In 2015, Indian carmaker and industrialist Anand Mahindra acquired a majority stake in the legendary Italian design house Pininfarina. Creators of hundreds of beautiful cars, including countless dozens of Alfa Romeos and Ferraris since its founding in 1930 by Battista “Pinin” Farina, the firm is now headed by his grandson, Paolo. Last year, the company lent the elder Pininfarina’s first name and the family’s famous surname to Automobili Pininfarina, a new Mahindra venture that came to this year’s Geneva auto show with the Pininfarina Battista. According to its makers, this $2 million, 1,800-hp, all-electric, all-wheel-drive rocket ship—with its four electric motors and powertrain supplied by Rimac, the unlikely Croatian leader in high-power electric-car technology—will make it from rest to 60 mph in less than two seconds. Our New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman spoke with the new company’s CEO, Michael Perschke, following the Battista’s official launch. The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Automobile Magazine: Explain where Automobili Pininfarina fits in with Pininfarina, the design house.
Michael Perschke: We will continue to see Pininfarina SpA as a design and engineering house in its own right. It will still continue with its business model as a B2B [business-to-business] company. What motivated Pininfarina to do this? I would go one step further [and ask] what motivated Anand Mahindra after the acquisition of Pininfarina SpA to actually spin off this business and make it an independent, completely new company.
Because that’s what we are—we carry the same brand and the same name and we have the same heritage, but the difference is that this is a B2C [business-to-consumer] company. We are building a brand for future customers of Pininfarina. The Pininfarina family always had the idea but they needed a foresightful, strategic investor of his caliber to take it to that next level.
Tell us more about Mahindra.
It has a market capitalization of about $10 billion USD on the Mumbai Stock Exchange; it is the best performing Indian stock for the last 15 or 20 years. So it’s a real blue chip and it’s gone from strength to strength over the last 15 years, especially since Anand Mahindra became chairman. It’s the world’s largest tractor manufacturer. And you probably can compare our story to the JLR story [and its ownership by India’s Tata]. At the end of it, no JLR customer really cares who own the company. Mahindra is very much in the background here, but we definitely use a lot of its expertise and skills, and especially the connections of Anand Mahindra. Anand addressed World Economic Forum in Davos where he was on stage with Al Gore talking about climate change, for example. And he is a co-chairman of the California Global Climate Action summit.
Mahindra has invested in electrification for three reasons. The economic side, of course. Then it’s proving that the company’s ready for the next fleet on a global basis, and thirdly because the whole sustainability topic is very dear to him. And I think that makes it a perfect blend because we have a very foresightful investor with long-term thinking. It’s not a private equity or venture capital play; you know if you’re tied up with PE or VC kind of companies the thinking is short term. This ultra-luxury business we are in is a long-term one, yet we want to be profitable about five or five and a half years after inception. We would still be 10 years earlier than somebody like Elon Musk. So we have the confidence, we have a good investor, we have good technology partnerships with Pininfarina, with Mahindra Racing, with Rimac, and based on that we are developing a network of strengths to make sure this car [was finished] in record time. The brand was incepted on 13 of April last year. Within record time we came up with a supercar which can already drive on its own wheels. You wouldn’t be able to do that if you wouldn’t have access to exciting talents and resources.
Does Mahindra have an interest in Rimac?
No, we are partners, we are friends, and we are Rimac’s single biggest client.
How does one get your job?
I was born in Germany, in a mountain town, like Denver. (Laughs.) I led the Audi business in India, and made it number one against BMW and Mercedes. We came from a distant number three to number one position. During my three and a half years in India, I got to know Mahindra’s CEO Pawan Goenka and Anand Mahindra, the chairman. And we had a couple of ideas about what we could do together, which never materialized. I left India in 2013 and went back to Europe. But we stayed in contact and when Mahindra acquired Pininfarina I sent Anand a note and said “Congrats, great design house, if you have any plans let me know. I would love to be a part of that exciting story.” One and a half years later I got a call and somebody said, “Look, you know we bought a design house . . . Mr. Mahindra would like you to be a part of it.”
Right, that’s flattering. Your life at Pininfarina must be quite different than when you were with the Volkswagen Group.
Absolutely, though I don’t regret one single minute of my big corporate life. Here, it’s different. I sat with the team more or less just after board approval with a piece of paper, a PowerPoint presentation, an Excel spreadsheet, and a few design sketches. With four to six artisans and partisans—we put the plan together. I have probably the best job in the industry. It’s a combination of running Ferrari and Tesla in one. You can’t get better than that.
What are your goals for Pininfarina?
First and foremost being successful from a customer point of view. Fulfilling customer expectations, that people love the cars. Secondly, from my shareholder point of view, that we are going to make money in 2022, or 2023 at the latest. And that we have a portfolio of three to four killer products that not only in static but also in dynamics perform so awesomely that people start to say, “Well, they have to find a new benchmark.”
We want to be the first sustainable luxury car company, which created a new breed of vehicles for people who are beyond status, beyond 16-cylinder engines, beyond emissions. People who reach a point of what I call self-actualization: “I don’t need that anymore. But if I buy myself a luxury car, a hypercar, I buy Pininfarina because its luxury without guilt.”
So you’ll never make an ICE car?
No. We’ll never do a single ICE car. Will we have maybe one day, fuel cells? Maybe. Will we have different forms of zero emissions? Maybe. But definitely we want to go beyond the internal-combustion race. There are many reasons for that and Mahindra wouldn’t have invested into Mahindra Racing and the Formula E team if he would not believe that that’s the future.
What is your product portfolio going to look like? What comes next?
We call Battista our Bugatti Chiron fighter. So people who are today considering something like a Chiron or a Pagani or a Koenigsegg, this is going to be their first choice because nothing else is available which combines beauty, performance, and electricity. Then the intent is to have a Lamborghini Urus fighter. The single largest market for sure will be the U.S.; we saw that clearly in Pebble Beach, where the response was amazing. Our intent is to sell around about 50 Battistas in North America, including Canada. Our orders are now 60, 65 percent already for the North American allocation and that was even [before a running prototype was shown.] We’ll tour a running, but not final, prototype in the spring. I think by the time it reaches Pebble Beach this summer, we will surely have sold out for the North American market. There’s only going to be 150 made total, giving the car these three key ingredients: beauty, purity, and rarity.
I posted a picture and people were excited about it, but many said, “Kinda looks like a Ferrari to me.” Pininfarina has a glorious tradition of revisiting its own designs, but how do you respond to that?
Yeah, well, I think I would maybe, without sounding cocky, like to rephrase that statement. Pininfarina has designed 64 Ferraris; Pininfarina for a long time was a company who delivered the shovels for Ferrari to dig for gold. I think now we’re ready to dig our own gold, design our own cars, and sell it with our own brand. And I think that it will look Italian, but I think you will see a lot of things in the details that Ferrari would never do, which is the new interpretation of past and present. In the future I think Pininfarina-branded automobiles and Pininfarina-created products will be very different interpretations of classic Italian design. It will compare to Fendi and Prada Italian fashion design houses; they share things in common, and yet they are different.