Maserati GranTurismo headlight

Interior of the Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House

“Ave Maria, gratia plena”: the words of the Angelic Salutation, set by Schubert, echo through the ancient gloaming of Modena’s cathedral. The voice is Luciano Pavarotti’s – pleading for the intercession of the Virgin Mary among the UNESCO-protected Romanesque pillars. The year is 2008, just months after Pavarotti’s death, and hearing it in the tenor’s home town, one cannot help but be deeply moved. The reason for my stay in Modena back then was the launch of the previous-generation Maserati GranCabrio. This year, the new version was unveiled at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, timed to mark 70 years of Maserati GTs since the launch of the A6 1500 GT in 1947. 

It was not just music and aged balsamic vinegar that we had come to experience in Modena with Maserati; it was a taste of Italian culture itself, which is so integral to the marque. Although the age of globalisation is upon us, a swift glance at the world’s many car companies still reveals echoes of the countries that created the badges, from the external styling to the feel and smell of the materials inside each model: Bentleys still seek to channel a London gentlemen’s club; DS-badged Citroëns still aim to mirror the sumptuous jewel tones of a Parisian boudoir. 

Maserati, like Fiat, Abarth, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo and Lancia, has evolved a design language that is hard to separate from the fabric of Italy. Ever since the arrival in the Fifties of the sumptuous A6G/54 and the 3500 GT, with its wonderful straight-six engine and long wheelbase, its grand tourers have been the stuff of boyhood dreams. They present the archetypal fantasy of free-wheeling across Europe, a long bonnet ahead of you, sharp lines down the flanks, and a curvaceous rump behind. But what is it about Italian design of the Fifties and Sixties that put Maserati grand tourers on the map, alongside such truly iconic Italian models as the Ferrari 250 GTO? Why do these cars grow inexorably in desirability, and how do you capture the aesthetic desire of a car for generations to come? 

In German design there’s an underlying rational form; French design is too flamboyant; Italians put these together

While engineering developments consign chassis and powertrains to the history bin on a regular basis, good styling and perfect proportions are empirically eternal. It somehow comes as no surprise that three of the most famous and successful coach-building design houses of all time are Italian: Pininfarina, Zagato and Giugiaro. 

These questions come to the fore over a summertime lunch at Goodwood House with Lorenzo Ramaciotti, former boss at the legendary Italian coachbuilders Pininfarina and ex-head of design at Maserati and the Fiat Chrysler group. He expounds on the reasons why Italy, home of opera, pasta and extraordinary architecture, art and fashion, is also the godfather of 20th-century automotive design. And why, in particular, the Fifties and Sixties were so seminal in this regard. 

“The Fifties in Italy was a time of great change,” he explains. “The economic boom, the arrival of mass-produced vehicles, and the motorisation of the country – this was the backbone of the approach. The viability of the country’s coach-building capacity was strong. You could still build speciality vehicles.” 

The wheel of the McLaren 720S

The ‘mechanical versus natural’ McLaren Technology Centre

For Ramaciotti, design is strictly related to the culture of the country. “German design, for example, is closely related to Bauhaus,” he explains. “The shape is more rational than passionate. French design is too flamboyant. Italian designers put these together: they embrace the practicality of the design but never stop trying to make something with poetry in it. That’s something natural, not the result of a rational process.” 

The conversation gets me thinking about whether car design is still so influenced by the culture of a nation in its broadest form. Do today’s great automotive design stars take inspiration from the buildings that surround them, the landscape they grew up in, the films they watch, even the food they eat? I track down Klaus Busse, Ramaciotti’s successor as global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. He encapsulates a different, more global approach to the heritage behind car design, and presents something of a conundrum for Ramaciotti’s theory. Here is a 48-year-old German, educated in automotive design at Coventry University, who then spent 10 years at Mercedes before moving to America as head of design for Chrysler, and has now landed at FCA, based in Turin, signing off the designs for the new Maserati GranTurismo and GranCabrio. 

The fascinating thing is that when you ask Italian designers to explain it, in most cases, they can’t

What car design language will such a designer speak – and what cultural influences will come to bear in his work? Perhaps, in the end, this is the effect of globalisation: car companies will become eclectic houses, taking their influences from a mixture of cultures? “I would certainly define myself more as a ‘global’ designer than a German one,” agrees Busse. “I grew up in Germany and studied art and industrial design in Germany, but my transportation design education happened in the UK.” 

Busse agrees that the Bauhaus movement was a powerful influence on the German design community in general. “Historically, it came right after World War I,” he explains, “when the country was changing significantly, and the design and art community needed to reflect that change – visibly showing that the country was heading into a new direction. It was a very different artistic direction to the one being taken in other countries at the time. The Bauhaus movement tried to radically simplify things and to create something that is purified down to the essence, with the hope that by doing so they were creating something timeless. They also believed it was fundamental to combine art and craft, to reunite them, in order to create something that is not only highly functional but also aesthetically pleasing.” 

Speaking of his own designs, he adds: “That purity, which is clearly visible in some of the Bauhaus movement’s best-known architecture, did not really influence my work. However, the underlying principle of combining functionality and aesthetics most certainly has. In fact I would argue one needs that combination to be a designer, as opposed to an artist. That is particularly true for car design where, at any point of the process, we need to take into account not only the aesthetics of the project we are working on, but also how our customer will be using the car we are designing.” 

But that seems so at odds with the Italian sensibility of which Ramaciotti speaks, I argue. “The fascinating thing is that when you ask Italian designers to explain it, in most cases, they can’t,” says Busse. “They never studied Italian design or made a conscious decision to create Italian designs – it’s deeply ingrained in their culture. Most Italians spend their holidays within Italy… As a result, the Italian culture is very pure, hardly diluted with external influence, and the inspiration mostly comes from Italian heritage. Whether they realise it or not, Italians grow up surrounded by beautiful architecture, art – this is the country of Michelangelo, Da Vinci – and this becomes part of their body, their mind, and their thinking. 

“That translates into Italian automotive design as well, where the human aspect is just as important. If you look at a Maserati or an Alfa Romeo, the design is very much influenced by that sculptural heritage where the human touch is of utmost importance. Of course we use the latest technologies to assist us in the design process but we focus our time and efforts on the hand-modelling, sculpting the surfaces by hand to ensure a harmonious design, a smooth transition from side to rear of the different surfaces. If you hand-wash a Maserati, you realise that it was not designed just from one view and certainly not by a computer: as your hand moves around the panels of the car you feel only smooth transitions – no hard edges.” 

Busse cites architects like Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava as influences. “Their work elegantly combines sculpture and architecture and embraces the fact that visual stimulation can also be part of the building’s functionality. While the original purpose is functional – be it a train station, an airport or an office building – these architectural sculptures often become tourist attractions, as in the case of the Lyon train station [designed by Calatrava] or Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House.” 

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a close-up on the eye of a dragonfly, which inspired Daniel Simon’s design (right) for the Bubbleship in Hollywood sci-fi Oblivion

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My holidays would be spent working with my dad at his engineering business

At the other end of the sensual spectrum, in many ways, is British car design. Think Land Rover, Rolls-Royce or McLaren… all car marques that translate successfully around the globe, but with very clean, simple machined surfaces and defined edges, a world away from the lyrical curves of a Ferrari. Rob Melville, McLaren’s newly crowned design boss at just 39, says his approach for this venerable British sports car company boils down to “design and engineering hand-in-hand from the get-go; understanding each other’s objectives (aero, ergo, weight, manufacturing, cost etc) and pulling in the same direction, which makes for a far more cohesive and progressive end product.” 

His four new pillars for the team are: “Everything For a Reason” (can you imagine anyone at Pininfarina saying that?), “Functional Jewellery”, “Perfect Proportions” and “Always Brave”– the last a design ethos that echoes founder Bruce McLaren’s outlook. “That approach informs what our DNA is and will become going forwards,” explains Melville. “British car design is about simplicity, integration and overall visual reduction. This approach can be seen on the [new McLaren] 720S. It’s a sophisticated technical sculpture integrating aerodynamics, cooling, visibility etc, into a single beautiful whole.” 

Melville grew up in Leeds, on the outskirts, between the heavy industry and the Yorkshire Dales, and cites the divergent landscapes as his inspirations: mechanical versus natural. “My holidays would be spent working with my dad at his engineering business or walking with my grandparents in the countryside. In both scenarios I would always want to know how things worked.” 

And what of the man these designers are all in the habit of quoting, the designer whose book adorns automotive styling offices worldwide: Daniel Simon? Currently Chief Design Officer for Roborace, the world’s first autonomous race series, he is also author of Cosmic Motors, a book of wonderful images of fantasy cars that nonetheless have an aura of plausibility about them. His imaginative, glossy designs have led to conceptual work on Hollywood blockbusters like Tron: Legacy and Star Wars VIII. Closer to home, he also worked on Bugatti special editions. 

His influences are suitably cosmic and global: “If the Robocar evokes descriptions such as ‘predator-like’, then it rewards my prior inspiration: an aggressive animal ready to jump. If the Bubbleship for sci-fi thriller Oblivion makes the audience think of a dragonfly, then the influence on me of this specific insect has transpired wonderfully.” In fact, the natural world is often a source of inspiration: “I sometimes imagine the object to be designed as a soft mass that’s being forced into shape by wind or water. Influences come from the way trees and roots grow, how evolution shaped a fish or insect, how two liquids mix together.” 

His imaginative, glossy designs have led to conceptual work on Hollywood blockbusters like Tron: Legacy and Star Wars VIII

The world of car design is a kaleidoscope of materials, shapes, colours, patterns and silhouettes inspired by an infinite number of variables: cultures, architecture, nature, emotions… Cars provide arguably the richest expression of design the world has produced, for these machines must express desirability but perform a demanding function, combining power, speed and safety, all at the same time. Car designers are the aesthetic heroes of our generation, but they’re about to enter uncharted territories with the arrival of autonomous and fully electric cars, both of which will demand a different set of parameters in order to function, from fully connected interiors that no longer need a steering wheel or front-facing seats, to platforms that require batteries but no engine or transmission. 

If anyone can find the forms to express these functions, however, it’s the world’s greatest car designers of our time. 

Goodwood Revival 2017, included a celebration of Italian design and the 70th anniversary of the 1957 Nuova Fiat 500, with a circuit parade of Fiat 500s and other iconic Italian cars of the 1950s, along with Italian fashion from the era 

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Autumn 2017 issue

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