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2018-04-24 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

A Matter of Taste

Common wisdom tells us that the concept of the great Italian carrozzieri is a thing of the past. But that is not necessarily the case.


Turin has not had it easy. This very beautiful, enormously storied city has seen most of its once industry-leading car design studios either perish or change beyond recognition. These days, ItalDesign’s main output consists of body engineering on behalf of Volkswagen (as well as a sideline of aesthetically repugnant, hilariously expensive, Lamborghini-derived supercars), whereas a company named Bertone designs trains. Only Pininfarina is left as a truly independent carrozzieri, albeit with the caveat of being Indian-owned these days.

So the era of Turin setting the pace for automotive design all over the world is truly over. This in itself doesn’t come as a shock however, as the manufacturers themselves have not just highly professional, fully equipped design studios at their disposal, but also the capacity to provide for niche products among their highly flexible production lines. Both of which used to be the domain of the Torinese coachbuilders.



It would appear that the manufacturers simply don’t have any need for the services of the carrozzieri anymore, a fact driven home most forcefully by Fiat’s decision to abandon its proven modus operandi of inviting the Torinese studios to submit proposals for the Italian automotive giant’s products. These days, any aspect of Italian car design, be it for a Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Maserati model or a Lancia Ypsilon’s newest upholstery option, originates from Fiat’s own Centro Stile. Only Ferrari has its own dedicated design centre.

Just as Fiat (or FCA, as the company’s called these days), and particularly the brands under its umbrella, wouldn’t exist without the carrozzieri, ItalDesign, Bertone and Pininfarina couldn’t survive without any Fiat contracts. The consequences of this mutually beneficial relationship having come to an end are evident, both in the crisis of the carrozzieri, and the quality of Fiat’s design.

Comparing Pininfarina’s 2003 Maserati Quattroporte V with its FCA-designed successor tells the whole story. And if that’s not enough, a look at Giugiaro’s original Fiat Grande Punto design and then at the current Fiat Tipo serves as a reminder that the carrozzieri’s services weren’t commissioned simply on the basis of automotive nepotism.



But Fiat is, of course, a special case. The industry’s usual standards don’t apply to the remains of what used to be Europe’s biggest automobile business. Fiat’s core strengths - ingenuity and an appreciation of everyday practicalities - have long been allowed to wither, and the less said about the lack of understanding of the luxury sector (Ferrari excepted) by the people in charge, the better.

In Fiat’s case, lack of funding and the haphazard management style serve as clear explanations as to the reasons behind the product and design malaise. This doesn’t necessarily apply to other motor businesses however, who now struggle with their respective identities and stylistic flair.

Since the days of Eberhard von Kuenheim, BMW has been consistently among the best managed companies in the automotive business. This was reflected by the assured, conservative styling of the Bavarians’ products until one Christopher Edward Bangle came along and challenged everything (barring double kidney grilles and Hofmeister kinks). And even Bangle’s stylistic revolution was facilitated by a company realising the need to adapt and change in the face of globalisation, for better or worse.

BMW may not suggest itself as a company in need of any stylistic help then. But it is.



Lest we forget, BMW used to be a purveyor of above-average automobiles - years before anyone started uttering the term ‘premium’. Since the early 1970s, BMWs were considered special. Yet these days, a BMW can be anything, from a three-cylindered family van to a 600-something horsepowered super saloon.

In order to sharpen up this confused profile (and add more weight on the more exclusive end of the ‘premium’ spectrum, which boasts both higher margins and priceless image benefits), the Bavarians decreed a new top model, the 8 series.



Back in 2013, BMW teamed up with Pininfarina to unveil the BMW Gran Lusso concept car at the Villa d’Este concorso d’eleganza (which the German brand sponsors). This was a BMW 7 series-based coupé that was far more dignified, elegant and, quite simply, tasteful than anything sporting a double-kidney grille since the Claus Luthe days. It also was a design that didn’t need to be called ‘premium’, for it obviously was.

Speculation arose in the aftermath of the Gran Lusso’s unveiling that it would serve as inspiration for either the upcoming new 7 series or the rumoured 8 series. Alas, neither hunch was proven true.

The current BMW 7 series is a slightly overwrought behemoth of a car that sells below expectations. Nothing about it is truly special or elegant, it’s just slightly less unattractive than the car it replaces and panders to the oriental penchant for excessive brightwork. So far, so not very good. For what is far more regrettable is that the all-new 8 series, which was unveiled in concept form in 2017, has taken so little inspiration from the Gran Lusso.



More of a Munich style Aston Martin GT than a 7 series coupé, the 8 series illustrates that good proportions account for a lot, but not everything. For apart from its pleasing stance, it manages to look rather generic, as well as busy. It is not terrible, but it is not charming either - the latter of which should be expected from a car of this class.

The 8 series showcases plenty of the craftsmanship of today’s stylists, in that - although there are far worse offenders - the BMW also possesses a bit too much of everything. Someone should’ve said ‘stop!’ at some point, but in the end nobody did.

And this is what the carrozzieri should really be doing: act as a stylistic conscience. Question the trends of the trade. Interrupt the navel gazing.

The BMW 8 series is not the worst car design unveiled by a major manufacturer, just as the Gran Lusso isn’t Pininfarina’s finest design ever. But the contrast between the two proves that the manufacturers, for all their professionalism and means, do not know best - at least not always.

What Pininfarina offered in the Gran Lusso’s case was, above all else, taste. This is a commodity that is in short supply, particularly in the luxury sector. The overreliance on chrome and tropes like the ubiquitous ‘diamond pattern’ stitching prove that even manufacturers at the top end of the automotive chain don’t grasp the concept of effortless class. The Gran Lusso, however, didn’t fall into this Dubai trap, which contributed significantly to its tasteful flair, which the aforementioned current Maserati Quattroporte also lacks (which makes this a pattern).



Another quality the carrozzieri can boast is perspective. Traditionally, the Torinese studios boasted talents among them that weren’t ‘professionals’ in today’s meaning of the term: Giugiaro, Gandini et al were autodidacts. Enormously gifted autodidacts, who had all the professional infrastructure they could want at their disposal. But none of them had been to the RCA, Pforzheim or Vevey. They had lived a life outside the automotive realm, even though they entered the industry at a very young age.

Considering the seismic shift in aesthetic values we’re currently experiencing, this perspective is in fact, a priceless quality. For the sheer visual overload that’s become the norm among automotive designs is unquestionably as hazardous as it is contagious. The striking appearance of a Toyota C-HR, for example, could constitute an amusing fringe product for a company that trades on excessive flamboyance. In that sense, the C-HR would make for a decent, limited production Lamborghini. But seen as a mass production family car (which it is, both on paper and in terms of performance), it’s nothing but a shocking showcase of all that is wrong about the contemporary automotive business.



So someone needs to reestablish decent aesthetic standards and make a case for 'simple' good taste. And there simply isn't anybody as capable of this as the nation that has such an inherent understanding of style as Italy. Like Finns instinctively understand about ice skating, Italians know what’s pretty. And the recent missteps of the country’s domestic car industry isn’t nearly enough to alter this fact.

Automotive design has obviously become infinitely more complex since the 1960s, but the need for an outsider’s perspective is palpable, since too much of today’s car design seems to be part of a vicious cycle of monitoring the competition, one-upmanship and timidity. ‘Customers wouldn’t accept that’ is a sentence that’s heard far too often among car designers, as is ‘we looked at the competition and decided that…’. There is too much posturing and too little regard for the real world, outside of abstract focus groups and market projections.

Bringing flair, taste and a fresh perspective to automotive design does not constitute some superfluous extra. Anno 2018, it truly is a necessity. As well as being the best chance for Pininfarina and Turin to remain relevant.

Creativity and taste have generally always been among the greatest qualities of Italy. They only need to be exploited. To the benefit of all involved.


Photos: BMW (16), Toyota (4), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles(2), Maserati (2), ItalDesign (1), Pininfarina (1), all rights reserved

Text  ©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt

car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

Comment by Kostadin Kostadinov |

This is an excellent follow up to the "Drowned Out" article. I couldn't agree more to most (all?) of the above.
There are two questions related to the theme that I would like to post if you don't mind me so.
First is the matter of good taste. To put it simply: What happened to it?
Second one is about Pininfarina, I've always wondered how do they manage maintain good taste as their firm credo? People in charge have changed, designers have changed, most of all times have changed. Yet Pininfarina remains the last bastion of elegance in the automotive realm. How is that possible? How is that cultivated, how is that maintained, do they have an Indiana Jones style old knigth to keep the holi grail of good taste ?

Reply by Christopher Butt

You are quite right - this and the 'Drowned Out' piece go hand in hand. 

Your question regarding the reasons for the disappearance of good taste warrants an essay in itself. Allow me therefore to answer in the form of brief bullet points, for the time being: Lack of vision, market research, lack of conviction, China, Bangle. In no particular order. 

The matter of Pininfarina is much more easily tackled. Unlike all the other carrozzieri, Pininfarina enjoyed excellent leadership not just for a single, but two generations. Both Battista and Sergio were excellent leaders in their own respective rights, hence the astonishing consistency. 

Moreover, both Pininfarinas managed to nurture outstanding talents. The likes of Brovarone, Fioravanti et al therefore supported Pininfarina for decades, whereas a Paolo Martin or Diego Ottina would play significant roles for shorter periods of time. Pininfarina therefore remained open to new ideas, yet kept a core of people and hence an aesthetic legacy/'DNA' up its sleeve at all times (when the times were good, that is). 

And don't forget the countless lesser known, yet still supremely gifted Pininfarina designers, such as Pierangelo Andreani, Elio Nicosia, Ian Cameron, Lowie Vermeersch or Davide Archangeli. All these people contributed to Pininfarina's progress, but also benefitted from having experienced the 'Scuola Pininfarina'. 

Of course, once Andrea Pininfarina took over from Sergio, a figurate spanner was thrown into the works. 

Comment by Roberto de Iriarte |

Christopher, would you mind sharing your opinion on the "Mercedes-Maybach Vision Ultimate Luxury Concept ...." with us your readers.


Reply by Christopher Butt


truth be told, I found the Ultimate Luxury (even its name!) too much to bear. My stance on it is therefore one of postmodern irony, for I simply fail to come to terms with the fact that this supposedly represents the pinnacle of the automobile. If that was the case, I'd need to immediately stop worrying... and love the bomb.

I may change my mind later on and dare treat the Ultimate Luxury as an actual entity, which might result in some thoughts getting written down - but for the time being, I'd urge you to read Eoin Doyle's outstanding article on the subject. Gracias.

Comment by Domagoj Markovina |

Such a great insight into the essence of automotive design - something so essential and yet fallen through the cracks in the shortsighted pursuit of the corporate margins. I can't really say I dislike Bangle though... I believe some of the cars produced were true automotive sculptures; case in point being the original z4 - pre facelift - shame there is no such production coupe - there was a (stunning) concept only. It's more the aftermath what disappoints, with seemingly the whole industry haphazardly jumping on the let's-not-be-left-behind bandwagon - with some shocking results like the Toyota you showcased.

Reply by Christopher Butt

I respect Bangle to a higher degree than I blame him for the effects his 'design revolution' brought about. 

He undoubtedly was/is a proper creative, a disruptor, who challenged the status quo, which I applaud. Yet, as with any revolution, there were quite a few unpleasant repercussions - most obviously the obnoxious X6, but also the contagious spreading of ill-executed emulations of the innovations Bangle had helped instigate. The current dominance of excessively 'expressive' forms is a monster Bangle helped create; the bastard offspring of cars like the genuinely expressive Z4 you and I both appreciate so much. 

Automotive design, like everything else, is a complex, sometimes self-contradictory matter. 

Comment by Domagoj Markovina |

I could not agree more with you - X6 is a truly grotesque creature.

Just as you say, good design requires skilful mastering of many complex forces, working in conjunction, and often against each other, but more than anything else driven by good taste. Obviously in short supply.

Comment by Lucien |

A very interesting essay, as always.

I’ve worked in architecture and now interior design for the last 20 years and both rely heavily on external consultants, whether structural engineers or lighting designers, each is an expert in their field. So I completely agree that the use of external design houses is generally a good thing.

It’s interesting to look at those car companies that consistently built on their relationships with design houses: Triumph with Michelotti, Ferrari with Pininfarina. However some companies have worked better with their own designers, most notably Jaguar, whose 1970s concepts from Italian studios looked more like Lamborghinis than Jaguars. Interestingly though, much though I admire the design of the current XJ, Bertone’s 2011(?) concept looks more “Jaguar”, than the current XJ.

I would say that car companies that have thrived on a design note, without the help of the design studios have had one strong in-house designer, most notably Land Rover with Mr McGovern at the helm, or indeed the Bangle-era BMWs. I love the radical bustle-butt 7 series, an outstanding and original design, so much at odds with the current Executive transfer vehicles now produced.

It is indeed a great pity that Fiat now relies on their own in house design studio. And potentially fatal for Maserati as well!

Reply by Christopher Butt

Good automotive design is driven by conviction. Whether this conviction stems from an Italian carrozzeria or a 'strong' chief designer is secondary. 

The one thing Chris Bangle never lacked was conviction, which is why I tend to respect the man for his creative achievements, rather than blame him for his lack of aesthetic understanding. I can accept a car that's challenging/ugly, if it brings something new any in any way worthwhile to the table.

Today, with 'overwrought' being the new 'normal', I feel we're much more in need of classical good taste than a disruptor. We need the benchmarks to be realigned. And that's a job for someone with an inherent understanding of classical elegance, like the Italians. 

In my opinion, that is.

Comment by Lucien |

Regarding the new Maybach concept. No. Please, no! A riot of chrome and pearlescent finishes, plus that “saloon” 3 box shape. No.

However, looking again at the 2009 Lagonda concept, also 3 box, at the time decried by so many commentators, I would say the rear 3/4 has started to look truly luxurious. It stands out in a way the RR Cullinan is unlikely to.

Also, I love the use of materials, the fur trim in the rear seats makes it look perfect for arriving at your Scottish estate in the depths of winter....

Reply by Christopher Butt

Agreed. The world isn't exactly a poorer place without that Lagonda SUV on our roads, but next to the Maybach or Cullinan, it's an supremely coherent design. 

Mind you, I don't quite believe the Lagonda SUV's excellence is at the root of this change of perception, but how the overall standards of automotive aesthetics have changed during this decade. I wrote a piece elsewhere on the Bentley SUV concept that was derided to such an extent upon its unveiling that the then-chief designer got sacked. Yet today, with all those Bentaygas on our roads, it looks positively stately by comparison. 

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