The death of design?
When Sergio Pininfarina passed away a couple of weeks ago, an era of motoring passed with him. Possibly motoring itself, in some way, at least as we currently know it. Sergio, the son of Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina (the Pinin is a nickname meaning little, and Sergio would change the family name by Italian presidential decree to include it) took over the running of the family car design firm in 1961, and then set about changing our motoring lives.
You’ve driven a Pininfarina car. Been a passenger in one. Or at the very least lusted after one. The company and the man were most famous for working with Ferrari, starting with the 1955 410 Superamerica, and reaching wild peaks of beauty with the 1965 Dino 206 and the glorious Daytona. But more humble cars car benefited from the Pininfarina pencil. My personal favourites are the original 1966 Alfa Romeo Duetto spider (utterly beautiful, surprisingly rugged) and the 1997 Peugeot 406 Coupe, a diesel version of which I have an odd and abiding fetish for. Peugeots 205, 405 and 306 were Pininfarina styling gigs and others such as Chevrolet, Honda, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Fiat (of course) and even Rolls-Royce and Jaguar have benefited from Pininfarina’s work at some time or another. Just look at the photo of him, above, in his sixties heyday. Perfect suit, perfect hair, studying the line of the original Maserati Quattroporte. When Italians make things look good, be they cars, buildings or people, they do so better than any other nation.
Sergio took the firm from a simple design house to a full-on car maker, building cars under licence for Ford, Volvo and Peugeot amongst others. That 406 Coupe that still tugs my heart may have had a French engine, but its oh-so-perfect body was made in Italy.
Design guru and car nut Stephen Bayley agrees that Sergio was a truly unique designer and engineer. “There are so many great Pininfarina cars that it’s almost like trying to choose your favourite Beatles number. No-one has ever understood the artistic possibilities of a car body better than Pininfarina. If you had to pick one single thing, then it’s the early 1970s Ferrari Dino; exquisite, measured, delicate, perfect, feminine, sexy… Everything I want from a car or even people, really.
“The extraordinarily significant thing is that if you take the long history of car design there were two really important stories. One was the American tradition, which was born in Detroit and went for razzmatazz and then died out in the sixties; there have been no great American cars since about 1967. And then there was the Italian tradition, which came out of the old coachbuilding firms, literally carozzeria, in Turin and Milan. And they turned the design of car bodies into, literally, very high art. There’s no question in my mind that in pure aesthetic terms, Pininfarina’s achievements are the equal of any art of the 20th century.”
And it’s a curiously democratic type of art too. Art galleries these days may well be free-in for most of us, and the idea now is to throw open to doors to ‘the people’ but it was not always so, and it’s still the case that in a gallery, you are expected to be quiet, respectful and not drop your ice cream wrapper. Pininfarina’s best work can be seen on the road though, where you can whoop and holler with sheer delight at it. True, you may not often see an Alfa Spider or a Ferrari Daytona swing by, but even the humble Peugeot 205 has a light-fingered grace that is so lacking in cars these days.
And it’s Sergio Pininfarina’s passing that really puts the concrete plug on the era of truly beautiful cars, or at least that’s how it feels at the moment. Look around you on the road. Are there any cars that you could honestly see parked naturally next to a Renoir or Matisse? I have an affection for the often challenging work of Chris Bangle at BMW but while striking, you could hardly call his work beautiful. All modern Audis merely loom and hulk, Mercedes are over-styled to the point of parody. Mainstream cars have long since given up the beauty race and instead ornament themselves with silly gaping grilles and tiresomely large wheels in a desperate search for ‘brand identity.’ Pininfarina didn’t give brands identity. He gave them longing.
“That moment’s over” says Bayley. “For two reasons; partly because we’re five minutes to midnight for the motor car and secondly because the remaining successful car companies have learned all the lessons that Farina could teach them. They’ve all got in house designers now, so there’s something terribly elegiac about the passing of Sergio Pininfarina. It’s the death of a great artist, a great entrepreneur, but also the end of a particular historical moment.
“We’re at a moment of historical crisis, in terms of culture, art, consciousness. To an extent, the line of beauty in car design became exhausted. We’ve run out of great shapes. Pininfarina did his best work for Ferrari, indisputably. But, you know, Ferrari hasn’t produced a really beautiful car since, we could debate this, but I think certainly in my case since the early 1970s. That version of beauty, alas, is no longer relevant.
“What’s charming about the whole Pininfarina story is that, at one time, clueless manufacturers, like Austin and Morris in the British midlands, needed an idea for what their God-awful new car should look like, and they’d hire Farina to do it. And he would nip up to Longbridge or Cowley with an armful of sketches and say ‘this is how it’s done.’ And they’d all gasp and say ‘my God, this IS how it’s done’ and they’d go and do it. But that moment is now passed. We’ve got two or three colleges around the world producing great, or at least very competent designers. Even with the extraordinary talent of Sergio Pininfarina, he couldn’t outlive his historical moment.”
He couldn’t but, for a few more years, his cars will. The sixties and seventies wonders are now rightly revered classics. A few rusty (and some very well kept) eighties examples are still on the road and the ones from the nineties are still providing solid service. Sergio’s last personal design, the 2003 Maserati Quattroporte will this year be replaced by an all-new model, still a Pininfarina design, but not penned by the man himself. We nearly lost the company entirely recently, as hostile banks took themselves a slice, leaving the family only a token ownership, although it is expected to return to financial health soon enough.
Whether it does or not, the beauty of motoring is gone. Just as aviation gave way from the sci-fi designs of the sixties and seventies, and the wonder of flight to the dour aluminium tubes and Ryanair cattle markets of today, so car design seems to be heading towards a point of commonality, a point where someday, someone is going to say ‘that is what a car should look like’ and that will be that.
It’s unlikely to be the shape of a 1966 Alfa Spider, and more’s the pity.