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
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