What Exactly Is Lorenzo Ramaciotti Doing?

This being, unofficially, the Fiat/FCA themed month, I feel like shedding some light on Fiat’s current styling policy and the man responsible for it. 

lorenzo-ramaciotti

And when I say “shedding some light”, I actually mean pointing out all the dark and shadowy areas that currently make up Fiat’s styling. More questions will be asked than answered, inevitably.

Superficially, the reorganisation of Fiat’s different Centri Stile in the wake of the company’s Marchionnisation seems to have been a straightforward example of streamlining. And, unlike the most famous jumper lover’s financial and fiscal shenanigans, this move appears to be both easily graspable and logical. 

Before Marchionne, Fiat’s styling was as unpredictable as it was, on occasion, inspired and regularly disorganised. Fiat, Alfa and Lancia each had a Centro Stile of its own, while Ferrari and Maserati relied on the services of Turin’s fine carrozzerie. So far, so inconsistent – but that’s actually merely the theoretical framework, which allowed for an awful lot of practical variations. This was the consequence of Fiat’s habit of holding competitions for its mass market car range, which goes some way of explaining why the Italian brands have only incidentally pursued an evolutionary stylistic approach, even when it came to their most precious models. 

The result of this was that most of ‘90s Alfa Romeo designs were either officially courtesy of Pininfarina, or strongly influenced by the style set by Enrico Fumia’s 164 saloon. This would change once Alfa’s own Centro Stile, then headed by Walter de’ Silva, went ahead with a form language of its own, as established by the 156. Which was, in turn, superseded by a range of models penned by Giugiaro at the dawn of the new millennium. 

This may appear confusing, but at Fiat, the styling policy was even more convoluted. Following in the footsteps of an uncharacteristically consistent styling language of the 1980s, it was once again up to Giugiaro to establish a new template for the next decade with the first generation Punto. But despite its success, Fiat decided not to emulate the Punto’s design and instead opted for a much more varied approach, which lead to one of the most idiosyncratic, wayward and interesting car ranges of the entire decade: it included the first generation Bravo/Brava, Barchetta, Coupé (with a Pininfarina-designed interior), as well as the (in)famous Multipla. 

Despite the unquestionable creativity exhibited, the almost complete lack of brand consistency seemed out of touch with the tastes of the late 1990s, which only goes some way of explaining the lack of inspiration that would define the next generation of Fiat cars, which ranged from the decent, if lukewarm Punto Mk 2 to the in almost every regard dreadful Stilo. Both, it needs to be mentioned, efforts of Fiat’s Centro Stile (it takes a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief to imagine how poor the carrozzerie’s efforts must have been if they lost out to these designs in the competition process). 

By this point in time, Fiat’s “issues” had become all but apparent to both the industry and the car-buying public. The time was therefore ripe for yet another change of course: now it was “welcome back on board, signore Giugiaro!”

The maestro’s coarse second-generation Chroma and pretty Grande Punto, together with the Centro Stile-penned Gingo (hastily re-christened “Panda” after Renault had taken offence) were the cars Fiat’s fate was resting on, the thin thread the industry giant was hanging by. And into this desperation entered a mysterious sorcerer, who went ahead and did his best to juggle with millions and billions of Dollars, Lire and Euros, in order to distract everybody from the fact that Fiat hadn’t merely looked down into the abyss, but was actually more then halfway down already.

Some may call this a smokescreen, but to some it actually is bordering on magic… After a period of acquainting himself with his new domain, the sorcerer appointed his henchman – a henchman certainly only in terms of hierarchy, for this right hand man enjoyed the kind of reputation Marchionne, the sorcerer himself, could only have dreamed of when he entered the Fiat realm.

No, Lorenzo Ramaciotti surely was a known quantity when he became the eyes to Marchionne’s mind. Or, more prosaically, the head of the Fiat group’s entire styling infrastructure. He took on this substantial brief at ripe age, having previously enjoyed a most solid career at Pininfarina, including decades in senior positions, before having “retired” under somewhat murky conditions. While no Lazarus, he actually exchanged retirement for the most powerful role in Italian car design.

It was now up to this reputable master of the craft to do with Fiat’s styling what Marchionne had done with the rest of the concern: consolidate and streamline, leaving no stone unturned in the process. Among the first consequences of this course of action was, rather ironically, a decision that acted as a concealed death threat to his former employer, for the carrozzerie, after decades of cooperation, were out.

For good. The reasoning behind this often overlooked, but most drastic step can be easily explained employing the logic of a numbers man such as Marchionne, who must have wondered why one would pay for any outsourced services that can (theoretically) be provided in-house. 

Fiat’s old modus operandi was now deemed a decadent indulgence in times of crushing austerity, certainly to someone who considers wearing a plain jumper a statement of superior rationality. Fiat didn’t need to look good, Fiat just needed something to keep itself warm. And that was that. The repercussions of this change in tactic ranged from the mundane to the cataclysmic. The fact that the new Maserati range doesn’t bear any Pininfarina/Bertone/Italdesign badges can be considered a footnote, but this goes some way of hinting at how the very core of the carrozzerie’s business model was under threat with the loss of their main (if not exactly reliable) customer.

And while it would be unfair to blame Bertone’s prolonged languishing on this development, the ongoing financial troubles at Pininfarina and Italdesign’s decision to take refuge in VAG’s tent, rather than face unpredictable future challenges, are direct results of Il Spirito Marchionne, as implemented by Lorenzo Ramaciotti.

Less outright dramatic, yet nonetheless grave were the changes within the Fiat group. Gone is the concept of each brand’s own Centro Stile, as most vividly/morbidly symbolised by the abandoned studios of Alfa Romeo at their former Arese facility. It actually seems laughable from today’s perspective to think back to just a decade ago, when even decaying Lancia still boasted its own design team: O Tempora! O Mores!

With such decadent luxuries disposed of – with the exception of Ferrari, that solitaire – Lancia designers are now drawing Maseratis and Fiat designers are shaping Alfas. To the aesthete, these changes may not seem to be worthy of more than a mild shrug at the passing of an obsolete business model – for the carrozzerie’s services are now being taken care of under the guidance of a maestro, who should ensure that efficiency does not come to the detriment of quality.

Unfortunately, the maestro seems to have in the meantime either lost his vision and quality requirements or he benefitted greatly from a pool of talents surrounding him back in the day that cannot be replicated at the Fiat of the 21st century. Yet some may argue that for every Alfa Giulietta, there’s an Alfa 4C – but while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the latter car’s original series production headlight design unquestionably speaks volumes about the willingness to brutally cut corners and an overbearing “that’ll do” attitude.

Which could be fine and dandy, if this wasn’t an area that has always played a disproportionally large part in the Italian automotive industry’s fortunes.

It therefore remains to be seen whether the tridente on the grille and a sonorous engine note will be enough to persuade tens of thousands of executive class saloon buyers that a Ghibli is the right choice for those who deem a BMW 5 series not classy and/or racy enough. It remains to be seen whether those people will overlook the plastic wood, cheap buttons and unimpressive leather, imbedded in a cabin that could charitably be described as “run of the mill”. Particularly as the supposedly less exquisite mainstream competition actually offers an obviously more, for lack of a better word, “premium” experience. 

It would be easy to blame these misguided product decisions solely on the jumper-wearing, penny-pinching sorcerer. Too easy. Signore Ramaciotti, with all his experience and reputation, must therefore be held responsible for not standing up to his boss once the eagerness to cut costs begins to threaten the products’ competitiveness. Maybe he wants to, but the products speak for themselves. And what they’re saying is that he doesn’t do good enough a job. 

Lorenzo Ramaciotti is not trying to convey the typical image of the car designer as an artist. Rather than in black turtlenecks, he’s usually photographed wearing sober (particularly by Italian standards) suits; he is not associated with ramblings on “purity of line” or “expressive linearity”. He gives the impression of a manager of talent, rather than necessarily being a talent himself. An administrator, if you will, whose work only ever reach as high as circumstances allow him – which would paint a very poor picture of the creative and artisan spirit at Fiat. 

But Lorenzo Ramaciotti is reportedly also an enthusiast of automotive history and has just recently been editor of a book celebrating Maserati’s centennial. This would suggest that he cares deeply about the marques and the Italian automobile itself. If this turned out to be the case, it would render his role at Fiat anno 2014 a very bleak one indeed: the role of a man succumbing to (admittedly difficult) surrounding conditions. A man who should actually know better. 

6 thoughts on “What Exactly Is Lorenzo Ramaciotti Doing?”

  1. Nearly nothing Fiat group is doing is having any impact. I´d like to say something about Chrysler´s output but none of it has managed to distinguish itself apart from the interior of one of their cars I quite like a while back. It might have been a Charger. There is a lack of consistency at the level of quality and quantity. It doesn´t seem FCA styling does much or does it well. I was unaware that the styling operations had been unified. As anyone who remembers the dog days of the 1980s at GM will tell you, design independence is worth a lot more than any saving made in labour and office space. Design is usually less than half a percent of development cost but an ugly design or an indifferent one is a sure way to eliminate the chance of the other 99.5% of the invested sum ever making a return on investment. File this decision under Croma, Aztek,GM A-body, Lancia Kappa. Fiat once produced designs exciting enough to overcome the inadequacies of the rest of the product. This is no longer true and bodes ill for the group.

    If I had the time I´d calculate the average age of the models of the Rover Group and the Rootes Group and Chrysler when they all went bankrupt. I imagine Fiat´s range is now getting close to that average age.

  2. The majority of the classic designs in motoring history were drawn by a couple of guys in a broom cupboard. That isn’t a suggested template for today, but an illustration that just staffing a design department with a team of reasonably well-paid and talented stylists and giving them nice chairs and a good coffee machine is not a foolproof formula to get good products. Someone with vision needs to direct them and, as Kris suggests, that person also needs to fight their corner fiercely against other factions. Italy’s car design heritage is huge, and very little of what has evolved today worldwide is untouched by it. By gobbling up the leftovers of the Italian motor industry, Fiat became the sole guardian of this heritage. Where has it all gone? It is a crass but relevant observation that Gianni Agnelli’s tailor bills were rather more substantial than Sergio Marchionne’s and Lorenzo Ramaciotti’s combined..

  3. First, this is a very revealing and insightful article, thank you.

    In the 80s and 90s, FIAT Group produced some really intriguing and, at times, influential designs – as well as the odd dud. Its portfolio of brands is so withered, as is its range of cars, that it is unrecognisable and it’s going to take a huge and sustained investment to turn things around and rebuild. The numbers quoted by FCA for Alfa alone do not look enough to produce a competitive range (as discussed elsewhere), so it looks unlikely that it will find the means to succeed. I actually doubt is has the real will, either.

    Richard makes a very good point about average age of models, although I don’t think it’s anything like as bad as was the case with Rover when it expired. I think one major factor in the reason why FIAT’s range is so threadbare right now is that Marchionne and Co decided to suspend new model launches and new model development for a number of years post the financial crash at the end of the last decade. That and constant re-drafting of survival/ re-launch plans once it had realised that it needed to press on again left a huge gap compared to modern replacement cycle norms. I was reminded this week via a string on another site that the latest Bravo is still with us (and it’s a nice looking thing, just a bit old and lonely (5 door hatch only – no estate/ saloon/ 3 door, let alone SUV derivative) these days) and the Punto too. It seems these will die off, which sums it all up. The Punto was a big seller – the Uno that preceded it was Europe’s biggest seller in its heyday. FCA does not seem to care. It’s new representatives in this market – the 500 family – are grotesques apart from the original small one, and I struggle to see how the market will continue to receive them once the fad has died away and the gloss has come off them as “new” models.

    All in all, a tragedy. I give FCA 5 years max before it has imploded. Thing is, I don’t think that some other European marques will be that far behind (Renault and, possibly, PSA).

  4. Gentlemen

    On a totally unrelated subject….

    On the 12th anniversary of the Russell Bulgin’s passing and in the year of Ayrton Senna’s 20th I thought it appropriate to remind those who have had the pleasure of reading the piece Russell wrote about that day with Senna in Wales fannying about in 1980’s Rally cars. If you have not had the opportunity to read this I urge you to find it. Eoin, if you still have a copy please scan and share. I couldn’t find it online but have added a couple of links below.

    Both men being the greatest purveyors of their respective arts in my opinion, although my appreciation of both came to me later than I would like. Eoin, I’m sure you remember attempting to educate me on both men and being frustrated by my nonchalant teenage attitude (some thing’s remain constant!)

    I won’t attempt to wax lyrical about Bulgin’s writing ability but to put it in a 21st century context, now there’s a man I would follow on Twitter!

    http://www.motorsportretro.com/2011/05/ayrton-senna-rally-driver/

    http://www.fellowhq.com/be-inspired/ayrton-senna/

  5. Paul. Since we applaud that sort of thing at DTW, I’ll join in your digression.

    I admit that my first impression of Bulgin was that he was a bit too concerned with pointing out how cool he was (“See what’s on my CD”) but he soon won me over with the quality and unpredictability of his writing. There is an argument that he was the last fine motoring journalist. And the ‘motoring journalist’, who combines an understanding of vehicles with a broader social view, is a different thing from a ‘car journalist’, which is what prevails today. In the old car world, people like Martin Buckley still place the car in a broader context but, in contemporary car magazines, if these people,exist, please point me in their direction.

    As for Senna, although in awe of his talent, I was always worried by his ruthlessness, which went against my residual Boy’s Own Paper idea of what a racing driver should do (no, after you Stirling, I insist old boy). As such, I found myself unexpectedly shocked by his death. In history, he now seems to represent both the old and new eras, having a foot in both.

  6. Where does the Fiat 500 fit into all this? Now there is a remarkable design-led success story… a retro pastiche perhaps, but one that has absolutely resonated with the car buying public.

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