Electric Car King: Paolo Pininfarina

S1086 Paolo Pininfarina

Paolo Pininfarina: “My grandfather was the visionary. My father was a great engineer. And I’ve been more the pure car designer.”

As head of a family business established by his grandfather in 1930 — Pininfarina SpA is, arguably, the most prestigious automotive design house in the world.

Paolo Pininfarina enjoys walking around car shows more than most. “Every year I look around the Geneva show and look for elegance. And very, very few of the companies there can pull it off, with the exception of Mercedes,” he says. “It seems to me that to sell a car these days you have to do something crazy or aggressive. So, fortunately for us, design around the world is, frankly, getting worse.”

Pininfarina chuckles at the idea — it means more work for him. He is head of a family business established by his grandfather in 1930: Pininfarina SpA is, arguably, the most prestigious automotive design house in the world. Pininfarina has, on last count, lent his touch to some 600 cars. Among these are some of the most admired designs of recent decades: the Fiat 124 Spider Europa Volumex; the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT; the BMW Gran Lusso Coupé; the Ferrari Dino 246 GTS; and the Ferrari 275 GTB/4. Indeed, Pininfarina SpA has styled almost every Ferrari since the 1980s.

“Lancia was our first big partner, which my grandfather started, then the second generation took on Ferrari, and so you keep moving forward until you’re designing globally,” says Pininfarina. The company now works with more than a dozen car brands, from well-established prestige names to new car-makers coming out of China. “My grandfather was the visionary. My father was a great engineer. And I’ve been more the pure car designer. In a family business every generation helps refine your style but also broadens your approach, because each generation is a product of their times.”

That somewhat undersells the company’s progressiveness. It recently signed a €65m deal with Hybrid Kinetic Group to develop electric cars, unveiling three of them at this spring’s Shanghai Motor Show. Towards the end of 2015, Pininfarina was acquired by Indian conglomerate Mahindra and subsequently enjoyed a stable financial footing, essential when so many of its projects can take years to come to fruition. It has designed yachts and skyscrapers, aircraft cabins and watches, pens, bathrooms and homewares. Among its most recent launches have been: a bicycle; albeit a 2017 European Design Award-winning carbon-fibre electric bicycle; a bed using materials said to help cellular regeneration; and, together with makers RES, even a door.

“But it’s a very special door,” says Pininfarina, conscious that it sounds somewhat underwhelming. “There’s been no other door like it.” And he isn’t kidding: it’s the first flexible door, using a special milling process that allows its panelled structure to bend.

“Automotive styling is still at the roots of what we do and that’s still a distinct, in-demand discipline,” says Pininfarina. “But we’ve been down a long road transitioning from one [discipline] to another. And if you can design a car well, why not a boat or a crane or a building?” Besides, he adds, there is the enduring appeal of Italian style to capitalise on and not just its international high-glamour image. “There is, I think, a distinctive Italian design style, which is a mix of the traditional and the innovative,” argues Pininfarina. “It’s classical but not so classical it looks old-fashioned. It can still be cool. But it’s actually much more rational than it’s often thought of as being. It’s not just ‘sexy’.”

It’s perhaps the legacy of having a company heritage of 80-plus years that Paolo Pininfarina hints at how maybe the whole design game was just a bit more fun back in the day. “I think we [in the design industry] glorify the past, the 1950s and 1960s,” says Pininfarina. “But we glorify it for a reason. There just wasn’t so much marketing input then. It was much more about master designers acting intuitively. Of course, marketing is important, it has to channel the desires of the consumer. But marketing should study the market, provide the brief and then leave it to the creative people to come up with the solution. Because, you know, creative people have a different sensibility.”

That thought no doubt underpins his car show walkabouts and the private pleasure he takes in all the inevitable disappointment. “I’m always happy to get back to the Pininfarina stand,” he laughs. “You know, design is just too influenced by contemporary trends these days. It’s so rare to come across something you know will just last.”

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