Drowned Out

Every car design enthusiast and their dog lament the downfall of the Torinese carrozzieri. Yet a recent example illustrates that it’s not simply the industry that’s at fault.

Tasteful, restrained – barely noticed, photo (c) CAR magazine

With Bertone gone (despite a company of that name still in existence) and ItalDesign churning out the crassest, most tasteless, un-Giugiaro-like concoctions, it’s now up to Pininfarina to wave the flag of Italian automotive design excellence.

Among the carrozzieri, Pininfarina traditionally played the purveyor of good taste. Bertone tended to be more inventive and daring, whereas ItalDesign (under Giugiaro) had the habit of being either exceptionally pragmatic or supremely conceptually creative. Yet Pininfarina, with the odd historical exception, remained steadfastly devoted to beauty.

In the decade that will certainly not be called ‘the twentytens’ by posterity, outright beauty has become a rare commodity among automobile designs, as visual complexity and ornamentation have superseded it as the most desirable aesthetic qualities. As this coincides with the downfall of the carrozzieri, obvious conclusions are obviously invited.

Of course, the aesthetic perfect storm most of the car design world finds itself in right now isn’t just the consequence of the crisis of the carrozzieri, but one shouldn’t underestimate the significance of Turin in the grand scheme of things. Just as the craft itself was created in Detroit, modern car design still calls the Piemonte region its home. A home that’s become significantly more barren in recent years.

No more needs to be said. (c) lcarsmotorcycles

In a way, it almost appears inevitable that Pininfarina would be the last design studio standing. After all, they began the process which ended American car design dominance with the 1947 Cisitalia 202 – and finalised it with the Lancia Florida concept cars. Not to mention the ultimate in modern car styling, the Fiat 130 Coupé, which also originated from Grugliasco.

Yet despite this plausibility, Pininfarina has remained more of a fringe entity over the past decade, what with near bankruptcy, family drama, the loss of its most famous client, factory closures and the ultimate sale of the company to Mahindra & Mahindra overshadowing the creative side of the business to an unbearable extent.

Not even a funeral is good enough a reason for the gentleman on the left to put on a tie, photo (c) quotidiano.net

Against the backdrop of an eroding business model and in an industry that’s become obsessed with excessively ornamental, shouty forms, the stalwart of automotive elegance had to simultaneously preserve its heritage and revolutionise.

The man tasked with this unenviable task turned out to be Fabio Filippini. Italian-born and with a long design history at Renault, Filippini joined Pininfarina in 2011, arguably the most difficult point ever for the Torinese design house. Six years later, he left the company, with Carlo Bonzanigo named as his successor.

Fabio Filippini, photo (c) Form Trends

Pininfarina was (and still is) striving for the currency of any enterprise devoted to selling a service: relevance. What does relevance constitute in today’s age of highly developed, extraordinarily professional design studios established at any car manufacturer that comes to mind? Not to mention the loud, excessive, attention-seeking forms and shapes that have a stranglehold over automotive design?

With brashness being the name of the game, any attempt at returning to Pininfarina’s core value of elegance would appear, at the very least, risky. After all, trying to get noticed whispering, just as everybody else keeps on shouting only rarely does the trick.

Yet this is exactly what Pininfarina under Filippini tried to achieve. For better or worse, none of Pininfarina’s concept cars since 2012’s underwhelming Cambiano were ‘spectacular’. As a result, none of them were perceived as ground or mould-breaking. And that’s a shame, for more than one of them is ‘pretty’ in the non-condescending meaning of the word.

This classical approach towards car design should be a given, but in our post-9/11, post-financial crisis, post-factual age, it could almost be seen as an act of rebellion. Albeit an understated one.

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Pininfarina’s Gran Lusso acts as a case-in-point. On the surface, it’s ‘just’ a large BMW that’s far calmer and more restrained than any of the Bavarian’s current production cars. For a time, it was even mooted to act as inspiration for a large BMW GT, a rumour that has proven to rather off-point with the unveiling of BMW’s own 8 series coupé concept car in 2017.

An ‘attractive large BMW’ doesn’t sound like the most adventurous of concepts, yet the calm, measured, consistent Gran Lusso is the most classically elegant car wearing a double kidney grille since Claus Luthe was forced to retire in the early 1990s.

Similarly, 2013’s Sergio concept car may be a windscreen-less Ferrari, but its soft curves and clear graphics could almost be seen as an antithesis of today’s concept and production supercar design. The Sergio certainly owes more to the delicate felinity of Aldo Brovarone’s designs than the current stylistic idiom of ‘more is more’, to which most current Ferraris pander – most of which, incidentally, were created after Ferrari had ended its relationship with Pininfarina.

Similarly calm is 2016’s H2 Speed, albeit with the rather significant added caveat that those who haven’t seen it in the metal/composite had to judge it solely on the basis of renderings (which hardly ever do delicate surfacing justice) or poorly lit photos.

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Arguably the most traditionally Pininfarina-esque of all the concept cars unveiled during this most taxing period was 2017’s H600 though. A Tesla Model S rival, the H600 eschews the de rigueur fastback shape of most luxury saloon (concept) cars, in favour or a far more traditional three-box layout. Not only that, but its proportions and form language are – slightly oriental front aspect apart – similarly quite classical, in the best sense of the term.

Despite boasting more than 5.2 metres in length, H600’s greenhouse features neither the bow silhouette, nor the crenel-like DLO that have become the industry norm. Instead, it possesses a formal air that harks back to Battista Farina’s exceedingly elegant, dignified Lancia Florida/Flaminia designs of the 1950s, without appearing anachronistic.

In terms of its stylistic concept, H600 could be seen as an Italianate counterpart of the 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom. Both cars evoke and reflect upon the concept of a stately saloon or limousine in a style that’s respectful of each one’s national design heritage, without being stifled by it.

photo (c) CAR magazine

Apart from one series of shots that appears to have been taken in front of Pininfarina’s Cambiano headquarters, the H600 also suffers from the marketing snafu of renderings and poorly lit motor show snapshots, which tend to do be particularly detrimental to nuanced design.

And yet, all things considered, the lack of recognition of these cars must not be blamed entirely on CGI or dim lighting. For it is us, the audience, that despite best efforts, have obviously failed from being numbed by all that noise. The LEDs, creases, fake air vents and exhaust tips, angry snouts and huge grilles have set a precedent, a standard – against our better judgement.

Also to be blamed are, of course, the noise makers themselves.

All of which means not only that Pininfarina and their former chief designer ought to be applauded. Not just for having saved the company. But for their hushed, melodious tunes, which prove that the concept of the carrozzieri is far from dead. For this industry needs a different kind of intonation, one that can only be pitched by those who aren’t part of the chorus.

Long live Pininfarina. Long live the carrozzieri.


The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

7 thoughts on “Drowned Out”

  1. And Peugeot should be praised for carrying on with the 400 series coupés, simply because people like them enough to buy them.

  2. Thanks for shining a light on a rather neglected period in Pininfarina’s history. That H600 just gets better with each passing year, doesn’t it. I note Pininfarina is showing another concept at the forthcoming Beijing motor show, which makes about four concepts from this series now – all of which are in their way outstanding, insofar as they continue this calm, quiet theme. Whether any will see production however is another matter entirely.

    1. Further to the above, I might suggest that even if Filippini is no longer at Cambiano, his stylistic legacy continues, to some extent at least.

    2. Imagine how different we might all feel about BMW design right now if it had taken more note of Pininfarina’s contributions and invited it to shape the 8, 7, 5, and (please) the X2. The H600 is a cracker … if only someone would build it. I believe the Beijing car will be a SUV/ Crossover, so I’m not hoping for much.

    1. Thanks for posting that. That proposal passed me by. It is a very satisfactory design indeed. The clean bodysides are refreshing and the front and rear end graphics are distinc without being Peugeot/Toyota wierd. The interior will not get through. A 100 out of 100 proposals for those kinds of armchair seats are nixed for production. The actual seats will be interchangeable with an Audi A3/Ford Focus/Nissan Juke/Mercedes A180. The color is good. I wish there was more interesting work done on car seats so they didn´t look so much alike. I think fondly of Lancia and Fiat´s 70s seats which were from the Milan Furniture fair, or seemed to be.

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