It’s a brisk and sunny Italian morning in March when, after a short walk from a nearby businessman’s hotel, we find ourselves strolling among the famous concept cars set up in a kind of mini museum format at Pininfarina SpA’s Italian headquarters in Cambiano, outside of Turin. My host arrives presently. Having met up with company chairman Paolo Pininfarina at the 2019 Geneva Auto Show, where he helped launch Automobili Pininfarina’s all-electric Pininfarina Battista hypercar, we’ve followed the silver-haired executive—world weary and harried but dapper, loquacious, and charming—back to Cambiano.
Pininfarina speaks animatedly about these show cars, detailing their back stories and proudly outlining their impact on future production models. From the epochal Cisitalia to the Lancia Florida II and Ferrari P6, precursor to the BB Berlinettas, they represent a small fraction of Pininfarina’s prodigious design output, with more than 600 automobiles to its credit. But if there had been hundreds of cars to see here or none, there would still have been plenty to talk about. Because to save this company with its distinguished lineage from the dustbin of history, Paolo had some hard choices to make a few years back. He won’t say it, but he did what he had to do.
An accomplished engineer and designer with, admittedly, the right last name, Paolo assumed chairmanship of the Italian styling house and sometime car manufacturer in 2008. The grandson of company founder Battista “Pinin” Farina and son of the late, equally legendary Sergio Pininfarina, the job was in his blood. But ascension to the chairmanship was sudden and tragic, coming when the company’s top man—his older brother, Andrea—was killed at 51, struck by a car while riding his Vespa only a stone’s throw from the company’s R&D center. For Paolo, who looked after Pininfarina’s non-automotive design business for decades, it was a challenge, his grief over the loss of a sibling compounded in 2012 by the death of his father.
Meanwhile, the global economic crisis was taking no prisoners. As revenues shrank, industry practice had grown increasingly antagonistic to the idea of hiring outside design houses to handle styling chores. Worse still had been the company’s ill-timed venture into contract manufacturing. When car sales cratered and production overcapacity became Enemy No. 1, this business development exercise had little to show for itself other than heavy fixed cost. Economic pressure soon became untenable. Headed for the wall, the operation bearing the Pininfarina name was put up for sale to the highest bidder.
Stepping up in 2015 with $28 million for the prestige purchase on the cheap was India’s Anand Mahindra, owner of the $21 billion-per-year diversified operation so happening to bear his surname twice—Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. The world’s largest maker of tractors, a not insubstantial manufacturer of cars and trucks, and with telecom and resort interests, Mahindra rid the Pininfarina clan of financial concern. Simultaneously, though, the family was rid of the control it held since 1930.
Paolo Pininfarina had some hard choices to make a few years back. He won’t say it, but he did what he had to do.
However, recalling the respectful stewardship practiced by today’s thoughtful new entrants into the car business—think the concerned but hands-off way Geely has nurtured Volvo, keeping its people in place—Mahindra has kept a Pininfarina family member around the design operation in the person of Paolo. With largely Italian staff and management, he has helped direct the spending of many Mahindra millions to fund the company’s revitalization.
Meanwhile, a new spinoff that he promotes but in which the family has no direct ownership stake is Automobili Pininfarina, whose first offering is the 1,900-hp, all-wheel-drive, all-electric, $2.2 million Battista. Limited to 150 units, it is, its makers say, the first salvo in a bid to launch Automobili Pininfarina as an upscale maker of cars that don’t burn fossil fuels. Paolo sees the car as the embodiment of a dream of his grandfather, whom he calls “the front man for Italian style” but also describes as one who’d predicted radical changes in automobiledom once he was gone, telling President Eisenhower that “the future is with our children and our children’s children.”
Automobili Pininfarina, Paolo tells me so there can be no mistaking his meaning, will be a modern exemplar of grand luxury, which will reflect well on the rest of Pininfarina. “We want to establish [our design operation] as grand luxury in manufacturing,” he says. “So one-off limited editions where the brand is recognized as luxury and grand luxury, that is the heritage. [Those are] the rules of the company. That is luxury and grand luxury.”
As the museum causes us to realize, the Pininfarina SpA operation has a much broader portfolio than cars. It designs buildings; we see a model of a high-rise apartment tower in São Paulo, Brazil. It styles industrial machines and household appliances, and it has developed an association with Princess Yachts, which under the direction of former McLaren Cars boss Antony Sheriff has begun launching bold, new designs, including the R35. Pininfarina’s first design, this speedboat cum mini yacht, looks really good.
Still, there can be no doubt that Paolo misses the days when his family helped spread the word for Italian style with its automotive designs, lending a spark to makers the world over, but especially at home. And this time, it’s personal.
“If I am to say something about Italian cars in 2019, it is that they are too conservative for me,” he says. “They are losing the sense of risk, of innovation. The partnership between Italian manufacturers and brands with Italian designers and carrozzerie in the past produced outstanding design results. They built the history of the brands, like Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari, and Lancia. They built their heritage partnering with the carrozzerie.
“Now that they do not partner anymore, they design by themselves. And they stay on the market, looking around at what the others are doing, but they do not produce that rate of innovation that is expected of Italian design and Italian products.”
We’ve entered, he continues, an era of “in-house design thinking, building of big design centers, like Apple in Cupertino, in a big building, a fortress. Yet you’re meant to think of all those models inside. I don’t agree. It doesn’t work. You keep the same people around, and you don’t have contamination. You don’t have reference. You don’t have fair competition. Creativity is a consequence of contamination and looking at the same project from different points of view.”
But, he sighs, “the world has changed. So our audience, the traditional audience, have structured these internal design centers.”
Hope lies with newcomers. “Mainly Chinese, but also [Vietnamese and] technology companies like Tesla, or Karma … these companies do not have any history. So they jump in the future from other businesses to full electric, for example. It’s an opportunity for designers to establish new partnerships in [a changing] world.”
So it is. But because he did what he had to do, the Pininfarina design house carries on as a living, breathing thing while we get the Automobili Pininfarina Battista. Things could be worse.