Journal: Pininfarina Celebrates 85 Years by Returning to Its Tailor-made Roots

Pininfarina Celebrates 85 Years by Returning to Its Tailor-made Roots

By Jennifer Clark
March 17, 2015

Story by Jennifer Clark

Paolo Pininfarina has a task most people would envy: sifting through his family’s famous back catalogue, an 85-year archive of mostly perfect designs for Lancia, Nash, Cadillac, Alfa Romeo (and almost every Ferrari built since the 1950s!) to pick 50 automobiles to put on display in Turin this summer for the company’s anniversary bash. I spoke to him on the floor of the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, the perfect venue to learn how the company is planning to stay modern.

When Paolo says that the 85th anniversary is a milestone, the sense of relief is palpable: the company his grandfather, Battista “Pinin” Farina (later Battista Pininfarina) founded in 1930 has been struggling with on-and-off losses since 2007. And Paolo was forced to step into his brother Andrea’s shoes in 2008 when Andrea’s Vespa scooter was hit by a car, killing him instantly. Their father Sergio, himself an acclaimed designer, died in 2012.

“The 85th anniversary is a chance to stop for a moment, do a freeze-frame on your history, and look back and see how the history was built,” Paolo told me on the Pininfarina stand at the Geneva Motor Show.

The custom-made black and yellow Ferrari Sergio roadster was surrounded by photographers and press, clearly hogging the limelight at the stand. Unveiled in 2013 as a concept, Pininfarina will build six of them for well-heeled clients. But Paolo, a compactly-built man in a well-cut gray suit, was more interested in walking me through a timeline of black and white photos stretching across the side of the hospitality area.

First of all, he wants to point something out.

“Ferrari is more important than Alfa Romeo to the history of Pininfarina because the partnership with Ferrari is very long and continues today,” he said. “But it was Lancia that was the premium partner of my grandfather, right up to the 1960s.”

Don’t be surprised, then, to see more than a few Lancias among the 50 cars that will parade from the company’s headquarters in Cambiano outside Turin to the Piazza San Carlo in the Turin city center on June 13. Paolo’s son John will be driving a Nash-Healey. You can also expect to see the Cisitalia and the Fiat 124 Spider—a name that Fiat is reviving next year for its first sports car since the Barchetta in 1994.

Pininfarina’s design aesthetic has roots in aviation, where Battista Farina worked before World War I. He was one of the first handful of car designers to apply aerodynamic techniques to automobiles (take a look at the 1937 Lancia Aprilia). After World War II, the 1947 Lancia Bilux and the 1948 Cisitalia took these principles a step further. Pininfarina built the first wind tunnel in Italy and was one of the first carmakers in the world to use it.

What thread connects these cars? If Paolo had to sum up the house’s design DNA in a phrase or two, it would be “the tradition of innovation. Innovation is a mental process.”

“For our 80th anniversary we did a reprise of the Duetto,” he said as he gestured to a photo of a car coming off the line. “It was the synthesis of an industrial history of collaboration with Alfa Romeo. This time we said, ‘let’s go back to our history of fuori serie,’ of custom-made car designs.’”

That makes sense. Pininfarina and Italy’s other body makers got their start in the early days of the automotive age by spearheading the fabulous custom-built carrozzeria that clothed the car’s naked machinery. The first mass production car designed by Pininfarina was the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider in 1955.

Both Paolo Pininfarina, the company chairman, and his CEO, Silvio Pietro Angori, are confident that the company’s finances have stabilized. The company exited car production in 2011 and now focuses solely on design, cutting staff from 5,000 to 500. Turnover has tumbled from 670 million euros in 2007 to 79 million in 2013, but the company is profitable on an operating level.

The Pininfarina family aims to stay involved at the company, said Paolo.

“The family has an important role to play, through the years it has been evolving. In the past, my grandfather was the company. The family has to be present,” he said, pointing to Piero Ferrari’s role at Fiat-owned Ferrari SpA. “Piero Ferrari represents the history,” he said.

Before I leave, I can’t resist asking. He looks a bit like his grandfather…what was he like? 
He acknowledged that his grandfather could be difficult. And then he couldn’t resist telling an anecdote:

“One Sunday he came to visit us when we were in the South of France, at the seaside. He was in a small aircraft, and after he landed he came to the port where the family was gathered in two boats: my father’s and my uncle’s. He spent a couple of hours on each one. And then, when he left, we all had to accompany him to the landing strip and watch him fly away into the sky. It was like a movie. He was a set designer.”

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CHRIS DAGNOLO(@cdagnolo)
6 years ago

Marko, You are right, that Peugeot is beautiful. Great lines!

Marko Stojanovski
Marko Stojanovski(@marko100janovski)
6 years ago

Your stories and interviews are allways a pleasure to read because I’m a true petrolhead with a classic taste in cars. Great story as allways, keep up the good work! P.S. I own a piece of the Pininfarina legacy, the Peugeot 406 coupe designed by Lorenzo Ramciotti who created masterpieces like the Ferrari 456 and 550 maranello!

Edward Levin
Edward Levin(@edl)
6 years ago

Paolo’s right, of course. Pinin Farina / Pininfarina had a very long and productive relationship; Lancia was especially important to the firm pre-WWII, and they produced some brilliant Lancias after the war. Beyoind the Aurelias, the Florida II Coupé (black car above) was an extremely influential design.

Dennis White
Dennis White(@alfa66)
6 years ago

In 2004, seeing a picture of the then-new Maserati Quattroporte at Villa d’Este, Lake Como, I thought absolute design perfection. While I believe a young Pininfarina designer, whose name escapes me, lead the design team, Sergio Pininfarina also supervised and greatly contributed, as he did with many previous Ferrari models. I think one has an even greater appreciation for the purity of the original design (prior to mucking up the front grill and fascia) when comparing to the current, in my opinion, over-styled QP done in-house by Maserati.

6 years ago

All very well, but remember the true designers of some of Pininfarina’s success story, designers like Leonardo Fioravanti, (Daytona, 308GTB, 246, Boxer… to name but a few) and what about Tom Tjarda, the true designer of The Fiat 124 Spider. These guys rarely get the credit let alone the signature on the cars bodies. Please correct me if I’m wrong but apart from the founding father Battista “Pinin” Farina I don’t think that any one from the Pininfarina family actually styled any of the cars that carry the famous badge??

Chris Dyer
Chris Dyer(@dyerhaus)
6 years ago

I wonder where the soda machines fit in this great legacy?

bob forrest
bob forrest(@bobf)
6 years ago

Thanks for the response. I llok forward to the next article.

bob forrest
bob forrest(@bobf)
6 years ago

Let me start out by stating that I love your site. Other than being a bit too centered on Alfas and Porsches I think its great. This is the second time I have written to complain. Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong perspective because my complaint is the same as before. To my mind the internet is mainly visual. No problems with the text at all but 4 pictures are all someone cared to come up with in regards to the history of Pinifarina? Is there some kind of space problem with the internet that is beyond the understanding of us common folks? This seems like a missed opportunity to put up a bunch of photos and invite you readers to vote for their favorites. This seems very much like someone didn’t think of this as important. The 85th anniversary of one of the best design houses in the world – come on guys.

Michael Banovsky
Michael Banovsky(@banovsky)
6 years ago
Reply to  bob forrest

Bob, thanks for writing in. I’ll add in a short line above that better explains this article: it was an interview conducted at the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, in advance of the company’s celebrations. We thought it’d be a good opportunity to revisit Pininfarina from a more news-y angle.

You’re correct in pointing out that the company’s back catalogue (and 85th year) deserve to be better-celebrated, and I very much agree. We’re in the planning stages for those stories, and more, that will be more in line with what you mentioned. Best, M!