Up close with the Pininfarina H2 Speed
Commissions from Ferrari are thinning. Here's what Pininfarina did next...
1966. An eight-year-old boy walks alongside 5,000 mourners at the funeral of Battista Pininfarina – his grandfather and the man who founded the company he now runs. It’s the moment Paolo Pininfarina grasps the importance of the dynasty he had been born into. “Of course there is some pressure, but it is, well, so natural. It’s like you are trained to the pressure.”
He’s sitting, reclined, in his office at the north-east corner of Pininfarina’s headquarters in Cambiano, Turin. He’s fiddling with his tie. “This morning, I thought we’re taking pictures with the H2 Speed, so I select this. It’s orange, red and yellow to match.” You see? This man has style etched into his DNA.
Photography: Alex TapleyAdvertisement - Page continues below
But beautiful shapes can only take you so far in a modern world obsessed with technology and branding, which is why his company is in a state of mutation. In 2010, it stopped large-scale contract manufacturing and in 2015, with a loss for the year of £14m, it was bought by Mahindra in a deal worth around £120m.
With its non-automotive Pininfarina Extra Tech department now accounting for 10 per cent of turnover, endless manufacturers in emerging markets keen to be sprinkled with Pinin’s magic design dust and a golden introduction to Mahindra’s automotive and engineering partners, there’s plenty of work out there. It’s just that the type of work is changing fast.
“There was the Lancia era, the Ferrari era and now we are in the new era,” he says bluntly. “We are in a new place, a third generation, new opportunities, a new business model. Now we have less Ferrari, but we are 100 per cent design.”
This “less Ferrari” is clearly a game-changer. These are two companies whose histories have been closely aligned since Enzo requested a meeting with Battista in Modena in ’51. The invite was rejected and countered with a request to meet in Turin. A stand-off ensued until Battista’s son, Sergio, suggested a meeting on neutral ground in Tortona. And so a relationship built on mutual respect was born.Advertisement - Page continues below
Except these days, Ferrari has its own in-house design centre that takes care of its production models – meaning the California T could be the last wholly Pininfarina-designed Ferrari built in any significant numbers.
A relationship still exists, of course, but is focused on ‘special products’ or fuoriserie, such as the bonkers 458-based Sergio and open-top F12-based F60 Superamerica, or one-offs like Eric Clapton’s 512BB-referencing SP12 EC. Ever the professional, Mr Pininfarina finds a silver lining: “In fact, we feel a bit more free, because our brand is not anymore put on the cars.”
Well, if the H2 Speed is what Pininfarina is doing with its new-found freedom, then we’re all for it. It didn’t so much catch our eye at the Geneva show in March, as hook us by the retina and reel us in. It is brutal and elegant in equal measure – a piece of design that grows in stature when you learn it’s the world’s first hydrogen-powered, track-only hypercar (based on a racecar developed by Franco-Swiss company GreenGT), so it has to grapple with all the proportional constraints that brings.
Over to Fabio Filippini, chief creative officer: “We had a totally different approach. We decided exactly what we wanted from a technical point of view and then forced our designers to draw on top of that. We discovered that the biggest problem was those side tanks. We pushed GreenGT to make them smaller by doubling the pressure, and they delivered. In fact, they correlate brilliantly with the Sigma – that car had its gas tanks in the side pods.”
Ah yes, the 1969 Sigma Grand Prix concept – the racecar with the spaghetti-junction exhausts, and the same lurid colour scheme as the H2 Speed that’s probably giving you light palpitations. Perhaps we should explain… In the wake of Lorenzo Bandini’s death in 1967, a debate was sparked in Italy about stopping F1 altogether. F
errari was quick to react, donating one of its 312/68 cars and working with Pininfarina to build a car stuffed with forward-thinking safety equipment. This included a primitive HANS device, side pods doubling as fuel tanks, an automatic fire extinguisher system, a stubby windscreen and a rear bumper to prevent locking wheels.Advertisement - Page continues below
The link to the H2 Speed goes like this: they both have side-pod fuel tanks, both are pushing technology hitherto unseen, and both have links to Switzerland (the Sigma was sponsored by Swiss car mag Revue Automobil). Oh, and both look impossibly cool when parked up in front of the glass dome that doubles as Pininfarina’s engineering centre.
Back to Filippini: “We wanted to show the tanks because it’s what says that this car is not normal. If we had to cover them with bodywork, it would look very heavy, so we came up with a solution to leave them dark and shaping the white parts of the body to make it look much lighter and more dynamic.”
Anyone worried about having two sausage-shaped H2 bombs flanking the cockpit in the event of a high-speed T-bone needn’t be. They are lined with an impermeable resin to stop any H2 escaping, then wrapped in four centimetres of layered carbon-fibre. As a result, they are five times more resistant to a shock or crush than the H2 Speed’s carbon tub, borrowed from an LMP2 racer.
On the subject of technical prowess, this isn’t a Toyota Mirai with a wing. The performance is properly, eye-wideningly senior, and, as you’ll discover in a minute, these aren’t numbers plucked from thin air. A 210kW fuel cell feeds a pair of electric motors primed to deliver 489bhp to the rear wheels through a single-ratio (1:6.3) transmission. So there’s no clutch, no differential and no need to change gear, although the twin motors permit torque-vectoring across the rear axle.Advertisement - Page continues below
Now, 489bhp might not sound like much in a world of 1,479bhp Bugatti Chirons, but at 1,420kg with bodywork it’s 575kg lighter than the Bug. Pininfarina claims a 0–62mph time of 3.4 seconds and a top speed of 186mph – that’s Ferrari 488 territory – and it should handle too, thanks to front and rear double wishbones, pushrod suspension and carbon-ceramic brakes. Refuelling? It can take on 6.1kg of hydrogen at 700 bar in just three minutes.
But here’s where it gets interesting, because Pininfarina has no intention of kicking back and consigning the H2 Speed to its vault. “We still have two to three months to clarify exactly what are the possibilities to transform it into a reality,” Filippini tells us. “Technically, and from design development, the car is 95 per cent fixed – we already have a car far more developed than the one you see here. It looks almost identical; we only did some improvements on the front splitter.”
Suspend your disbelief, because Pininfarina is serious about putting the H2 into production, albeit in an ultra-exclusive run of up to 10 cars. Filippini has even got his calculator out: “I would say normally an exclusive car like this is something around €3m (£2.3m). We know it’s possible around that price.”
Sounds like a hard sell when you consider the £1.9m Chiron will undercut it and its closest combustion-engined rival, the £1.8m Aston Martin Vulcan, is cheaper still. Paolo Pininfarina is confident he can make it stick, though: “This sector is very varied, so you may have clients that are sensitive to sustainability and the environment, too. Also, they love extreme innovation, so we believe there is a niche in this market, this super-premium, super-luxury market.”
It would be a bold-as-brass move from a company that is adapting to the new world but still knows the value of great design, whatever form that takes. I ask Filippini if it’s a comedown designing family SUVs for China, compared with a 488-successor for Ferrari: “Not really. A performance car is one of the most exciting things to do, but as a designer, working on a very economical and popular car with millions on the streets, the design has to be just as effective.
"The challenge is just as tight and extreme as doing a hypercar, it’s just a different question of constraints. For example, last year we did a concept tractor. It was a big success. Everyone was excited.” He’s not lying. He shows me pictures, and it’s by far the sexiest tractor I’ve ever seen.
Sure, the business model is changing and there are other coachbuilders and design consultancies, such as Zagato and Touring Superleggera, out there, but none offer the turnkey suite of design, engineering and manufacturing services that Pininfarina can. Paolo Pininfarina sums things up: “I remember Piero Ferrari told me one day: ‘You are so special because there are 600 Ferraris in the telephone book in Modena, but there is only one Pininfarina in the world.’”