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.
December 24, 1956
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 Andrea Doria). 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 coupés. 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.
In Research and Experimentation the Farina plant lavishes extraordinary care on original designs for prototypes, individual customers or for the master himself when he orders a car for one of the big shows (see his Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, on page 53, as they appeared at the Paris show).
In his third division, Farina mass-produces fenders, hoods, doors, roofs, motorcycle chassis, refrigerator doors, motor scooter parts, and the like. "The future of Italian bodymakers," he says, "rests with the impetus provided by the United States. Its methods and turnover make it difficult for us to keep up, yet we must adapt if we are to survive."
Ghia, whose remarkable Mercedes for King Saud of Arabia is shown on page 53, is a more deliberate designer. The entire work is done by the gifted hands of 250 employees, and each body may take from six to 18 months to complete. The first step of an original design is a sketch, in ink or colored crayon, on a piece of nine-by-12 paper. Then comes a scale model in balsa or clay, from which emerges a detailed drawing with precise proportions. This is followed by a full-sized mock-up (mascherone), built of wood, which is fitted directly onto the chassis. From the mascherone work begins on a metal framework which is gradually welded and soldered into place, replacing the mock-up. Finally, there is the exhaustive detail work with screw driver, hammer, file, scissors and tweezers until the upholstering and instrumentation have been completed.
About half of Ghia's output is based on ideas which the house creates and sells to clients. The rest is produced to specifications set down by clients, who may be individuals or firms.
Boano of Turin is a father-and-son team (Felice Mario Boano and son Giampaolo). The Boanos once owned Ghia but sold it in 1954 to set up shop on their own. Six secret prototypes are currently in preparation for Italian and European companies. Meanwhile Boano produces regularly three Fiat 1900 Granluce and two Alfa Romeo Primavera bodies daily and two Ferrari 250 Granturismo bodies weekly. Of the perhaps 20 individual orders each year, most are for foreigners, and the average cost is $8,000 per body.
"We believe," says young Boano, "that there will be a gradual evolution of fashions in car bodies. The European public does not want an esoteric line, but real, definite comfort. We must learn from U.S. cars and start giving the public such things as electric window-raising and seat adjustment and air conditioning, all in addition to the Italian line which is already famous."
Alfredo Vignale's 80-man operation works without full-scale wooden models, a conceit which made him, at the outset in 1946, the laughingstock of the industry. The laughter ceased when his first Fiat Toppolino proved a big hit. "We save $960 on each production," says his brother and partner, Guiseppe. "Thus we sell for the lowest prices in all the industry. We have never gone above $4,800 for any car body."
Whatever the different methods, the artistry of the Italian coachbuilders is convincing. Unfortunately, their future is clouded. They are conscious of their artistic responsibility, but aware of the economic realities too. Come turbines, atomic engines or solar motivation, they plan to stay in the game. "We are going wherever the motors take us," said one coachbuilder recently, "and we are going as elegantly as we can."
HIGH FASHION ON WHEELS
Ferrari 410 Superamerica (top) is the latest of Pinin Farina's creations for the swift (160 mph) touring cars from Maranello. Considered the most beautiful car at the recent Paris show, the 410 boasts a pillarless windshield, novel bumpers.
Alfa Romeo Super-flow II (left), by Farina, is distinctive for its dart-shaped look and its Plexiglas top. The body covers an experimental chassis that utilizes a 3.5-liter, six-cylinder engine. The Plexiglas is blued to filter sunlight, RAMBLER Palm Beach (middle right) demonstrates Farina's technique with a car of one-unit construction. Based on the unitary American Rambler Six, it is built by Farina from the body sills up.
Mercedes 300c, redesigned with sportier lines than the standard Stuttgart model but still retaining its traditional grille, is a royal equipage produced by Ghia for King Saud of Arabia. A four-door convertible, it has a telephone, refrigerator, side platforms for bodyguards, costly ornamentation. Price: for body, $20,000; for chassis, $10,000. For more cars, turn the page.
Fiat V-8, shown here against Milan's Stadio de San Siro, is an example of high-speed touring design by Zagato, specialist in sports coachwork. The bodyline is molded into a cleanly functional sheath, with the emphasis on performance rather than elaborate ornamentation. The two-liter engine develops 120 hp at 6,500 rpm and delivers a top speed near 120 mph. Price: about $6,000.
Abarth Spyder, with distinctively creased fenders and head fairing, demonstrates Boano's handling of a small-engined competition chassis. Built for U.S. trade, it can be fitted with either 1,100-cc. or 1,270-cc. engine. Price: $4,160 to $4,460.
Aston Martin DB2-4, suavely clothed by Touring of Milan, has an elegance unapproached by the standard English bodywork. Shown in the Bois de Boulogne, it was a hit of the Paris and London shows. Top speed above 120 mph is produced by a six-cylinder, three-liter engine.
Abarth Roadster, with a vulnerable-looking rear end, displays the Bertone flair for knife-edge fenders. Its tiny 47-hp, four-cylinder, 747-cc. Fiat engine is derived from the world-record Abarth car which averaged 87 mph for 72 hours at the Monza racecourse. Price: $4,000.
Ford-Siata mating, a sporty two-seater, shown on the bank of the Po River in Turin, is a one-of-a-kind effort which cost its American owner $2,500 for the coachwork alone. Siata produced the body and chassis; the engine is a standard U.S. Ford V-8.
Dual-Ghia Firebomb, conceived by the Dual Motors Corporation of Detroit, has a 260-hp Dodge V-8 engine, modified Dodge chassis and coachwork by Ghia. A $7,650 four-passenger sporting vehicle with a guaranteed top speed of 124 mph, the Firebomb accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds. Brakes, steering and windows are all power-operated. At the wheel is Luigi Segre, Ghia president.
Fiat V-8 with Siata chassis and coachwork is another interpretation of the Zagato Fiat shown elsewhere. Built along classic gran turismo lines, it costs $4,800 and may be had in a convertible variation as well. Turin's Capuchin Monastery towers in the background.
Lancia Aurelia experimental model by Vignale is a swift-looking, big-windowed two-seater powered by a 2.5-liter, six-cylinder motor. Famed for its dispatch in a slow-moving industry, Vignale once turned out Ferrari racing bodies on emergency orders in 10 days.
Maserati gran turismo with coachwork by Frua is a potent $8,000 beauty based on the rugged Maserati two-liter, six-cylinder sports engine and racing-tested tubular chassis. The engine delivers 120 hp at 6,500 rpm, making possible a maximum speed of 120 mph.