A Question of Form

Has Centro Stile Fiat ever produced a design of lasting significance?

centro stile alfa romeo

This is the question I found myself asking having read a recent driventowrite piece on Lorenzo Ramaciotti – (which I urge you to read). Because like many, I held firm to the view that Turin’s fabled carrozzerie were responsible for everything worthy of note. On the other hand, memory can sometimes prove a faulty co-driver, so I did what any self-respecting auto-nerd would at this point and revisited the Fiat group’s styling back catalogue in a quest for answers. So what we have here is a list of significant Fiats of the last 50 years and who was responsible for their styling*

  • 600D – Centro Stile
  • 128 Berlina – Centro Stile
  • Panda – Giugiaro/Ital
  • Uno – Giugiaro/Ital
  • Tipo – IDEA.
  • Punto Mk1 – Giugiaro/Ital
  • Multipla – Centro Stile
  • 500 – Centro Stile

Now this outcome surprised me: Out of 8 significant Fiat models of the past 50 years, 4 were created by Centro Stile Fiat, and 4 by carrozzerie – an equal 50% split. Logically, it made sense to carry on once I’d started, so I applied similar methodology to Lancia, and the significant designs of their last half century; which look something like this:

  • Aurelia GT – Pininfarina
  • Flaminia Berlina – Pininfarina
  • Fulvia Coupe – In house
  • Beta Berlina – In house
  • Gamma – Pininfarina
  • Delta – Giugiaro/Ital
  • Thesis – In house

deltaLancia was less of a surprise, having a larger proportion designed by consultancies; something I had little trouble imagining. The carrozzerie scoring 4, to Centro Stile’s 3, or 57% against 43%. However, there is little between them. Chronologically Alfa Romeo was next to join the fold, so the following list suggested itself without too much internal debate.

  • 1900 Berlina – Centro Stile
  • Giulia Berlina – Centro Stile
  • Alfasud – Giugiaro/Ital
  • Giulietta (Tipo 116) – Centro Stile
  • SZ (ES 30) – Centro Stile Fiat/Centro Stile Alfa
  • 164 – Pininfarina
  • 156 – Centro Stile
  • 8C – Centro Stile

090226-alfaromeo-sz-08The outcome here shows Centro Stile Alfa far ahead with 6, while the carrozzerie have a mere 2 designs to show for themselves – or 75% against 25%, bucking the trend established by its two Latin stablemates. Maserati is least typical amongst this sample, having the fewest models designed in-house, but again, this is predictable. The notable exception being the unfortunate Biturbo, which may have benefited from some outside assistance, despite its noticeable Giugiaro influence.

  • 3500 GT – Touring Superleggera
  • Quattroporte 1 – Frua
  • Ghibli – Giugiaro/Ghia
  • Bora – Giugiaro/Ital
  • Biturbo – Centro Stile Maserati
  • Gran Turismo – Pininfarina

Result: Carrozzerie – 5, Centro Stile -1 or 83% against 17%

Ferrari? Don’t be silly now, we all know the answer to that one.

* Now admittedly, it is entirely possible to come up another list and end up with a very different set of results; such is the joy of the statistician’s art.

There has to be a point to this, otherwise it is merely a slightly self indulgent thought experiment. So it should surprise no one that where a car is designed is less important than the competence with which it is designed; how much of the marque’s ethos is imbued in its form and how successfully this complex confection is executed. Before compiling this, I believed that utilising the skills of the Italian carrozzerie was more likely to provide the stylistic results you were after, given their habitually excellent track record. Now I’m not so sure. In truth, you are as likely to get good results from an established, well-grounded in-house team as you would from an expensive consultancy, no matter how accomplished their back catalogue.

Car-wallpaper-for-2014-Fiat-500XL-in-Design-StudioThis should probably vindicate FCA’s new one size fits all approach, but in fact I take an opposing viewpoint. With Lorenzo Ramaciotti attempting to create one giant Centro Stile for all FCA’s Italian marques, the risk is a confused dilution of marque identities. If everything from a Panda to a Quattroporte is coming from the same sausage factory, how is it likely that one marque’s styling trope won’t leach into another? Yes, it could create some interesting looking Fiats, but it could and some might say, already has produced decidedly funny-lookin’ Maserati’s.

The simple truth is that this form of integration has been tried before and the results have mostly been far from satisfying. The most glaring example being that of British Leyland during the 1970’s. It is telling that the giant Volkswagen group, despite their all-encompassing product portfolio allow each marque its own engineering and styling teams. Whatever you might think of their output, the fact that each marque maintains its own style is difficult to deny. Seeing as Alfa is being given their own engineering team to create the new generation of cars to bear the fabled Scudetto, surely it is only a matter of time before the realisation dawns that something similar needs to happen in styling terms too.

Ah yes, the point: Well, to return to DTW’s recent piece and its central question – what is Lorenzo Ramaciotti actually doing? Hastening his own demise might well end up being one of the answers.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

11 thoughts on “A Question of Form”

  1. A most interesting rationale, Eoin. An arbitrary one, too, yet still insightful.

    I fully concur with your final analysis: in-house styling departments are not the problem, but uncoordinated ones are. You mentioned VAG, which often suffers from group-wide trends blurring the different brands, despite each brand having its own studio – a phenomenon I’d blame on a group’s styling overlord’s badge-transcending aesthetic vision, as exhibited by the striking similarities between current Audis and Skodas (and, to a lesser degree, Seats).
    To my mind, the best current examples of different studios working within a larger group are JLR and BMW, with the exception of the latter’s Mini studio, which, incidentally, shows some signs of hope with the recent Superleggera roadster – the first Mini styled under Anders Warming’s reign, by the way. There was also, come to think of it, some talk a while ago about Mini styling moving to the UK in order to gain an even more independent creative spirit. I certainly would welcome this move, as its Rolls-Royce sister brand seems to indicate that such an approach does benefit the quality of the product (as does a prudent styling director like Ian Cameron).

    Moving to macro scale, I’d argue that Fiat’s current cars’ sloppy stylistic execution mirrors the hasty, inconsiderate corporate structure within which they’re created, which in turn has an effect on the talent involved. After all, there must have been good reason for Frank Stephenson to jump ship – apart from Ron Dennis’ persuasive charms, that is – rather than stay in Italy and mastermind the reorganisation of some of the most evocative brands in the business.
    It also speaks volumes that the current Maseratis have been shaped under the presumaby watchful eyes of one Marco Tencone, whose claim to fame has been his work on the very last generation of Lancias, rather than designers of the stature of a Jason Castriota (GranTurismo) or even Ken Okuyama (Quattroporte V).

  2. Atmosphere can win over talent in engendering a creative environment. Bertone was traditionally less autocratic than Pininfarina and this is obvious in the daringness, if not elegance, of much of their output. An in-house Studio, even if you hire fine designers, can be a difficult place to work, with management vetoing ideas before they have even seen development.

    Of course you can always go the ‘move all the talent out to a beachside studio in California’ route, but I really think that is treating them beyond their worth. Any creative who needs that much pampering is a liability, not an asset. You don’t agree? VW New Beetle – I rest my case.

    There is probably a viable middle route and, with products like the 128, Multipla and second generation Panda, it’s plain that Fiat Centro Stile have got it right from time to time. And with outside consultancies, I.DE.A’s punctuation always seemed the most interesting part of their output.

    1. I actually don’t think atmosphere is all that important. Bertone under Nuccio is an example in favour of this thinking, but there are other ones pointing to the contrary direction – Pininfarina lead by Leonardo Fioravanti or Andrea Pininfarina’s reign coming to mind. Both weren’t exactly popular (creative or management) leaders, but one couldn’t claim the company’s output suffered an awful lot as a consequence.

    2. Kris. I take your point. But I suppose I didn’t necessarily mean it should be a nice atmosphere or an encouraging one, but that in some way or another it should be a challenging one, which is somewhere that large institutions frequently fall short.

    3. Being the notorious lover of ambivalence I am, I’d yet again summarise that the truth can be found neither here nor there, but somewhere in the middle. Creatively challenging and/or inspiring environments obviously do play a mayor role in determining a styling department’s fortunes, but then so does talent. I would, for example, argue that Bertone’s downfall began pretty much the day Marc Deschamps took over from Marcello Gandini. Mercedes’ fall from grace, on the other hand, began well into Bruno Sacco’s reign, when management started to dictate how the brand’s aesthetic values should be altered in order to appeal to a new clientele.

    4. Kris. In truth I have to concede and top your ambivalence with mine. In my youth, I thought of Citroën’s Bureau d’Études as being a bit like something out of a Bond film, only the glistening corridors would be peopled by superior beings working towards a grand single purpose, discussing hydraulic differentials with the same passion that politics and philosophy were discussed in nearby cafés. Of course this wasn’t so. I believe the location itself was a bit cramped and seedy and the individuals, though several of them were undoubtedly brilliant, had the same flaws we all do.

  3. This is a good question. I´d say that good management matters at least as much as good design. The stability of certain firms has allowed a body of corporate knowledge to build up over a long period. Fiat has lacked this and perhaps more than anyone other than Renault, have veered wildly from style to style with no discernable consistency except the conceptual level of trying to offer modish cars. Little of their output has the seriousness one might expect of an expensive business like car manufacture. Perhaps the Multipla and some of the early FWD cars had some depth to them in engineering terms. Many of them seem casual and very hit and miss. They certainly seem to have as much difficulty as Renault at making designs that stand the test of time. Not making durable cars does not help. You´d think though that the little 500 would have endured as much as Renault´s 4 and Citroen´s 2CV or the Mini? But of the foursome, the original 500 is the worst-remembered.

  4. Large management teams and companies lead to homogeny as it is the safest way for those within the organisation to survive and prosper. Opinion then often moves very slowly and when combined with the long gestation of a car’s styling- odd results appear. As Fiat do not posses the manufacturing quality of say Toyota, they can’t appeal to those buyers who also change opinion slowly. They need to be “on trend” or ahead rather than follow others. The wretched 500L shows what happens when the result of a good idea is followed rather than repeating the process that created the first good idea.

  5. Should not the Fiat 130 as coupe or saloon not be on the list? Or indeed the Coupe Fiat which was designed by Chris Bangle? The 130 coupe is certainly a car often name-checked as one of the best looking of the period and could be said to have influenced Ford´s last squared-off Granada? The coupe Fiat was one of a set of wildly styled cars that nudged automotive design in a more emotive direction after the quiet years of the late 80s and early 90s. Perhaps more talked about than sold, it showed what could be done by breaking some rules and returning at the same time to expressive forms.

  6. To answer your question and being frank, I considered each of these cars before rejecting them. Why? My criterion was for designs that were above all commercially significant. Some of them were also stylistically important, but the cars you listed above were niche models whose significance is entirely visual. I guess I could refer you to the piece within the main text that suggests that a different list would engender a different set of results, but I think you already know that. None of which alters the validity of your comments by the way.

  7. Indeed. I think that´s a fair response. As long as one explains ones rationale and is internally consistent then you´ve done as much as you can. Your approach was more likely to produce consistent results than mine, if it were fleshed out. The results of a forced marrriage of studios will not be very pretty and examples from Chysler and GM USA indicate this too.

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