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.
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 Which was, in turn, superseded by a range of models penned by Giugiaro at the dawn of the new millennium.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.