A sad day for auto design

V. SUMANTRAN | Updated on July 04, 2012

Mr Sergio Pininfarina

It was with sadness, one noted the demise of Sergio Pininfarina, the eponymous Honorary Chairman of Pininfarina SpA and one of the auto industry’s finest design heads, at the age of 85.

Coming just three months after the death of Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the designer of the timeless Porsche 911, the auto industry has lost two of its design greats within a short period of time. Every modern exotic model — Lamboghini Gallardo, Ferrari 458 Italia or McLaren MP4 — can trace its form to the proportions defined by the Porsche 904 or the Ferrari 246 Dino of the 1960s which are the works of these two.

The Big Three

The auto industry, uniquely, provides a stage that challenges both the left-half and the right-half of the brain. Apart from cutting-edge product and manufacturing technologies, auto companies are expected to demonstrate aesthetic competence and, in this latter realm, Italy or more specifically the Piedmont region of Italy, has been the Mecca. Evolved from a tradition of carrozzeria or coach-builders, like Touring, Ghia, Zagato and Michelotti, over the past three decades, Pininfaria, Ital Design and Bertone had emerged as the Big Three. And Pininfarina was typically regarded as the first amongst these equals.

It is not surprising that each of these houses carved its own sense of style and expression. As different as Yves Saint Laurent is from Roberto Cavalli, they differentiated themselves in the manner of their forms and their orientation.

While Bertone had cornered the space for avant-garde (and not surprisingly therefore, beloved of Citroen), Ital Design came to represent the best of modern industrial design (appropriately represented by the iconic first generation Volkswagen Golf).

In this domain, Pininfarina always stayed true to the idea of contemporary elegance. Its design language emphasised form and proportions, restrained embellishments and exquisite detailing. No wonder that the only car in the Museum of Modern Art is a Cisitalia from Pininfarina. In as much as a company like Pininfarina expressed the design ethos of its creative head, this was Sergio Pininfarina’s personal signature.

In the pursuit of balance between emphasis on form or function, Pininfarina always walked the middle ground. So, while Bertone premiered the “wedge” form with the Alfa Romeo Carabo and Ital Design emphasised “tall-boy” function with the Lancia Mega-Gamma, Pininfarina is best remembered for its half-a-century association with Ferrari. It would be no exaggeration to say that practically every modern Ferrari has been shaped by Pininfarina.

Contemporary form

This includes what is arguably one of the most valued classics — the 250 GTO. There were many other masterpieces. The Pininfarina-designed Lancia Aurelia of 1954 was the first true GT (Gran Tourismo car). The Peugeot 404 represented the best of contemporary European sedan styling in the 1960s.The Fiat 130 of the 1970s was one of the most elegantly rendered forms of the planar school of design.

While some Italian styling houses exhausted their repertoire over a couple of decades, Pininfarina continued to demonstrate its unique blend of contemporary form and style across the spectrum. The 21st century Nido city car concept and the Maserati Birdcage concept represented two extremes of product landscape and each displayed the essence of Pininfarina form. Pininfarina has also remained silent on many more of its successful projects that it had executed under an agreement of confidentiality for global clients.

Not that it shunned the world of engineering and technology. In fact, through the 1980s and 1990s, Pininfarina had invested in some of the most sophisticated wind-tunnels that could be used to develop “ground-effect” aerodynamics for sports cars. In fact, the 330 km/h Ferrari Enzo employed the most sophisticated under-body of any production car of its time.

The author was privileged to have been involved in this aspect of their work and to have, in his youth, received a personally autographed copy of its history from Sergio Pininfarina himself, as a prize for winning a collegiate auto design competition.

Hit by hard times

Sergio Pininfarina, understandably a major figure in the industrial landscape of Italy, was honoured as a lifetime senator of his country and served as a member of the Euro Parliament.

The past decade had not been kind to him or his company. He lost his eldest son and heir-apparent in a motor-scooter accident in 2008. The firm Pininfarina fell into hard times mainly because its foray into manufacture of specialist vehicles (as was the old tradition of carrozzerias) led to heavy investments and, subsequently, huge debt.

Often, when queried on which of his many masterpieces was his personal favourite, he always had the same answer — my next design. Now that he is no more, we can each select our own favourite from his considerable and exquisite body of work, knowing that no matter which one we pick, it was a favourite of his at some point in time.

(The author is Executive Vice-Chairman, Hinduja Automotive.)

Published on July 04, 2012

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