Much has been written on the contribution of Italy’s styling houses to the Japanese motor industry in the crucial years when it went from being a tentative exporter to a seemingly unstoppable force.
I have taken a closer look at cars from the last five decades with an Italian connection. Unsurprisingly, the activity was at its most intense in the 1960s. Almost every carmaker was using the Italian styling houses then. They were not so much a service to industry, more a regional art form, but as well as being masters of form and proportion, the carrozzieri could produce prototypes more quickly, and for less money than anybody else. The fast-growing Japanese industry needed the Italian talent more than any others, to achieve international credibility and acceptance in export markets.
Their domestic cars in the 1950s were visually unappealing – awkward looking, narrow and slab sided. This was largely the result of abstruse and counter-productive tax rules, but also down to limited exposure to the latest and best Western cars in the metal – locally built Austin A55 Cambridges, Hillman Minxes and Renault 4CVs were not exactly cutting-edge by the end of the 1950s.
By the end of the following decade, the Japanese carmakers were, at least officially, going it alone on styling matters. Only Isuzu and Giugiaro come close (at least openly) to the sort of long term relationships Peugeot and Pininfarina, or Triumph and Michelotti enjoyed.
There’s strong evidence that this list is a mere scratching of the surface of the Italian contribution to Japanese car styling. Years ago I read a comment from an unidentified Italian styling house boss; “The Japanese are strange. They pay us top money, they take our designs, but they won’t put our name to them.” Kris Kubrick has rightly suggested Pininfarina involvement at Honda from the mid-1980s – I’d say possibly much earlier. ‘80s Nissans – Micra, Silvia, Prairie, Sunny have too much of the stamp of Ital Design to be merely “design in the style”. Giorgetto Giugiaro has said that the only major carmaker he has never worked for is Honda.
Even what can be assuredly attributed represents a solid body of work. Particular delights are Michelotti’s Prince Skyline Sport, first shown in 1960, and produced in tiny numbers from 1962, and the 1963 Mazda Familia, a product of young Giugiaro’s fecund and rapidly maturing creativity. The Skyline is reminiscent of Graber’s coachbuilt Alvises, the Mazda seems to anticipate the BMW 02 series.
So here’s the list. Contribute, conjecture, and challenge as you think fit.
1963 Compagno – Vignale
1965 Contessa 1300 – Michelotti
1966 Contessa Sprint – Michelotti
1984 HP-X Concept – Pininfarina
1995 Argento Vivo – Pininfarina
1967 Florian – Ghia
1968 117 Coupe – Giugiaro
1969 Bellett MX1600GT Concept – Tom Tjaarda at Ghia
1971 Bellett Sportswagon Concept – Tom Tjaarda at Ghia
1981 Impulse / Piazza – Giugiaro
1985 Gemini / I-Mark / Spectrum – Giugiaro
1963 Familia – Giugiaro at Bertone
1963 Luce – Giugiaro at Bertone
1981 MX-81 Concept – Bertone
1979 Lancer – Aldo Sessano at Open Design
1983 Starwind Concept – Aldo Sessano / Paul Breuer at Open Design
2005 Colt CZC – Pininfarina (Production and joint development)
NISSAN / DATSUN
1963 + 1966 Bluebird 410/411 – Pininfarina
1965 Cedric 130 – Pininfarina
1960 Skyline Sport – Michelotti
1991 SVX / Alcyone – Giugiaro
1967 Carry – Giugiaro
1972 Go Concept – Bertone
1977 Cervo / SC100 / Whizzkid – Giugiaro
2006 SX4 – Giugiaro
1993 Aristo / Lexus GS – Giugiaro
2004 Alessandro Volta Concept – Giugiaro – a proto-BMW i8!