Adding Dimensions (II)

When it came to translation a car design sketch into a tangible object, craftsmanship and even cultural background used to be of the utmost importance. 

Photo (c) Pinterest

As described earlier on, the technique and style any car designer chooses to depict his ideas is highly informative. 

Back in the golden era of the Italian carrozzieri, however, this did not matter as much, as most of the legendary Italian car designers didn’t much care for impressive illustrations. Viewing the sketches of the likes of Leonardo Fioravanti, Marcello Gandini or Aldo Brovarone from today’s perspective, their artistic qualities appear rather naïve, to put it mildly.

Yet these limited illustration skills obviously had little effect on their work, which had a lot to do with the processes in place at Pininfarina, Bertone et al – with ItalDesign being the notable exception, as that company’s founder, Giorgetto Giugiaro, has always been an exceptionally gifted illustrator (which hardly comes as a surprise, given his father was a fresco painter). 

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The classic Italian design process was surprisingly logical and efficient, considering not just the country’s reputation as a hotbed of creative chaos, but also the artistic traits so often visible in the Carrozzieri’s best work, which wouldn’t necessarily be associated with an orderly modus operandi 

At Pininfarina, the designers always started with a 1:10 scale side view/rendering (accompanied by front/rear three quarter perspectives), which – if chosen – progressed to a 1:1 surface development/section drawing. This was executed on a full-size, vertical, wall-mounted drawing board, with the aid of ‘yacht curves’ and the help of a specialised stylist (Aldo Brovarone in the case of Pininfarina), not to mention the body development engineers.

Dino Berlinetta Speciale 1:10 scale rendering, photo (c) Pinterest

These three views (side, half front/rear and plan) were then given to the model shop. There the wood formers that corresponded to each (10cm spaced) XYZ section (X = vertical side view sections along the body, Y = vertical front/rear view sections across the body, and Z =  horizontal sections up the body in all views, like contours on a map) were cut out.

The square spaces in between were usually filled with polystyrene foam and then painstakingly sanded. In a nutshell: The model shop turned the drawing into a 3D frame, over which the panel beaters applied their metal sheet artistry.

An alternative method was  to carry out this ‘3D process’ in plaster, by dragging the body side shape along with a pre-cut template and guide fixed to the floor. This was the modus operandi at Bertone.

On the other side of the Atlantic, American car designers’ approach was significantly different. With a far higher percentage of them being trained car stylists (rather than trained architects, engineers or draughtsman, as most of the Italian opposites), the pen wielders of Detroit were far more reliant on dramatic illustrations.

These exaggerated sketches, featuring exciting perspectives and astonishing detail, were eventually combined with full-size 1:1 side view renderings over a given engineering package. These full-some illustrations were created using flexible, black 3M tapes of various widths (from 2-50mm), spray colours (that later on turned out to be highly cancerous) and inks on big sheets of vellum.

Such executions were far more subjective than realistic – and open to artistic interpretation, rather than actual dimensions, which left far more to be defined and resolved in the subsequent 3D clay modelling phase.

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So just as the illustrating style each designer might choose to depict his ideas, the methods employed in order to turn these into three-dimensional forms greatly informed the eventual outcome. For that reason, and for a long time, a Pininfarina design could never be mistaken for something else, just as Detroit, for quite some time, led the way in terms of technical sophistication. 

No matter if one prefers the classical elegance of Pininfarina at its most sophisticated, Bertone at its most daring or Detroit at its most most advanced – the depth of craftsmanship involved extended far beyond the designers we rightfully celebrate whenever we can. 

Here’s to all those modellers, sculptors, tinsmiths and plasterers, without whom no classic car design would’ve become a reality. 

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

5 thoughts on “Adding Dimensions (II)”

  1. Adding dimensions I, Adding dimensions II, Adding dimensions III. Giving credit to the hidden heroes of the past. Do they exist in the present? What about the future? Thanks for reminding us Herr Butt

  2. Looking at the quite nice but not especially technically excellent drawings, I get the feeling that even as sketching and rendering was fetishised (by me too) something went missing. There was a large period of transition however, when excellent drawings were matched by excellent three-d form development. Far too many contemporary designs are founded on overly elaborated sketches concealing the lack of a strong, simple, original idea. That´s not to detract from the individual technical skills of the sketchers, clay modellers and colour & trim designers. Much of all that hard work is less than the sum of its parts.

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