Sometimes it’s necessary to look back in order to move forward.
It’s a slightly forlorn image would you not agree? An elegant, if vaguely unsatisfying looking 1960s Italian GT is parked upon a deserted beachscape. The photo comes courtesy of the estimable Mr. Christopher Butt, he of the influential and painstakingly curated Auto-Didakt. The car? Well, you can read Christopher’s well-chosen words on this carrozzeria unicorn here, should your curiosity get the better of you.
The image serves as something of a visual metaphor – for the demise of the carrozzieri, of course, but also for something more. But first, some background. As our Auto-Didaktic cohort points out, during the post-war period, French and Italian coachbuilders struggled to sustain a business model which had been lost, largely because a sizeable proportion of their customer base had either become dispossessed of their fortunes, or simply hadn’t survived the hostilities at all.
This led businesses such as Chapron in Paris and Pininfarina in Turin to turn their attentions to mass-market carmakers and to a growing upper-middle class who were seeking something modest in scale, but a cut above in execution and style. Citroën would be the primary beneficiary of Chapron’s talents, while the Italian carrozzieri, in addition to the more ennobled special-bodied Lancias and Alfa Romeos, also remodelled more proletarian Fiats.
But while the larger ateliers would produce special bodies, like that adorning the 1963 Fiat 750 Vignale shown, many of the smaller carrozzieri would produce what tended to be known as ‘Finizione’, essentially be-frilled versions of diffusion-line models with custom paint finishes, additional chrome overlays and more indulgent interior finishes.
With new cars still in short supply, the more well-heeled often chose this course than endure long waits from stablimento Mirafiori. After all, the carrozzieri tended to buy in batches and would often get priority. It proved a more reliable source of business for the coachbuilders than the more lucrative but equally more volatile bespoke bodywork side of the business, while offering those with less to spend something almost unique.
This principle also found vivid expression here in the UK, where noted coachbuilders, Harold Radford carried out their famed conversions on BMC Minis, bringing a more aristocratic bearing and dash of Savile Row tailoring to Sir Alec Issigonis’ determinedly austere ‘Charwoman’s Car’.
The 1960s proved to be not only the heyday of the carrozzieri, but equally perhaps their undoing. Within a few short decades, the business model had once again been lost – this time, it seems, irrevocably. But while the coachbuilders in the immediate post-war era managed to remain in business through diversification, the mainstream carrozzieri latterly became too big (and arguably too set in their ways) to alter course, culminating in most of the storied names going under.
A more recent entrant to their ranks however is Lapo Elkann’s Garage Italia. As widely known, Elkann is a descendant of Fiat paterfamilias, Gianni Agnelli. Garage Italia is pitched as a design consultancy, operating within the interior design, marine, aviation and fashion sectors, but the core of its operations centres around the automotive arena.
During the summer, Garage Italia debuted Spiaggina, a recreation of the original 1960’s beach cars popularised by the carrozzieri during the Dolce Vita era. Given its donor vehicle, it can’t be lost on anyone exactly how meta a creation this is, but equally it’s impossible to dispute just how well executed it is. And while an open-two seater Fiat 500 with a retractable windscreen isn’t exactly everyone’s idealised urban runabout, it nevertheless illustrates what can be achieved.
Today’s automotive landscape has become even more febrile, with generalist carmakers now in the firing line, as they face being squeezed-out in an increasingly polarised commercial model from which the centre will not hold. The European middle classes, caught in a similar game of socio-economic snakes and ladders, it would seem, are being similarly hollowed-out.
Currently, there is said to be more high net worth individuals than ever, most of whom live in cities and almost all of whom drive (or are driven in) some form of vehicle. We tend to associate these individuals with the notion of conspicuous consumption and a desire for ever-more overtly expensive and expressive visual statements. But for a significant number, discretion is more their style.
As cities become ever more congested and hostile environments, the need for small, engaging cars becomes more sharply drawn. The compact city car has typically been characterised not only by its modest scale, but by the rigorous paring of cost. Perhaps the most intelligent motor vehicle type in existence, (if done well), the minicar can be a thoroughly pleasant mode of conveyance. What it doesn’t have to be is a hairshirt – although most are.
And so to the point. The carrozzieri, as we knew them at least, are no more, cities are becoming more like war zones populated by high riding turret-topped scout vehicles and the compact, urbane, non-threatening minicar is under attack from all fronts. But as recent experience with a current Toyota Aygo demonstrated, these vehicles still have much to commend them. Apart from their dreary, low-rent interiors.
It therefore occurred to me that a carrozzeria-enhanced version would be an appealing proposition for the moderately affluent urban dweller. I’m not espousing some factory-based skin-deep luxury variant (like Ford’s Vignale), pared down to a price, but a carefully crafted luxury interior employing fine materials, pleasing finishes and warm inviting colours. Throw in a bespoke exterior paint job and some subtle exterior detailing and presto!
I would accept that the Aygo may not be the ideal beneficiary (although why not?) for such treatment, but perhaps something along the lines of a carrozzeria-Panda, 500 or UP! could be. And yes, someone is bound to fling the Aston Martin Cygnet in my direction, but that car simply illustrates a lack of basic understanding, even if the concept itself contained some merit.
Given the current industry direction of travel it’s likely that the motorcar is going to have to offer a lot more sensual engagement to justify an ongoing ownership model. Opportunities potentially lie amidst the younger upwardly mobile as they gravitate towards tailored solutions, where those with the means are prepared to pay a premium for something that looks and feels genuinely bespoke.
I accept that it’s a long shot, especially considering where priorities currently lie, but our urban areas are not getting any less crowded, any less aggressive or any less stressful or noisy an environment to navigate. Is it not possible, as matters crystallise over the coming years, that true luxury may increasingly come to be viewed as less, not more? That the car could once more become a sanctuary instead of a cross between a Hong Kong vodka bar and Times Square.
Returning to that forlorn Fiat on the beach. While it embodies a platonic ideal which by the close of the 1960s, was spluttering towards its end, it also serves to remind us what the carrozzieri had to offer and what a new generation could conceivably offer us again. Perhaps enough of us have only to ask.