Meet the king of Italian car design
Why does Italy make prettier cars than any other nation? We ask designer Lorenzo Ramaciotti
Posted: 02 Apr 2014
Lorenzo Ramaciotti doesn't look like a car designer. At least, not a car designer as we've come to recognise car designers in recent years. No black polo neck, no set-square glasses, no postured references to a car's lines evoking, say, "the powerful calmness of a lion" (© Volvo styling boss Thomas Ingenlath, 2013). Ramaciotti, with his loose suit and Harry Potter spectacles, looks more geography teacher than Steve Jobs, and speaks with self-deprecating clarity unbefitting of the greatest car designer still putting pen to paper.
But without Lorenzo, our carscape would look far, far duller. Ramaciotti started his career at Pininfarina in 1973 and stayed with the design house for over 30 years, as its design director for the latter two decades. In that time, he was responsible for the sign-off of some of the most beautiful cars of recent years, including the Ferrari 456, 550 and Enzo, along with the Maserati Birdcage concept and - a TG favourite - the Peugeot 406 Coupe. After hanging up his pencil at Pininfarina in 2005, Ramaciotti was coaxed out of retirement to head global design for Fiat-Chrysler, where he's overseen (among others) the Maserati GT and Alfa 4C.
Almost pathologically self-effacing, Ramaciotti doesn't like to dwell on his glittering CV, or revel in career highlights ("I have been responsible for 30 production cars and 25 concept. Most of them, I think, were not bad," he shrugs with annoying modesty). He's far happier on his specialist subject: the history of Italian car design and, specifically, a small handful of designers in the Fifties and Sixties who created so many of history's most beautiful cars.
"I think Italians are more open to new experiences. We are always trying to... push the boundaries," he says, with the faintest hint of a raised eyebrow. "In the Fifties, when all the rest of Europe was doing cars that looked like the Thirties, Italian designers had already moved to a more modern shape. It was the first place where there was really a turnaround in designing cars."
History concurs. After World War II, while Britain's designers were still churning out cars with running boards, the Italian design houses were busy ushering in the modern design era with the Ferrari 166 S, Alfa's Disco Volante and dozens of others that, even today, look cutting-edge and utterly fist-biting. But, TopGear asks, is it possible to even talk about ‘Italian design'? Ferraris have always looked different from Lamborghinis, which have always looked very different from Alfas. Isn't ‘Italian design' as nebulous a concept as ‘American music'? Lorenzo doesn't believe so.
"Italian design has always been about balance and simplicity," he says. "There is a care in finding the right balance. Of course, there are different interpretations of the same school. It's like painting. Not every painter from the same school does the same paintings, as there is always a personal interpretation. You can be square and aggressive, or you can be softer and rounder.
The design of Bertone in the Countach and Miura gave birth to the outrageous design of Lamborghini today, and the design of Pininfarina to Ferrari: more classic, less flamboyant. But both are about balance of proportion. Even now, Italian design has the same approach to proportions, simplicity, balance."
Hang on. Even if it existed in the past, in this interconnected, global modern world, isn't the idea of an ‘Italian design language' a bit... outdated? "It's true that in the Fifties, the cultural identities of cars were very much related to nations," concurs Lorenzo. "Today, in the design centre in Fiat, we have 14 nationalities represented. Still, I believe a lot in... imprinting.
The philosophy of a company is woven into its environment. Today, Italian design, more than a passport, is a state of mind." An evocative notion: that the timeless elegance of, say, the Maserati GranCabrio reflects not the nationality of its designers, but rather the architecture, the landscape, even the food of Italy. Its designers may hail from Seoul to São Paulo, but where else but Italy could have cooked up the Alfa 8C or the Lambo Veneno?
Given his evangelism for Italian design, when TopGear asks Ramaciotti which current marque's design he most admires, the answer is a trifle surprising. Not the extravagant creations of Pagani, not even the screw-you angularity of Lamborghini. "I admire the brands that have established a clear identity," says Lorenzo. "Like Land Rover. And Audi." Audi? Master of the photocopy-scale-button school of design? Lorenzo nods. "They are speaking a language of continuity, with a lot of quality."
Welcome to the modern world of design, where brand and ‘family face' is all. For better or worse, there's no denying that when you're being tailgated at a distance of six inches by an Audi, you know it's an Audi. Even so, will petrolheads in 50 years really get misty-eyed over the A7 in the way we do today about the Ferrari 250 California or Jaguar E-type? Isn't it odd that, despite the billionfold increase in computing power and production techniques, designers today struggle to create cars as beautiful as those simple, elegant post-war classics?
Ramaciotti raises an eyebrow. "Recently, we have been through a time of... over-design and visual noise," he says. "There are so many cars around, and all the manufacturers are competing in the same segment. You have to scream to be noticed. I hope for a reverse in the trend, towards something more simple and more clean. That's what I'd like to do.