Arrivederci Carrozzeria? The state of Italy’s styling houses

05 July 2018 | by Karl Smith

It has been a decade since the financial crisis began, and the automotive industry has been forever changed. Turin’s carrozzeria have been something of a canary in the coalmine, taking those early shocks particularly badly.

In 2010 many woke up to the full extent of the crisis. In a shock that was felt all around the automotive design world, Italdesign/Giugiaro announced that it had agreed to sell itself to Volkswagen AG, ending a 40-year run as an independent design and manufacturing concern.

Soon, Pininfarina and Bertone would cease to exist as independent entities too – with Bertone as we knew it disappearing entirely, although the brand has since been revived – and the very concept of the carrozzeria would be in doubt.

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Stile Bertone building before the recent auction – relics of a lost civilization? (© Motor1)

It seemed that the traditional Italian styling houses and coachbuilders were doomed to wither away. Motoring publications carried long-winded elegies, full of misty-eyed descriptions of their past glories and all written very much as memorials to a fast-fading specialism.

But it wasn’t quite that simple. At the Geneva show in 2018, for instance, our correspondent Jon Winding-Sørensen counted 16 concept cars that could be directly tied to the Italian Carrozzerie. Could it be that Turin has emerged renewed from the crisis, to bring new energy into automobile design for the 2020s? Or is the situation more complicated than that?

In trying to unravel the puzzle we contacted Michael Robinson, the last design director at Bertone and lately of ED Design, to give us a perspective on the situation. If anyone knows, it’s Michael. And as it turned out, his thoughts were highly thought-provoking and, as anyone who knows him should expect, brutally honest and very bold.

So here’s his view, lightly edited for length and clarity, but otherwise absolutely unexpurgated. It’s not exactly a rose-tinted portrait. Hold on to your espresso...

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Michael Robinson, ex-Bertone and ED Design (photo by Lies De Mol of Waft)

CDN: Could you give us a general summary of the overall health of the carrozzerie? Do you think the carrozzerie as whole have returned to financial stability?

MR: “Far from it! We have seen recent closures in Torino, which indicate the exact opposite. ED Design, the company I founded four years ago has just closed due to oversized debts from too many unpaid projects in China. AKKA, the Italian-owned Belgium engineering giant that bought the Bertone brand, just returned it to the courts, cancelled their office lease in Torino, and hired no-one, due to lack of funds.

“The big players in Torino now all belong to OEMs. Italdesign is now wholly owned by the Volkswagen group with many German managers running the show there now, including Jorg Astalosch, the Italdesign CEO from VW as of 2015. Pininfarina is also fully owned by an OEM, Mahindra & Mahindra from India; an Indian sales director from Mahindra is apparently bringing in new projects for the design team.

“But the biggest problem with these two once-prestigious design houses is the fact that major European OEMs like Ford or BMW, or even Chinese OEMs like Geely (Volvo) or Great Wall, simply cannot outsource design or engineering projects to their direct competitors like VW (Italdesign) or Mahindra (Pininfarina).

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Bertone Pandion – Robinson’s first concept for Bertone, in better times

“Smaller design studios in Torino are still working, but with great difficulties, given the automobile crisis in China, which heavily reduces the number of valid clients among the over 100 Chinese brands. Many of the lesser Chinese brands are suffering in the marketplace, which means they are cancelling finished production car projects, designed by Italian carrozzerie, along with cancelling payments which were already overdue.

“Contracts for these projects are often signed mid-project, or even towards the end of a year-long project, meaning the design houses have little or no legal leverage to enforce proper financial project management in this foreign culture. The alternative is obviously to just refuse such unprofessional tactics, which are typical among Chinese OEMs, but then the design teams in Torino sit idle while waiting for a ‘serious’ project.

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Coachbuilders like Zagato can’t rely on old-school OEM deals anymore

“Italian car designers, after years of convenient ‘exclusive’ design rights for production car development with major OEMs, are now forced to deal with Chinese car design competitions, pitting important Italian design houses against three, four, even five other design studios, often including new Chinese design companies, with much lower prices. The end result is a three-way battle, between talented but expensive European design companies (mostly Italians), not-so-talented but much cheaper Chinese design companies, and the in-house design team, which will often fight against the first two to prove to their management that they have no need for outsiders in their design centres.

“After all the proposals have been presented for each project, top management decides who the winner will be, often giving the best design proposal (usually Italian) to the cheapest design bidder (usually Chinese), asking the in-house design director to sort out the rest. Not a pretty picture.”

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Touring Superleggera Sciadipersia – Keeping the carrozzeria flame alight (© Motor1)

CDN: What kinds of projects are the carrozzerie working on?

MR: “There are three different types of projects Italian design houses are working on.

“The first is turnkey production vehicle development, including design, engineering, and modelling/prototyping. This is the classic form of collaboration everyone expects in these design-oriented client-supplier relationships. Unfortunately, most of the OEMs in the world have decided to stop all outsourcing for car design, thanks to powerful (and expensive) in-house design organisations.

“The second is one-off mini-production of supercars for a handful of very fortunate, very wealthy clients. This form of coachbuilder activity is found at the core of the Italian design culture, much like famous Italian fashion designers who create tailor-made, one-off works of ‘fashion art’ for red carpet film stars. Zagato is one of the historic one-off experts, celebrating their centennial next year.

“‘Body rental’ is the third form of business in the car design and engineering industry. There are many big-name talent placement companies, which ‘rent’ their creative designers instead of offering them for hire. This includes designers, engineers, CAD/CAS modellers, and clay modellers. Torino also has a number of these design studios, which fill OEM design centres and engineering platforms with literally hundreds of human resources, which makes it much easier for the OEMs to add and subtract numbers without hiring and firing. Not a glamorous aspect of design, but one that pays the bills.”

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I.D.E.A. Studios/LVCHI Venere Concept – Italian Design, Chinese Funding

Is Turin Still Italian?

In our research, we heard over and over that Chinese money was supporting the whole carrozzeria ecosystem. Few people, however, were willing to go on record and give specifics, citing extensive and iron-clad non-disclosure agreements. At least one source told us that the Chinese money in Turin was significant, but that it had also quietly attracted other foreign investments.

Certainly, VinFast of Vietnam is one example, as that company is racing to be the first to create a car built in their home country. It held a competition to design several cars and invited a number of carrozzerie to participate. Italdesign’s proposals won, but now Pininfarina will push forward on the design and development of the cars.  

We asked Michael for his view of the situation:

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VinFast’s new models – proposed by Italdesign, developed by Pininfarina

CDN: We hear Chinese money is supporting the carrozzerie. Would you say this is completely true, or somewhat exaggerated?

MR: “This is true. Ever since FCA decided to stop outsourcing design projects, as most other European OEMs have done, China is really the only place left for major turnkey design & engineering projects in carrozzerie Italiane.

“Many Chinese OEMs are also hiring famous western design directors and designers, to build up their in-house design team. This trend further reduces the need for design and engineering outsourcing.

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Development sketches for the Touring Superleggera F12 Lusso

CDN: Is the process of project development different in the newer, Eastern, OEMs when compared with more traditional OEMs?

MR: “Strangely enough, unlike European OEMs, the Chinese develop new car projects using a single proposal, selected in the 2D phase, during the design competition. Their lack of car culture means fewer designers are involved downstream, during the vital 3D development phase of each project.

“Europeans usually present 5 to 10 full size models to top management, for both exteriors and interiors, in a typical sports championship elimination tournament style, until the winner is selected for production. German OEMs will do 30 to 40 proportion models in the pre-project phase, usually full-size models milled in Styrofoam and presented outside for evaluation. The Chinese OEMs only use one single physical model during development. This curious tactic is usually based on time limitations. They are always late, and run like hell to catch up, eliminating vital yet time-consuming R&D processes along the way.

“Imagine a rendering presentation in China, where each proposal is illustrated with extremely photorealistic images, on white backgrounds, with identical perspectives enforced in the briefing (non-conformist proposals are immediately excluded) so there is no chance for misinterpretation by top management.

“After sitting through hours of Powerpoint presentations given by each of the five design companies participating in the competition, the Chairman of the Chinese OEM then walks across the hall into a large presentation room, where there are 150 large exterior renderings plus 150 large interior renderings, all hanging on the wall. No outside designer is allowed into these strategic, top management meetings, which can last for hours.

“Finally, the boss says: “This one,” indicating one of the hundreds of images in front of him... and that proposal goes into production!

“Then the battles begin! Battles between in-house designers and design suppliers, between in-house engineers and engineering suppliers, which normally leads to deviations from that initial “selected” set of renderings, with literally thousands of open issues (problems) which must be resolved along the way. When the physical model is finally presented to the Chairman, he inevitably says: “this line on the model is slightly different from the selected rendering” (hanging on the wall next to the full-size clay model) and demands to change it back. That’s how the Chinese work.”

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ICONA Nucleus – Futuristic and controversial in true carrozzeria tradition

Towards A New Carrozzeria

Discussing the future is always difficult beyond the most general terms. In times of great transition, few are willing to commit to specific predictions of the future of industry or specific organizations.

Back in 2010, when asked about the sale of Italdesign to Volkswagen, Giorgetto Giugiaro had this to say about the changing tides of fortune: “Every drop becomes the sea when it flows oceanward,” he said, referencing the novel Sophie’s World. “We are the drop.”

We asked Michael about the future of the carrozzerie, his own professional future, and the future of the automobile itself. His answers, forthright in a typical Robinson way, were nonetheless fascinating…

CDN: Do you think there is a future for independent carrozzerie or will they all be absorbed into larger industrial organizations?

MR: “No, I would exclude this. The two situations described above, with Italdesign and Pininfarina, are not exactly ideal bailout strategies. They are by far the largest of all carrozzerie and therefore are closer to OEM interests, but are still prone to a disconnect between OEM needs and carrozzeria needs. All others are much smaller, which cannot attract OEM attention.”

CDN: What sort of projects represent the future of the Carrozzerie?

MR: “The only way the traditional Carrozzerie Italiane will be able to survive in the next 10 years is to remove the ‘traditional’ (renderings and clay) part of the formula. They must adapt to the digital disruption of the auto industry, designing more experience than objects. Most will refuse and die. Some will use their extraordinary creativity to invent new ways of serving a rapidly changing industry. Soon OEMs will risk losing not only giant sales percentages in an autonomous vehicle-oriented industry, but also the very brands they represent will require big overhauls in order to stay alive.

“Here there will be great need for ‘outside’ consulting, just like back in the heyday of the Carrozzerie Italiane in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Will the Italian car designers have enough tech savvy to become thought leaders in this new space?”

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ED Design Torq concept – powerful design defining the future?

CDN: We have heard that you have stepped away from ED Design and are establishing your own firm. Is there anything you would like to share with our readers?

MR: “My departure from and closure of ED Design in January was a relief from certain aspects. The formula was shot full of holes, and quite frankly, after nine years of travelling to China every month (my record is three trips in one month!), I lost interest in the endless petty squabbles with unprofessional clients. The world is changing and everyone is fighting over spilt milk. It just doesn’t make sense.

“I am presently working on a start-up in Tennessee for autonomous vehicles. Difficult VC funding has postponed our debut, and the budding AV industry is already getting crowded. The latest two road casualties in Arizona (Uber) and California (Tesla) have cast a shadow of doubt on testing unproven AV solutions on public roads. Legislation is far behind technology and will be one of the major handicaps in upcoming deployment of AVs – so things are not simple anywhere.”

CDN: Could you comment on the future on the automobile – carrozzeria and beyond?

MR: “This year at the Geneva show there were 60 supercars and 10 autonomous cars. Two months earlier, at CES, there were 70 autonomous cars and zero supercars. The Geneva show, reputed as one of the premiere car shows on the planet, felt so obsolete. Maybe I’m just a messed-up dreamer who sees more forests than trees. Mea culpa. I simply cannot remove this vision of everyone busily dancing on the Titanic, completely oblivious to the imminent disaster.

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Geneva International Motor Show 2018 – the past or the future?

“One thing is for sure: there is no turning back. The automobile industry is heading straight into the largest, most powerful transformation since its inception, which saw the horse transformed into horsepower. Now automobile steering wheels and ownership are beginning to disappear, leading to a complete culture overhaul in modern society.

“For the past 20 years, I have been telling people that it doesn’t matter if they believe me or not. AVs are here to stay, and will only get better, more diffused, and will in fact replace what we commonly refer to as ‘normal’ cars and trucks. I see my job as filling the giant gap today between tech-centric start-ups, with terrible design and zero user orientation, and product-centric OEMs which at best are laced with liability paranoia (Dieselgate-style), and at worst are too busy developing SUVs to think about AVs.

“I believe we must make AVs ‘sexy’ (attractive, emotional) like the vroom-vroom hypercars at Geneva, only offering the ‘three zeros’ bundled into each new vehicle: zero emissions, zero accidents, and zero congestion. Only then will we be able to convince American Corvette and F150 pickup drivers to give up their beloved cars and trucks for something even better.

“This is what is missing in car design industry today. With or without the carrozzerie in Torino.”

If you would like to read more from Michael Robinson, see our previous articles here and here.

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