Depth Charge – 1997 Pininfarina Nautilus

Hailed by Pininfarina as a celebration, Nautilus marked the final act in an unravelling relationship dating back to 1951.

Image: cavallivapore.it

The same year as 406 Coupe’s began leaving Pininfarina’s San Giorgio Canavese facility, the carrozzeria displayed Nautilus at Geneva; a concept for a full-size four-door luxury saloon, said by the coachbuilder to be “an exciting stylistic exploration of the high class sporty saloon, created as a tribute to our partnership with Peugeot.” But behind the scenes, this already souring relationship was entering its death throes. With Murat Günak appointed as Peugeot styling director in 1994, one of his first acts was to enlarge the styling team to bolster both numbers and influence; the aim being to further eclipse the Italian coachbuilder and favour the in-house team.

So although Nautilus was based on mechanical components from Peugeot’s contemporary 605 flagship, Pininfarina stated the concept was not intended as a production car, more a statement of the carrozzeria’s capabilities. One could say Pininfarina was hedging its bets by presenting the vehicle as a design solution – either for Peugeot or indeed for someone else entirely. In fact Nautilus was only the latest in series of conceptual meditations on the contemporary luxury saloon; those being the 1956 Florida, the 1967 Berlina Aerodynamica, and the 1980 Pinin. [The latter singularly notable for being a stylistic dead end].

The original concept was credited to Pininfarina stylist, Ken Okuyuma. Styling was a departure from the traditional formal sedan style and while front-drive mechanicals were employed, the car’s proportions and volumes suggested rear-drive. Certainly in silhouette, it was a shape that could have adopted itself to more than one rival manufacturer at the time.

Image: Carstyling.ru

The main body forms were a carefully contrived series of interlocking volumes employing soft features with highly defined corners and edges. Lorenzo Ramaciotti, General manager of Pininfarina’s Studi e Ricerche told journalists, “We had complete freedom with the Nautilus, though there is a hint of Peugeot in some details.” These being elements of the tail lamp formations, although the headlamp and grille treatment themselves appear to foreshadow subsequent Peugeot style. But who influenced who one wonders?

Image: Carstyling.ru

It’s tempting in retrospect to view Nautilus as a last-gasp attempt to re-engage with a client who had already made the decision to walk away but undoubtedly Sergio Pininfarina could see that particular cause was lost. More likely, it was a veiled rebuke; a means of showing both Peugeot management and the wider automotive world exactly what PSA were abandoning so blithely.

Nautilus wasn’t wasted however. Elements of its shape can be seen in Ken Okuyuma’s 2003 Maserati Quattroporte V, itself a Pininfarina creation and undoubtedly a more deserving recipient of the Italian carrozzeria’s talents. Meanwhile Peugeot threw forty six years of styling heritage away on a whim. What stupefying folly.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

22 thoughts on “Depth Charge – 1997 Pininfarina Nautilus”

  1. Hmm. This brings back memories. I had pretty much forgotten all about this concept, but seem to recall that it wasn’t greeted with entirely unbridled enthusiasm at the time.

    With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that initial assessment was a touch harsh. The profile is very clean and, as you say, there is a lot of QP in it. I would also suggest Giugiaro took a long, hard look at the metal treatment between the front wheel and headlamp for the Brera/159.

    I can’t say the rear does much for me, though. The full-width lamp treatment, even after an attempt at modernisation, seemed dated to me back in 1997 and I haven’t changed my view in the two decades since.

    1. I see your point on the 156 treatment at the front. I’m not keen on the rear lamp treatment, but the overall profile and forms are pleasing if not outstanding.

  2. There is the old maxim, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. This is reinforced by the fact that, although one might nitpick the Nautilus’s details, any such criticisms evaporate entirely when confronted with the Peugeots 607 and 407.

    However, in-house styling was the way things were going and, really, it is odd that a company who even once made their own shock absorbers, was happy to farm out their styling in the first place. So, in fact, long-term it was probably the right decision to make. But they either chose the wrong designers or gave them the wrong brief.

    1. Wrong brief, I expect. Or they picked the wrong proposals to go with.
      I notice a fair bit of disdain for the 607. It didn’t work for me when it came out. With the passage of time my view has softened. It’s got a fine, spacious interior and the right amount of brightwork. While not an outstanding car, there’s a lot right such as efficient 4-cylinder engines and a good Peugeot balance of ride and handling.

    2. Murat Günak himself is said to be very fond of the 607.

      I wasn’t offended by it, back in the day, but my opinion has become less benevolent over the years. The 607 is a bit like The Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream album – hardly terrible, but with a great many of the follies that would soon ruin the b(r)and’s credibility already present.

    3. From the back as far as the A pillar it’s OK (faint praise), forward of that it’s wrong and the doors look off they come off something one size down. But in its favour I still think of it as being, beneath the skin, a proper Peugeot.

  3. Looking at that first photo, anyone else seeing a hint of the Alfa 156 from the B-post rearwards? Excepting the chamfer on the bootlid.

  4. The Nautilus’ wheels are noteworthy too: this kind of duotone spoked design has become rather on vogue over the past few years, hasn’t it?

    This may not be Okuyama-san’s finest work, but there’s still much to commend. Stance and surfacing are certainly exemplary.

    1. Well first a caveat that I am drawing connections between a bespoke Italian concept and a Roger Stempel era Chevrolet. The design team could claim to have had posters of the Pinin on the walls and we would still see a thousand examples of bean-counter cost cutting and design constraints related to the use of the W platform (RWD vs. FWD proportions)

      The Lumina has blacked out rear 1/4 windows and a blacked out b-pillar and only needs the a-pillar blacked out to have a cantilevered roof. That said I think most of the reason for my idea is all in the angle of the nose, the egg-crate grill and the expressionless headlights. If you drop the bumper and let the grill wrap under the leading edge you’d have about as close to the Pinin as late 80’s GM could get. I had never seen the Pinin before Googling it after the mention in this post. When I was looking at it trying to see if I could come up with anything, the ’90 Lumina is what popped into my head. So that’s about as much defense of the idea I can come up with.

    2. The egg-crate grille is a shared feature, I agree. Over at another site, where a write tried to compare two dissimilar grilles, I sided with the lumpers and not the splitters. I said the two things weren´t the same (Volvo grille and Opel Insignia grille). Here I find myself in the splitter camp, tending to see more differences than similarities. The Pinin has windowline that flows from the base of the windscreen around the base of the side glass. The Corsica has that step between the top of the scuttle and the base of the side glass plus a body-coloured A-pillar. There is no flow from side to front then. The Lumina has a pronounced bumper while the Pinin does not. The Pinin´s bonnet shutline opens on the side of the wing (like a Renault 18 and Laguna 1) while the Corsica´s is positioned inboard. There are other. But you know what, the Corsicas as shown is a better resolved bit of work in every way. The Pinin is half-baked (look at the grille area and the lamps or roof at the a-pillar) and I agree it did influence GM, though it was Opel and Buick who managed to pilfer the ideas to best effect. And I have to stress I am not going to argue you don´t see the similarities only that I can´t really see them. It depends a bit on what aspects you think most important.

    3. A cursory understanding of the distributed processing within our cerebral cortex explains how two individuals can have different reads of the same item. It’s refreshing to find someplace on the internet where those differences are able to be explored without constant attacks for thinking differently. I grew up outside of a GM factory town in Ohio, there were many Luminas. I could probably look at a bit of old concrete and see a Lumina.

      Which gets me to a side bar question, are you being derisive in calling it a Corsica? Did they badge it as a Corsica in Europe? If it’s the first I would come to the defense of the Lumina for, as bad as it is, it’s no Corsica. If it’s the latter then Europe should rejoice that GM didn’t with sully them with that L-body nightmare that was the Corsica.

    4. Hi: Indeed – the visual field is complex and open to a lot of interpretation at least a few main ones.
      The joke is on me: the reason I thought it was a good photo of a Corsica was because I thought it was a Corsica. No wonder it looked so much better than I remember.
      The Lumina wasn’t sold in Europe (maybe in Switzerland?). It shows how independent Opel/Vauxhall were that they designed their own Omegas which are approximately the same size as the Lumina. I believe the Omega was a better class of car as sold in Europe while the Lumina was big but built and equipped like a car from one or two classes down.

    5. You are correct in thinking the Omega was the higher class car. GM was still deep in the thrall of its brand hierarchy system during the Lumina’s time, in which Chevrolet occupied the bottom rung. If you wanted more than a basic car in that size you had to look at a Pontiac Grand Prix, Oldsmobile Cutlass or Buick Regal.

    6. The Omega tried to compete with the 5-series of its day and also perhaps mid to
      lower end 200Es. It also needed to be at least as good as vehicles from the other volume makers. American brands continued longer with selling cheaper, frill-free large cars than their European counterparts. They made it clear that if you wanted bigger you got more luxurious kit and paid for it. Or just bought a car from the class down. The last few large mainstream European large cars showed that when people were asked to choose them at prices near the premium maker people chose premium.

  5. I can’t see much Ferrari in the Pinin. It looks more like a study for a new Opel Diplomat, a big saloon to sit above the Senator.

    That said, I can’t imagine Pininfarina passing off a design for somebody else as a Ferrari, given the robustness of the two companies’ relationship.

  6. Nissan took heed as well with the CUE-X, but mashed in some bits of the VW Auto 2000 Concept.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Darko. It’s highly likely that Welter et al had a good old look at Nautilus even if they had notions of their own by then. After all, it was clearly far cheaper to reference Pininfarina than to actually engage them for the work.

      I imagine there was a good deal of backward glances in the post-Farina severance period. Looking at the (production car) output of the time, there appeared to be a real struggle to find an identity. One which in the end defeated them.

      While there are signs of a growing coherence in production car styling during the current period, Peugeot is still in the woods and with the market rapidly coalescing around a select few manufacturers, (all of whom are more assured stylistically regardless of merit), time is running out for Peugeot.

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