Sergio Pininfarina's style legacy
A nondesigner who influenced the look of cars everywhere
Photo credit: PHOTO COURTESY PININFARINA
TURIN, Italy -- Sergio Pininfarina, who died last week at age 85, never pretended to be a car designer even though his surname is the personification of Italian vehicle styling.
He did almost everything else in the 50 years he ran Pininfarina S.p.A., the family business he took over from his father, Battista "Pinin" Farina. Sergio Pininfarina was an entrepreneur and engineer, as well as a politician who advocated a single Europe and worked to improve Italy's industrial competitiveness.
And, of course, he was a design director. But Sergio never took credit for designing any single car, though some associates say the 1973 Lancia Beta coupe came straight from his pencil.
He did, however, have the final word on everything that came out of the Pininfarina studio after 1966. And his influence on the evolution of car design around the world may be unmatched.
Among other achievements, the Pininfarina studio has designed almost every production Ferrari since the early 1950s.
"Ferrari would have not been Ferrari without Sergio Pininfarina," said Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and Fiat, which owns Ferrari.
An important part of Sergio Pininfarina's legacy is the respect he brought to the design profession.
"When I came into this industry over half a century ago, designers counted for nothing," he said in October 2000. "They were just makeup artists whose job was to make the engineer's work look good."
In those years, designers and coachbuilders such as Pininfarina had no influence at all on mass-produced vehicles, he said.
The young Sergio also sought to evolve the coachbuilding side of the family business. Under his guidance, it went from turning out a few handmade units for wealthy buyers to higher volume, industrial production.
His idea was to "democratize design" by making the vehicles styled and built by Pininfarina more affordable. With the 1955 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider he achieved that goal.
"This car was a cornerstone for Pininfarina," he once told Automotive News. "For the first time, all body panels were stamped -- like carmakers were doing -- and no longer handcrafted, as coachbuilders always did."
In 1955, Pininfarina built just 934 units, all handcrafted. But over the next 11 years the company would produce 27,437 units of the Giulietta Spider.
In the process, Sergio changed Pininfarina S.p.A. from a coachbuilder to an industrial company that would manufacture 198,107 Fiat 124 Spiders between 1966 and 1985; 110,128 Alfa Spiders between 1966 and 1993; and 107,633 Peugeot 406 coupes from 1996 to 2004.
Photo credit: PHOTO COURTESY FERRARI
Dealing with Enzo
Sergio always recalled with emotion the first customer his father wanted him to work with personally. In 1951, when Sergio was just 25, Battista decided his son would deal personally with Ferrari.
"I was scared to death because Enzo Ferrari was already a legend in car racing and, notoriously, he was not an easy man to deal with," Sergio said. "At the same time, I was proud: My father gave me a great chance."
Last week, Ferrari Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo said: "First with Enzo and then with me, Sergio Pininfarina designed some of the most iconic [Ferrari] models, such as the Testarossa or the Enzo, just to name two. Also, there is the work we've done together for the Maserati Quattroporte, which remains one of the most beautiful cars ever built."
Sergio was especially proud of the 1965 Dino Berlinetta Speciale, a concept car that deeply influenced the design of rear-engine Ferraris for the next four decades. The concept was special to him because it was designed without the close supervision of Battista, who was seriously ill and had embarked on a long trip abroad.
Battista liked the Dino Berlinetta Speciale, calling it his first "daughter-in-law design." A year later he formally passed the company leadership to Sergio, who had been heading the day-to-day operations for many years.
The 1987 Cadillac Allante convertible was an ambitious project undertaken by General Motors and Pininfarina that ended in disappointment.
Car bodies were constructed by Pininfarina in a greenfield factory near Turin, then air-shipped 3,300 miles to Cadillac's Hamtramck, Mich., plant for adding the powertrain and final assembly. Fifty-six Allantes at a time where delivered, using a purposely modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
But the mildly designed Allante was underpowered and was hampered by quality problems. It ended up a failure: Just 21,000 units were built in seven years; the initial plan had been to produce 6,000 a year.
The Allante was Pininfarina's second attempt to build a car for GM. In the early 1970s, the U.S. giant proposed that Sergio take over a plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., to build a convertible, but the project was never finalized.
Sergio was deeply disappointed at first, but after the 1973 oil crisis reckoned: "The Kalamazoo project could have killed Pininfarina."
Sergio was also a politician who fought for his dream of a strong united Europe long before the current European Union was formed in 1993.
Between 1979 and 1988, he was a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where he championed Italy's industrial interests.
Pininfarina thought Europe should be more united politically -- and physically. Fifteen years ago, he became chairman of a committee to promote high-speed train service between Turin and Lyon, France. Construction of the train line finally began last summer.
In September 2005, Sergio was named a life senator of the Italian republic. Just five Italians at a time share the title, which is given to individuals for outstanding achievement in social, scientific and artistic fields.
Sergio's private life was blighted by the death of his son Andrea, Pininfarina's chairman and CEO, in a motorcycle accident in August 2008. Sergio's son Paolo succeeded Andrea.
At the end of the same year, Sergio was dealt another blow, when the Pininfarina family lost control of the business that Sergio's father had established in 1930. The banks that bailed out the ailing company became its controlling shareholders.
It was an unfortunate end for a man who had dedicated 50 years to the family company.
You can reach Luca Ciferri at email@example.com.