Like most Italian automotive engineers of his generation, Renato Sconfienza traces his roots to Turin, and to Fiat.
The automaker hired the young physicist and structural engineer in 1957 and put him to work on several projects, before he was hired away in 1961 by Industrie Pininfarina. His first big job with Pininfarina, ironically enough, was to design a Fiat platform - the 124, arguably the first postwar world car.
From that success, Sconfienza helped engineer bodies for several generations of Ferraris and Peugeots. Pininfarina transferred him eventually to Detroit, where he worked on GM's 'Dustbuster' minivans and the Cadillac Allante.
But after 36 years with Pininfarina, Sconfienza last year accepted an offer from archrival Giorgio Giugiaro. The new job: president and CEO of ItalDesign's new 51,000-square-foot design and engineering center in Irvine, Calif.
Just one week after opening, much of the center is still under construction. A huge milling machine has not yet arrived from Italy, but the first batch of computers has. Eventually, the center will employ up to 30 engineers and 50 technicians.
Sconfienza, 58, spoke with Automotive News Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin in Los Angeles about ItalDesign, and design in general.
When someone thinks of ItalDesign, he thinks styling. Is that the purpose of this studio?
We focus on engineering support - we will supply engineering development, show cars and prototype fabrication. We won't just make prototypes that drive; we will give preliminary engineering development.
Let's say you as the customer have some very bright ideas for the car, but they don't work for manufacturing or functionality. When you have to change, dramatically, an idea, you lose the philosophy of your ideas. With us, they will be receiving something realistic, a complete model.
So you don't do styling at all?
No, not really. Our value is in engineering support. When you have a concept without engineering, you have to develop everything and then you lose the message.
Creativity starts with engineering, manufacturing and supplier involvement. Other studios have creativity of ideas at the concept stage, but the creativity in production, manufacturing and engineering is not yet there. If we see something that is wrong with the design, then we will offer advice and fix it. But styling is not our mission. We do not want to be seen as competing with our customers.
How soon until you start seeing clients?
We have clients already, but not for full-scale models. For now, we want programs that are not too complex because we need to meet our own internal quality standard and make sure our quality meets the customers' needs. By mid-1998, we will be at full efficiency.
Will you be doing complete cars or just subsystems?
We prefer to start with subsystems to organize ourselves in a better way. Then we will do show cars. I think there will be a balance. I think we want to do one-third models, show cars and engineering. But we are open to do all kinds of activity. The only prerequisite has to be value. There is no reason to come all the way from Italy just to be a model shop.
How many clients can you have at once?
Four or five. Confidentiality is the top importance. It is impossible for one customer to see another client's work, even by accident. I designed the building myself to make sure of this.
Even Giugiaro will not be able to enter a studio without the customer's authorization. There are different passwords for the different engineering teams, for all the doors and computers. A manager only has information on his own client.
If a prototype is being moved from one section of the building to another, the manager for that project has to check the schedule with the other managers to make sure there will be no other clients present at that time. And when the car is being moved, it will be covered. It sounds rigid, but people talk. To say, 'We have to be confidential' is not enough.
How much autonomy will ItalDesign California have from ItalDesign? Will the engineers be from Italy, Detroit or Southern California?
IDC is independent. Only the customer may request participation from Italy.
We have some engineers from Detroit who worked for me in the past.
We also will recruit some well-educated people from the local area. And we will send people to Italy for training.
What does the Italian perspective bring?
I believe in the personality of the car. There are certain OEMs that are very closed. I do not think that is right, because they lose the 360-degree culture that is the real world. You see the result of this closed thinking in their cars ... they are anonymous. They don't absorb the different cultures.
The tendency today is to have two or three proposals and select one for production, and maybe use ideas from one or the other. But I don't like the mixture because the best car is the classic, the simplest, which is the idea of the car. When you start to mix, you lose the personality.
What do you think of cars like the Ford Taurus, where the automaker tries to create a new design for excitement's sake?
It is difficult today to clearly create a very nice, completely new car. So the OEMs try to invent something to put excitement into people. But I am not in favor of this. I take a more serious approach to the car, with the car being serious with function first, functionality second and then good-looking ... and reliability, of course.
What happens if a design someone is proposing doesn't make sense to you or isn't functional? Perhaps the interior doesn't match the exterior ...
Then we explain why. Maybe the 'age' of the interior isn't the same as that of the exterior. But we want to be careful of personal jealousy because the artist is human. We will succeed with modesty and good sense and common sense.
So what happens if a client's proposed vehicle is just plain ugly?
Then we will offer advice how to make it better. Or we might not take it at all. We have our own image to protect, you know.