A car's elegance must be a symbol of nobility of soul. It must be the means of elevating human spirit—a conquest of heart and mind over matter
These words easily might be the dictum of a Boano, a Farina or Ghia or any of the other great Italian leaders of the wondrous but sadly sinking world of custom automobile coachbuilding. But they are not. They were delivered last October in Rome before a distinguished assembly of automotive designers by Pope Pius XII.
In the same talk, His Holiness saw in fine automobile-making a "happy fusion of mechanics and art [which] contributes to render life in our present time easier and more ennobled than at any previous time." He probably expressed better in these words than could any of the Italians—who are to car styles what Dior and Balenciaga are to dress design—the goal and the ideal of the Italian look, the fluent purity of line, the striving for effects that dazzle but do not stun. It is a look that has been prized the world over, in the past by potentates and pashas and the merely rich and in these days by the styling chiefs of the great automobile manufacturers of Detroit. These latter, in a kind of self-deprecation that suggests their domination by the engineers, sometimes refer to themselves as "fender benders," an epithet which would make any Italian designer recoil in horror.
For it is true of the Italian coachbuilder (some of whose superb creations are shown on the following pages) that he considers himself to be—and is—one of the vestigial entrepreneurs surviving from the pre-Industrial Revolution era when the hand was more graceful than the machine. He considers himself a Michelangelo in a body shop, an artist whose dream is of carriages to rival the beauty of the Parthenon and the speed of Shadowfax. If he is occasionally forced to design a car in the shape of a tube of toothpaste for an irreverent advertiser, it is only because his art is uneconomical. Even this he carries off with aplomb.
The great days of such prewar classic designers as Saoutchik, Darrin, Le Baron and Brunn are gone forever, and the call for individualized cars is dwindling, even in Italy, the last stronghold. Of the 4,527 automobile bodies built by the Italian specialists in 1955, only some 250 were custom-built as manufacturers' prototypes or to individual order. The large majority were the coachbuilders' personalized versions of production models from the big Italian automakers—Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia.
But no fair lady ever wore a Dior gown with more self-appreciative contentment than the owner of an Italian custom body—be it the simplest reworking of the tiniest mass-produced Fiat—wears the lapel pin of its designer: B for Boano or Bertone, or the distinctive insignia of Pinin Farina, Ghia, Vignale, Zagato, Viotti, Touring of Milan, Frua, Scaglietti, Abarth, Siata and a dozen others. The employees of all these coachbuilders number only 9,000 in all, and they are concentrated mainly in Turin, with a sprinkling in the North Italian cities of Milan, Modena, Udine, Brescia and Novara. In the squeeze of mass production and automation, the coachmakers are looking to the big companies for survival. "The cost of a custom-built body is prohibitive," says Umberto Viotti, who started a postwar trend and made a fortune by designing the popular Giardinetta station wagon in 1946. "If we count on selling only handmade bodies to private customers, we are doomed."
Salvation, then, lies in alliance with Detroit and with the British, French, German and Italian auto manufacturers, who are relying more and more on the Italian manufacturers for the touch of poetry that will turn the head and catch the breath of the potential buyer. Chrysler, for example, is working closely with Ghia on prototype material (unfortunately, one costly model, the Norseman, on which Ghia had spent 18 months, went down with the
). Nash has received considerable inspiration from Pinin Farina, the doyen of the coachbuilders, who makes five or six trips to Detroit each year. His go-getting son Sergio spends almost as much time in England as he does in Italy. The Farinas now have lucrative connections for the design and building of the prototypes which later will influence the production cars not only in the U.S. and Britain but in France and Germany as well.
The Italians welcome these international ties for another reason besides the obviously financial one. The stringent technical demands by the manufacturers test and improve their products. Making car bodies for individual customers, however choosy, is nothing like meeting the standards of a corporation which knows exactly what it wants to within a millimeter of measurement.
Each coachmaker has his own style, as familiar to the initiated as Ted Williams' batting stance is to the baseball fan. Farina is No. 1 in size and prestige (for three examples of his work, see page 53), with clean, classically uncluttered lines that wear well. Ghia is at times a more daring innovator but an equally careful house, with a gift for non-European tastes. Boano's designs cater to a class within a class; he is a coachmaker's coachmaker. Viotti does things with a headlight or fender that turn the ordinary into the unusual. Vignale, Scaglietti, Bertone and Abarth are more for the purely sports-minded. Scaglietti, for instance, builds most of the Ferrari racing bodies (for an example, see page 58). Vignale dressed the Ferraris which won the Mille Miglia in 1951, 1952 and 1953.
As their conceptions differ, so do their techniques. Farina, the master, has 500 employees and a production capacity of 15 bodies a day (the actual output is 12 or 13 bodies daily). His operation is divided into three parts. By far the largest is the production of his Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spyders, Lancia, Granturismos and Fiat two-door coup�s. The parts for these bodies are all machine-made in Farina's own machine shop. This is a departure from the method of most other Italian designers, who take pride in their hand operations, but Farina, the most Detroit-oriented of all the Italians, says it is absurd to do things by hand merely for the sake of doing them by hand if a machine can do them better, more economically and more quickly.