Marcello Gandini - Automotive Designer

October 15, 2009
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Teenage boys in the 1970s tended to have two dramatic posters on their bedroom walls: Farrah Fawcett and the Lamborghini Countach. Both objects of desire are essentially unattainable now, but their indelible impressions will linger forever in tens of thousands of minds. Fawcett's parents can never create another woman like Farrah, but Marcello Gandini, the man who shaped the Countach - and half a hundred other fabulous car shapes - is still hard at work, so there's every possibility that one day there may be another iconic car poster from his hand.
With Giorgietto Giugiaro and Leonardo Fioravanti, Gandini is one of three highly respected, 1938 model-year Italian master designers, all of them still working at seventy-one years old. Of the three, Gandini is the most self-effacing, modest, and quiet. He doesn't attend motor shows and has no use for public relations but is neither particularly shy nor a recluse. I have known Gandini slightly for decades but knew very little about his background or how he came to design so many cars I admired. When I first met him, he did tell me a charming little story about his first-ever car design. A friend had crashed his OSCA racer and, rather than put it back as it was, asked Gandini - who draws beautifully - to create a new road-car body shape.
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Never having done anything like it before, but having been told that the man who would construct the wooden body buck, Giovanni Raniero, required a full-size drawing, young Gandini taped together many pieces of paper from a big drawing pad and laboriously drew the lines he wanted. When he hung that improvised collage on the studio wall, the famed modeler stood silently staring at it for ten minutes while Gandini trembled, then announced in a loud, disapproving voice, "I understand nothing!" Not too surprising, as Gandini, then ignorant of car-design conventions, had drawn the right side of the car, not the left as everyone else in the industry has done since time immemorial.
Once that was straightened out, his automotive-design career began a rising curve that's lasted more than forty years. He's best known for his work with Nuccio Bertone, especially for Lamborghini's Miura and Countach exotics, although he has done many practical family cars as well, including the highly successful Citroën BX, the first-generation BMW 5-series, the Renault Supercinq, and, above all, my absolute favorite of all supercars produced in the last sixty years - the Lancia Stratos.
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The Stratos story began with an over-the-top 1970 Turin show car, the Stratos Zero, a pure wedge. However improbable its appearance, it was a running car, with a Lancia Fulvia V-4 engine behind the seats. A legendary story tells of Nuccio Bertone showing up for an appointment at the Lancia factory in it. Being refused entrance, he simply drove the thigh-high car under the waist-high barrier and went to the meeting that ultimately resulted in a production contract. In a complicated Italian combinazione, a specific fiberglass-body rally car was developed that carried the Stratos name but not the Zero's shape or mechanical components.
Bertone built two preproduction aluminum-bodied Stratos examples, one using a Lancia Beta in-line four-cylinder engine, the other a Fiat/Ferrari Dino V-6. It's not widely known that Gandini did the entire design, not just the body shape, determining package, wheelbase, chassis structure . . . everything that made the Stratos such an overwhelming rally winner through the '70s. He says that it was lighter and faster with the Abarth-tuned four-cylinder than with the heavier V-6, but Cesare Fiorio, Lancia's competitions manager, insisted on the bigger engine. Perhaps that had something to do with Fiorio's subsequent job at Ferrari. Or Fiat's desire to amortize the iron-block V-6, which was put into series production for a Ferrari Formula 2 car.
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Gandini showed his car drawings to Nuccio Bertone in 1963, but Giugiaro, Carrozzeria Bertone's principal designer at the time, opposed hiring him. When Giugiaro left for Ghia in 1965, the twenty-seven-year-old Gandini was called in. He stayed with Bertone for fourteen years, seven of them as an underpaid stylist (his first design was the lovely little ASA 1000 "Ferrarina" coupe). Then he served as, first, creator of Stile Bertone in the Turin suburb of Caprie, then as general manager of that center, responsible for show cars, contracts, prototype construction, and staff. He was better rewarded then, but he says wryly that on Bertone's part, it was probably "more a question of shame than love."
In our talks, Gandini was clear that his design interests are focused on vehicle architecture, construction, assembly, and mechanisms - not appearance. "Just styling is not fun," he says, and he stopped doing pure styling years ago. Asked about other design activities, he mentioned a house in Corsica that he designed and built, then sold, as well as a nightclub interior - "happily, it burned," he says now. I had known of his lovely one-man helicopter design, the Angel, of which a few hundred units were built, but I didn't know that Gandini had been an active ultralight pilot, parachuting instructor, and delta-wing-glider enthusiast in the 1960s. "Flying is too expensive," he says now, so he doesn't do it anymore. Still, he continues to think about flying machines, and he showed us drawings for a 36-hp, one-man helicopter weighing only 156 pounds, plus a two-place development of the Angel with an innovative, purely aerodynamic, no-moving-part antitorque system that functions solely by main-rotor downwash.
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That Gandini is a master of design is beyond discussion and well-known, even if he is not. That he is also an excellent engineer is evident from some of his past projects, such as the Stratos. But he's also a member of that most respected (and most reviled) category of creators: an inventor. No, not the mad inventor of countless books, films, and comic strips, but the real thing, the da Vinci-like person who thinks things through, puts his ideas down on paper, and then sees them to fruition. Or tries to.
One of his projects that I've known about for twenty-some years was a complete rethinking of the design, engineering, tooling, manufacturing, and distribution of a small car. The study was done for Renault, which of course had no use for a project coming out of a one-man office in the Piedmontese countryside, however many good projects he'd done for them previously. To the modest maestro it made no difference. He had done his part, and if no one wanted to produce it, so be it. One could hope that Gandini might find a willing client for such an idea now in an aspiring country like China or India. But if anyone had the wit to approach him, it's quite likely that he wouldn't have the least trace of the work that he did in the '70s and would just want to do it all over again, even better this time.
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Gandini's imposing seventeenth-century home and studio well outside Turin was purchased in 1980 after an eleven-year search that turned up only things that were "too ugly or too expensive." Once a part of the Sant'Antonio di Ranverso Abbey, the house was transferred to private ownership in the nineteenth century and needed a great deal of work - three years' worth. Gandini says it was "more a question of destruction than restoration," but he respected the original architecture and hid modern structural reinforcements, "keeping the spirit" of its appearance. Set in a park of about fifteen acres, it is difficult to access and wonderfully quiet. A pool eighty-two-by-fifteen feet is clearly meant for serious swimming, but it is also beautifully decorative. Gandini and I visited it with the family dogs, four massive German shepherds.
Within the walls, a nice L-shaped studio gives a very clear impression of the man and the way he thinks about the world. There are a few models of cars he designed, and off at one end is a small rendering of the Stratos. I have seen original renderings from many of the finest Italian designers, and none of them had the artistic quality of Gandini's work. Yet he values them very little. Asked about the Angel, he had to rummage around to come up with a gorgeous but tattered and water-spotted painting and a bent-page brochure. Past work is of no interest to him, nor does he have the celebrity-photo wall that most designers do. There was a random collection of photos in a corner, but only because "my wife took the classical painting that was here to put in the living room, and I had to do something to cover the bare patch."
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Always curious about the cars that designers actually drive, I wondered what Gandini had in the garage. "A Mitsubishi Colt," he said, going on to explain that when his last Audi had covered 155,000 miles, he needed to replace it, so he went to the nearest Ford dealer and ordered a car, which never came. So, after a few months of driving rentals, he walked into a store near his daughter Marzia's apartment, asked what was ready to go that day, and left with the Colt. He has at times owned cars he designed (two Citroën BX sedans, two BMW 520s, and some Renaults), but he's totally indifferent to the kind of exotics for which he is best known.
Gandini still works with vertical drawing boards and drafting machines, not computer-drawing programs, as is the case for many experienced designers working independently. Those techniques are no longer suitable to mainstream manufacturers with huge staffs of computer jockeys, but they allow an imaginative individual to create with a minimum of equipment. When we visited Gandini last June, he was working on the details for the latch of a huge industrial machine that makes cookies, not a fabulous exotic car. But if he'd been working on the next every-boy-has-to-have-it poster car, we would never have known. Most car company design studios, and most individual design offices, are monuments to paranoia, with electronic locks, demands that you hand over your passport or identity papers before you can enter, and locked doors everywhere. Gandini doesn't need a security team to protect his work. His natural discretion, his extravagant imagination that no one can predict - and those dogs, perhaps - are all it takes.
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Lamborghini Miura SV
A time-warp drive through Lamborghini's hometown in Gandini's breakthrough mid-engine sports car.
by GEORG KACHER | photography by CHARLIE MAGEE
The Lamborghini Murciélago is famously low, cramped, and difficult to drive at the limit. But it is by no means the most radical sports car to ever wear the raging-bull logo. For that experience, you need to leap back in time to the year 1972, when the yellow Miura SV pictured above was built.
The Miura is principally the work of three dedicated gearheads. Ferruccio Lamborghini was determined to create the ultimate anti-Ferrari. Marcello Gandini, who worked for Bertone at the time, designed eye-catching clamshell front and rear ends around a compact passenger cell, garnishing his masterpiece with such trendsetting styling elements as pop-up headlights and a large louvered rear window. Giampaolo Dallara made himself immortal by engineering the complete vehicle around a transversely installed 3.9-liter V-12 engine and five-speed gearbox. Thanks to the aluminum body and the thin-gauge stamped-steel monocoque, the curb weight was 2900 pounds. On a dry piece of straight road, the SuperVeloce version - of which only 150 were built in 1971 and 1972 - could sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just over five seconds. Top speed claims varied from 175 to 185 mph, which suggests that some engines were spicier than others.
The Miura's cockpit is a minimalistic leather landscape featuring eight round instruments, a dished three-spoke steering wheel, a chrome open transmission gate, and two small bucket seats. A tinny, plastic-capped key makes the twelve cylinders fire instantly, but idle is rough, the gear lever is stubborn, the clutch indifferent, and the steering slack; meanwhile, visibility to the rear is practically nonexistent, and head- and legroom are seriously compromised.
Just before frustration sets in, the complicated mechanicals begin to warm up, and an all-embracing synchronizing process permeates the vehicle. The engine begins to respond and deliver, the steering seems to tighten its reins, the Pirelli tires develop enough grip to match the genius of the suspension, and the transmission and clutch allow themselves to be coaxed. The redline is a sky-high 8000 rpm, but the V-12 enters total ecstasy mode at about 3500 rpm, and its auditory celebration takes place only inches behind the driver's ears. The Miura isn't as taut and rigid and disciplined as today's Murciélago that wears the same SV suffix. Instead, it flexes and groans, heaves and rolls, wanders and meanders, smears and slides. This is a bull on the loose, its disc brakes liable to lock up at random on slippery turf, the fat fifteen-inch tires constantly struggling to convert 385 hp and 294 lb-ft of torque into traction. Yet somehow it remains always manageable - even when the nose runs wide during an optimistic turn-in, when the tail wags to shake off surplus torque, when the steering hardens in the course of a quick lane change.
Although it requires an adjusted driving style, the mid-engine crowd-stopper has lost none of the fascination that pushed the rivalry between Ferruccio Lamborghini and Enzo Ferrari to new heights some four decades ago. It may not be instantly accessible, particularly user-friendly, or exceptionally docile, but there's no doubt that very few sports cars can relay the experience of raw speed with more excitement, style, and drama than the Miura SV.


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