Museums, Not Motor Shows, Take Center Stage In 2012

Two museum exhibitions, one opening and the other just closed, that recognize a pair of leading design houses, Pininfarina and Bertone, are celebrating iconic car designs that have come from their studios. At the same time, these events underscore the uncertain future faced by the independent Italian design community at large.

Pininfarina is being commemorated in an exhibition at Museo Ferrari in Maranello, which runs through next January, while Bertone, celebrating its 100th anniversary, was the subject of a display that closed last month at the Italian National Car Museum in Turin.

These two firms, along with many others including Italdesign Giugiaro, Ghia, Zagato and Touring, were the go-to guys when manufacturers the world over needed design and engineering services to create everything from concept cars to limited production runs. But changes in the industry, including massive consolidation of brands and tough economic times, raise the question of whether these carrozzeria are relevant or not.

It wasn't always so as both the Pininfarina and Bertone museum displays testify.

Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.

The Pininfarina exhibit at the Ferrari museum, titled "The Great Ferraris of Sergio Pininfarina," perfectly illustrates the scope of these activities with 22 cars grouped in three categories: racing, production GTs and concepts. The largest category is the production GTs, which includes the first 250 GT Coupe from 1958, the 1967 Dino 206S, the 1984 Testarossa and limited edition models like the 2000 550 Barchetta and 2010 SA Aperta (below), the last car that involved direct input from Sergio Pininfarina, who passed away earlier this year.

In the concept car category, you have such memorable show-stoppers as the 1989 Mythos, the 1970 Modulo (including a never-before seen wooden buck on which the body panels were hammered out), and the 1980 4-door Pinin study for a 4-door Ferrari. In race cars, Pininfarina also designed concepts for a new F1 car called the Sigma GT in 1969 and the P6 in 1968, as well as the Le Mans-winning 1963 250LM and the 1979 512 BB Le Mans.

Similar contributions also took center stage at the Bertone exhibit with such cars as the legendary 1966 Lamborghini Muira, the 1972 Lancia Stratos HF and the 1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo. But also, the display makes it painfully aware that Bertone hasn't had the same success it enjoyed in the 1960s – the latest efforts from the house, like the 2010 Jaguar B99 and this year's Nuccio concept, don't seem to convey the same magic. And Bertone, which built cars at its Grugliasco assembly plant, sold the facility to Fiat in 2009.

It's a far cry from the high flying days when Ghia built Chrysler Turbine cars, Bertone cranked out Fiat X1/9s and Volvo 262 Coupes, and Pininfarina had an Alitalia 747 airbridge to ship Cadillac Allante bodies back and forth across the Atlantic.

Even as Zagato and Touring continue to build show cars and one-offs using cars from other manufacturers (Zagato has worked with Aston Martin and BMW, Touring did its interpretation of a modern Disco Volante based on an Alfa 8C Competitizone, seen above), there seems to be a lack of innovative concepts coming from the firms that survive.

There seems to be a lack of innovative concepts coming from the firms that survive.

Much of it can be attributed to the changing nature of the business. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, these carrozzeria were the training ground of future design greats like Giorgetto Giugiaro, Marcello Gandini and Tom Tjaarda. As design schools evolved and manufacturers expanded their in-house capabilities to do advanced and concept work, young and upcoming designers would look to securing a job at a major manufacturer rather than moving to Turin or Milan to begin their careers.

A lack of independence also plays a role. Ford acquired Ghia back in 1970. While Ghia continued to create designs for Ford, its significance faded. Now, Ghia is a shadow of its former self, better know in some circles as a trim level on Ford products. It will be interesting to see if the same fate lies ahead for Italdesign Giugiaro, which last year was acquired by the VW Group, losing independence by becoming a de facto in-house advanced studio for the group. With that loss of independence goes the freedom to make grand design statements and instead the group is tasked with taking on assignments from the head office.

And smaller makes, like Lamborghini, Aston Martin, as well as manufacturers from emerging economies like China and India, have in the past relied on independent carrozzeria for design work. Now all have in-house design activities and only occasionally turn to specialists to do one-offs. Even though Pininfarina has had clients other than Ferrari, it was recognized that it was, in effect, Maranello's design department. Nevertheless Ferrari has expanded its in-house capabilities and is relying less and less on its longtime partner.

History may be repeating itself. Just as manufacturers moved during the mid-point of the 20th century to unit-body construction and independent coachbuilders faded away, the increasing reliance on in-house design activities may render the concept of the carrozzeria obsolete.

Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Ferrari's latest models show the relevance of these design houses. I would hope that Pinifarina himself would have vetoed their latest front ends. Anyway, this is a bit sad. The truth is that car aesthetics now really amount to a set of flourishes upon a tight set of engineering constraints. In the old days, all sorts of bodies could be tossed on a frame. Now, there are safety considerations, tremendous aerodynamic considerations, pedestrian impact heights, etc. I think the more engineered the total vehicle is, the more difficult it is for a third party to be involved.
      • 2 Years Ago
      The "relevancy" of these carrozzeria depends on how you wish to look at the concept of automobile in general. If you believe that the automobile can be art, then, YES, coachbuilders/designers such as these are highly important. If you believe in the autombile as nothing more than a means to go from point A to point B, then you probably don't need one and think that any Toyota Corolla looks just as good as the next car. I like Bertone and Pininfarina...but I gotta admit, as I get older a good car to me has more to do with its utilitarian function than its beautiful contours. I'd like to have both of those qualities in my cars but it seems like that function and beauty in the automotive world are two things that rarely go hand in hand.
      • 2 Years Ago
      It was all downhill for the Italian styling houses after the '80s. Frankly, it's a wonder they remained profitable that long - Pininfarina and Bertone wisely branched into contract car manufacture for various European firms (primarily Fiat), and Giugiaro had lucrative relationships with VW and Toyota, but once those went away, it was just a matter of time. It's a shame - those three firms produced many of the most beautiful and iconic shapes of the last 60 years. In particular, Leonardo Fioravanti (Pininfarina) and Marcello Gandini (Bertone) are almost inarguably two of the greatest automotive designers of this or any other time.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Do we still hire architects to produce stand-alone, non-bland housing? Do we still hire a landscaping design service to make the yard look like a million bucks? Do clothing manufacturers still hire fashion designers to differeniate their clothing lines from the Walmart rack? If you answered yes to any of the above, now you know why we still need artisan engineers to design beautiful and timeless cars. There will always be a need for the coachbuilders to explore non-corporate design.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Actually the major carrozzeria are really "houses of industrial design"......or industrial design firms........PF has other services such as transportation design, wind tunnel, architecture and interior design, skiing product design, etc, etc......Zagato, Bertone, etc have similar units.............Part of their financial woes is the overall world economy..................Not sure what prompted the question regarding PF, but who designs Ferrari's (or any other car body), well, that's what design competition is all about.............
      • 2 Years Ago
      I think carmakers will still rely on external firms to develop showcars or other kinds of concepts to showcase the future of their brands because most of the inhouse design teams are busy enough with the "normal" car design development. So external companies are a welcome relief with professional expertise and experience to build whole functional models.
      • 2 Years Ago
      If it was not for pininfarina Ferrari would not be where it is today. They were Ferrari.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Yo can't put the Aston Zagato here... it uses the Zagato name, but it is designed on England by Aston Martin design team... what is a shame.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Between the windtunnel and CAD, automotive design has become largely an exercise for a junior engineer. Create a platform design language. Fit the design language to the size of the car in CAD, tweak until computer model says its efficient with all the proper crumple zones and pedestrian impact height. Throw it into the windtunnel.
        design eye
        • 2 Years Ago
        Are you under 18, or have you been playing video games all your adult life?
      • 2 Years Ago
      It's ridiculous but actually pretty funny to see all these people (including the guy who wrote this arcticle) acting like they know anything about car design and what is going on in these companies. lol
      • 2 Years Ago
      Are the best days behind the Italian carrozzeria? Yes, and that's been true for several decades. All coachbuilding has been in slowly dying ever since unibody construction became the norm. It used to be that a new body was put on the chassis. Now what we have are just really extensive custom jobs with (essentially) a set of limited production bolt-ons. Do some go beyond that? Of course, but those that do have become the exception, not the rule. You simply cannot get that complete transformation one associates with coachbuilding anymore. In house design is a factor, but I would say the bigger shifts have been cultural and technological. The elite no longer buy a chassis and go to Pininfarina for a custom body. That's not even really an option anymore because of the shift to unibody and modern safety standards. What we have now are really just styling consultants and customizers that retain the names from their carrozzeria roots. These styling houses are little more than West Coast Customs with better designers, a century long pedigree and closer ties to manufacturers (also, less emphasis on sound systems and paint). Again, there are exceptions to everything I said, but those exceptions used to be the rule. That flip is why what's left of the coachbuilding industry has become the walking dead.
      • 2 Years Ago
      You're certainly far more experienced in the industry than I ever aspire to be. Nonetheless, I reject your premise. Certainly the carrozzeria are in big glass offices today. But these firms started in dingy garages shaping tin. Panel beaters, if you will. It's not size of the firm that matters; it's the design. I work in computer graphics today, yet I maintain a sharp pencil can still draw a fine line as well as a $30K CAD station. Looking at some of the oddly-lumpy stuff coming off assembly lines today, some would argue a flowing hand does it better. Surely the names will be changing. But as long as there are still Italian hot rods, there will still be finely crafted bodies shaped on top of them.
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