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