Connoisseurs of car style are mourning the Italian design master, writes The Wheel Deal
So there I was, about five or six if my memory serves me correctly, walking down Main Road Sea Point with my mother. I can’t recall what we were doing but being a naughty little shit, I do remember testing her patience for some perverse reason. And then all of a sudden, I shut up, stood still and pointed. Pointed at this magnificent bright red wedge on wheels.
It had appeared in front of the ice-cream shop and was now warbling past us like some ravenous road shark. Of course I had seen exotic sports cars before but nothing quite like this radical Ferrari Testarossa. A monument to everything that was awesome about the ’80s, it made me twitch like eating too many of those red Fizz Bombs. I didn’t know it then but the reason this wonderfully baroque creation grabbed my attention was because it had been designed by a chap named Sergio Pininfarina.
The so-called Godfather of automotive design who recently followed Carroll Shelby and Ferdinand Porsche to the other side, Pininfarina was to the car world what Coco Chanel was to fashion. Born in 1926, the Turin native had a natural eye for elegance that would see him create some of the most celebrated shapes our roads have ever seen.
After graduating in mechanical engineering at 24, he joined his father who ran a family design firm then called Carrozzeria Pinin Farina. I know it sounds like some dodgy shipping company with ties to the Mafia but in reality this close-knit family business specialised in shaping sheet metal for manufacturers like Lancia and Alfa Romeo.
In those difficult post-war days it was a relatively niche operation, with few staff members and limited production capability. But their passion attracted the interest of il Commendatore — Enzo Ferrari. A meeting was duly held and by 1952 this small band of craftsmen were working for Maranello’s famous marque.
And this is where Sergio Pininfarina — now promoted to account executive — quickly made a name for himself. “I was scared to death because Enzo Ferrari was already a legend in car racing and notorious for being difficult to deal with,” he recalled in a 2006 interview. His first collaborations with the prancing horse went down in the annals of design history.
Built in ridiculously limited numbers and now worth more than a small planet, creations like the 375 America and 250 GT Europa set the world alight. Rejecting the “land yacht” design epoch then sweeping the US, Pininfarina ensured these debutantes stood out with swooping aerodynamic bodies shapelier than that of Sophia Loren.
It was a shrewd move: the forging of an automotive signature that would continue titillating the moneyed jetset well into the next decade. Oh yeah, baby, fast-forward to the swinging ’60s and you just weren’t hip if you didn’t have a Dino 246 GTS or 365 California gleaming outside your St Tropez gaf.
Thrusting Ferrari to the front of the sports car pack turned the Pininfarina brand into the next big thing. Once a mere blip on the automotive radar that produced just 1000 cars a year, the design and marketing savvy of Sergio Pininfarina saw the firm’s annual production peak at 55000.
This was la dolce vita at its most tangible; a steely form of Italian expression that got customers more giddy than a large shot of grappa. It wasn’t long before other motor manufacturers also sought the Godfather’s talents to boost the image of their products.
Pretty soon you no longer needed a Hollywood contract to garage yourself a stylish set of wheels to help you score on Saturday night. Dripping with Turinese sex appeal, affordable dream cars like the Fiat 124 Spider suddenly spruced up the image of wannabe playboys living on a beer budget. The fact that it didn’t have a V12 engine beneath its bonnet was inconsequential — this little roadster came infused with the same minimalist beauty that had turned Ferrari into the poster marque of a generation.
If the Spider wasn’t your thing, you could also find the Pininfarina logo tacked on other everyday heroes like the Lancia Montecarlo and Alfa Romeo 164. Even French manufacturer Peugeot hopped on the bandwagon with the lovely 406 Coupe — a swish two-door that still turns heads today.
With so many noteworthy designs behind his name, Pininfarina could have taken it easy during his twilight years. But instead, at the age of 76, the tailor of Turin clothed what must surely be one of his most celebrated works.
Giving a nod to those limited-run specials that pushed him into the limelight during the early 1960s, the 2002 Ferrari Enzo was to be the last car that the Godfather was personally involved in. There are many who believe that the Enzo, limited to just 399 examples and sporting a carbon fibre body, is the greatest Ferrari of all time. Personally, as a child of the 1980s, I’d still have to go for the Testarossa — or the 288 GTO.
Why? Well, because these are vehicles seemingly unaffected by the passing of time. Thanks to Pininfarina’s visual mastery, their shapes are as enticing now, in this era of iPhones and social networking, as they were back in days of the Sony Discman. Not entirely surprising when you analyse one of the designer’s more poignant quotes: “Good design equals longevity, and the better the design, the longer its life. A beautiful car — like a beautiful woman — is always beautiful.”