Together the pair presides over an operation that has produced more than 300 distinct models in its 98-year history, many of which are true icons of Italian design. The chief designer today is Swiss-born Stephane Schwarz, 50, whose career includes four years at Pininfarina, 14 with Nissan in Europe and Japan, and some as a freelancer in London. There are 20 people on the design team, the heart of what Zagato is today. As Andrea told us, “We, the management, adapt to the abilities of the design team, not the design team to the management.” That seems to be working well, as indeed it must. As Andrea said, “There is no mother ship. It’s the projects that fund us.”

CECOMP

Gianluca Forneris

Gianluca Forneris

Gianluca Forneris
The Forneris brothers are filling their father’s shoes well.

The Centro Esperienze Costruzione Modelli e Prototipi was founded in 1978 by Giovanni Forneris, who died in 2016. Forneris began his career at Fiat and was close to designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, working with him from the time Italdesign was formed until 1985. Today, eldest son Gianluca Forneris, 45, is CEO, working with brother Paolo, 42. Their company is perhaps the single entity most like the traditional carrozzieri, capable of making complete running cars in appreciable numbers, as in the 7,000 units of rent-and-return Bolloré electric cars now found in several European cities. CECOMP built Aston Martin’s DB11 prototypes.

Paolo Forneris

Paolo Forneris

Paolo Forneris
Paolo is steeped in high tech and innovation.

Like most of the companies in Italy, CECOMP works with China and has created a design arm, Icona, with studios in Torino, Los Angeles, and Shanghai. Last year it showed its first concept car, the Vulcano, an impressive titanium-skinned, Corvette-powered coupe that shows the company’s exceptional metalworking skills. Titanium is notoriously difficult to handle, and shaping a foil-like surface required developing new skills, something the firm had already done in laser-brazing aluminum skins. All this just continues and expands Northern Italy’s centuries- old metalworking tradition.

Icona Vulcano front three quarterIcona Vulcano front three quarter
CECOMP’s Vulcano is exceptional in its execution and successful use of titanium in car building. The Vulcano’s digital readouts were designed and made by CECOMP and are impressive in both clarity and complexity.

Fiat Centro Stile

Klaus Busse

Klaus Busse

Klaus Busse
Daimler, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat Chrysler, it’s all the same first design job for Busse.

There has been a huge change in activity for Fiat. The base company now encompasses not only the entirety of the Italian motor industry but also the portfolio of American makes acquired when the Obama administration essentially gave the battered remains of once-proud Chrysler to Fiat for “one dollar and other valuable considerations,” i.e., keeping thousands of auto workers on the job. Today the entire Torino-based design center for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and Maserati is under the direction of Klaus Busse, 46, a German national. He began his career at Mercedes-Benz and, as he says wryly, “never changed jobs.” He was sent to Detroit when DaimlerChrysler existed, stayed when the firm was sold to a hedge fund, and was still there when Fiat took over the remnants. Chrysler’s Ralph Gilles then returned him to Europe to run FCA design operations in Italy.

Busse refused to tell us how many designers he commands, but he did explain they’re organized in studios pairing Alfa and Jeep, Fiat Professional (light commercial vehicles) and Mopar, Fiat and Abarth, and Maserati and Lancia. New in this job since the beginning of 2015, he observes, “When you talk about Fiat, you find Torino is a very small village.” He said, “User experience is a very big topic for me” and that what pleases him about the team he inherited is its “high degree of willingness to evolve.” Given the wide, disparate product lines it must deal with, that evolution is going to have to be rapid and radical.

ED Group

Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson
An affable and enthusiastic American, design director Robinson is oriented toward extremes in concepts.

On of the big surprises of our time in Italy was discovering ED (Euro Design), which claims to be Italy’s biggest independent engineering and design center, with 600 on staff. Founded in 1998 by CEO Davide Pizzorno, 38, a truly dynamic entrepreneur who began his career at 18 while still in college, working with IBM, ED has grown by acquiring related companies. One electronic activity is generating all key codes for Fiat Chrysler vehicles, 20 million keys per year, and making complementary testing machines and equipment. “The economic crash of 2009 was an opportunity for growth,” according to Pizzorno, who boldly acted positively in a negative period.

Davide Pizzorno

Davide Pizzorno

Davide Pizzorno
ED CEO Pizzorno took big, bold risks and succeeded.

Design director and chief executive of the design function is American Michael Robinson, 60, who has worked in Italy for more than 30 years and from 2009 to 2014 as chief designer for Bertone. When that was finished, Pizzorno asked him to come to ED. “Right now, our clients for car design are all Chinese,” said Robinson, noting that two SUVs will be in production there soon. ED has taken to heart the Chinese fascination for luxury, with a marble-floored presentation room that would be right at home in a palace.

Euro Design Group conceptEuro Design Group concept
This concept was universally panned when it debuted in Geneva. Robinson insists the world will come to love it. Maybe.

Tjaarda Design

Tom TjaardaTom Tjaarda
Two generations of Tjaardas cover almost a century of European and American car design, with several landmark successes.

Tom Tjaarda
With four years on Gandini, Fioravanti, and Giugiaro, Tjaarda has become the doyen of Italian car designers.

American-born Stevens Thompson Tjaarda Van Starkenberg, better known as just plain Tom Tjaarda, is a second-generation car designer. His Dutch-born father, John Tjaarda, was a pioneer in unitized body structures and aerodynamics, and is known best for the Lincoln Zephyr. Tom was educated as an architect and has lived in Torino for almost 60 years, where he worked for Ghia, Pininfarina, Fiat, De Tomaso, and Rayton-Fissore before setting up his own office in the center of Torino. His designs include the original Fiat 124 Spider, a couple of Ferraris, the De Tomaso Pantera, as well as the original design for the Ford Fiesta.

At 82, Tjaarda is retired from car design but remains an astute observer of what is happening in Italy. He says an enormous number of prototypes are still made in Torino, where there are now at least two secretive, wholly Chinese-owned operations. Whether from those companies or others, models and prototypes are sent to China and for the most part never seen again. He wonders how long the enormous capability of the Piedmontese craftsmen will endure once the Chinese integrate what they have learned from the West into their own ancient culture. And so do we.

In the End

Today all of the traditional competences of Italian car-design groups remain, but the overriding problem is finding adequate outlets for their undoubted but no longer unique capabilities. All American, European, Korean, and Japanese manufacturers now have in-house body-design ability, and as Silvia Baruffaldi, editor-in-chief of Auto & Design magazine noted, “The carrozzieri have returned to their origins,” making one-off and small-series models. She worries that if people who live by practicing their traditional skills no longer have work, those skills will disappear forever. Even the most optimistic principals we spoke with in Torino and Milan are concerned about where and how they will sell themselves when China and India reach world standards in creation as well as production. When that happens, as it surely will, it could mean the finale of a glorious tradition.

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November 30, 2016