This aristocrat of Italian car design, shaper of Bertone’s best creations and all-round innovator shows Drive-My around a new exhibition of his work. Words Massimo Delbò Photography Clickart.
THE DRIVE-MY INTERVIEW
Marcello Gandini – and all his iconic creations
Most car-lovers will have a design by Marcello Gandini among their favourites, given how many amazing vehicles he created at Bertone and beyond. Lamborghini Miura, Countach and Marzal, Lancia Stratos and the Bertone Zero that sired it, Alfa Romeo Carabo, Bertone Runabout – these are just few of his masterpieces. Now the MAUTO (Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile of Turin) has created an exhibition full of Gandini’s designs, both on paper and as real cars, to celebrate his creativity. And your Drive-My correspondent has visited it with a very special tour guide: Signor Gandini himself.
‘I ASKED HIM FOR THE MARZAL’S GLASS PANELS. HE SAID IT WAS TECHNICALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE THEM’
Walking around the MAUTO with Gandini is like walking around Florence while chatting with Leonardo da Vinci. To have the man himself explaining why particular cars have been selected for the exhibition, all the while talking about his working life and the creative force that has powered it, is close to surreal. That we also bump into Giorgetto Giugiaro and Leonardo Fioravanti, both there to celebrate the work of their friend and arch-rival, only adds to the feeling of a journey taken during a 20th Century re-run of the Italian Renaissance.
‘BY THE END OF THE 1980s, EXTERNAL DESIGN FIRMS AND THEIR SHOW CARS WERE BECOMING REDUNDANT’
The polymath da Vinci comes to mind when we think of a genius, not only for the quality of his work but for the deft manner in which he leaped from one discipline to another. The same is true of Gandini, who was born in Turin in the summer of 1938 and destined to become a car designer after he was given, at the age of five, a Meccano set. That taught him that the architecture of a car, the engineering that lies beneath, is every bit as important as what it looks like on the surface. Testament to the broad palette of talents he developed comes from no less an authority than Gian Paolo Dallara: ‘He is the only car designer I ever met who was able not only to consider technical issues, but also to solve them.’
Marcello Gandini’s portfolio includes show cars, supercars, compact hatchbacks, trucks and a helicopter, but he has also invented and patented new, lower-cost solutions for the way cars are assembled. He reinvented himself in the 1980s to do this, when the big manufacturers began to set-up their own in-house styling centres.
‘When I joined Bertone in 1965,’ Gandini relates, ‘my idea was to stay maybe six months, just long enough to learn as much as possible. I ended up working there for 14 years, a very long time for a designer, but my plan to leave after a few months gave me the courage to do things that I would otherwise never have done.
‘TODAY’S CAR INTERIORS ARE A GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT. THEY ALL LOOK LIKE BUNKERS WITH THEIR VERY HIGH BELT LINES, THEIR DRIVERS CAGED’
‘Take what was almost my first Bertone project, the Miura. A wise new guy would never create something so extreme. I thought, I’ll do my best and if Bertone doesn’t like it, it’s not a problem because in six months I’ll be gone. But don’t forget that Nuccio Bertone gave me absolute freedom from the very beginning. He was braver than me, too, because the project had his company’s name on it.’ We pause by the Lancia Stratos HF Zero. ‘This is a car I love,’ says Gandini, ‘because I was forced to use my metalworking skills to make it. I reinvented not only the positioning of the engine but also the whole suspension. It originated from the same approach as the Miura.’
Gandini reflects on how such a car represents the ideas of just one man. ‘Today we forget that in the 1970s, automobiles started to lose their appeal as extraordinary artefacts. They were becoming ever more utilitarian. Manufacturers hired hundreds of people for their new styling centres, just to replace the work of a single designer who was sometimes helped by two or three people. Very often results do not correspond with the number of people involved, and manufacturers did not consider that car designers are like artists, each supposed to have a different style. You can hire a multitude of talented people but, if they all come from the same schools with the same teachers and experiences, the result tends to be very flat.
‘If you look at the cars I designed, you’ll see that I always try to respect the original question behind every project: what is the final use of what I’m going to create? A sports car has to be aggressive and create a certain aura around the driver, proving his success. A utilitarian vehicle has to be kind, showing that is mannered and gentle and respects pedestrians. It has to fulfil the needs of the buyer, not viceversa. The processes of designing the Countach and the Renault Supercinq can’t have the same approach.’
‘MY IDEA WAS TO STAY AT BERTONE MAYBE SIX MONTHS. I ENDED UP WORKING THERE FOR 14 YEARS’
Car design today has lost that point, Gandini reckons. ‘Quite often you don’t find a link between the image of the car and its character. Even the revolutionary Tesla, to me so meaninglessly fast, has lost this concept. You can’t perceive the inner soul of this car just by looking at it. There’s no coherence between its elements. The style could be 30 years old, and there’s no link between the sensation it creates when standing still, parked, and when you drive it. ‘Today’s car interiors are a great disappointment. They all look like bunkers, with very high belt lines and no visibility at the rear. They can’t be parked without sensors or a rear camera. Drivers look like they’re caged, strapped into their seats, surrounded by huge transmission tunnels.
‘Today we are living in cars with a terrible feeling of being constricted. In the 1960s and ’70s we imagined cars of the future as glass bubbles, flying carpets. Look at the pleasure you feel in driving a Lamborghini Marzal… you feel free, yet you are not less protected than in a normal car. Today’s interiors simply add a lot of electronics to play with, something easy to incorporate and not expensive.’
With the Miura and the Countach, Gandini changed the rules of the car design game twice in five years. ‘I have always wanted to do something different,’ he says, ‘but as a professional I have to be realistic and keep the customer’s needs in mind. Lamborghini was a young company when I designed the Miura. It needed a car that everybody would like from the start. This is the reason for the rounded shape, taken from the racing cars of the 1950s and 1960s.
‘When we went to Sant’Agata to show the project, Dallara wasn’t – and I believe still isn’t – aware that Bertone was taking a huge risk, because it cost a lot of money to make. We finished making the full-sized model at 10pm on 24 December. The hardest part was to convince Bertone, who wanted to paint it in silver metallic, to have it in orange. That was something I really was ready to fight for.’
Lamborghini loved Gandini’s Miura proposal, of course, but he would have liked to go further with it. ‘The only limits in the shape of the first series of Miura were the tyres and the width. The car was narrow at about 176cm, a compact car by today’s standards, and I didn’t have the authority – or probably I lacked the courage – to ask Lamborghini to enlarge it. I played with the body but the only available tyres were Pirelli Cinturatos in a 205/70-15 size, which were not wide enough to fill the ’arches as I had hoped. The situation improved with the SV, which I made wider and which used the more modern-looking wide tyres that had arrived.
‘The Countach needed to be different. Both I and Lamborghini could afford to be more extreme, which is the reason for its edged shape. Not everybody liked it, at least at the beginning. It took years for people to take the Countach shape to their hearts, but it succeeded. Even today it’s a very beautiful car. Like the Miura, the Marzal and the Alfa Romeo Carabo, the Countach was generated from a blank sheet of paper. That’s an opportunity always dreamed of by designers, and not always available. A blank paper is a world of opportunity, the pure spirit of freedom.’
Gandini has mentioned the Carabo, also on display at MAUTO. We’re looking at it now, the mad wedge in orange and iridescent green, clearly a Gandini favourite. ‘It was the most difficult show car to build,’ he remembers. ‘It took about 10,000 working hours and we were always cracking the gold laminated glasses. But it was an amazing piece, its only fault that it created a not-so-beautiful descendant series of square-looking cars in the following years. It was the first car with a “scisssors” door, hardly a technical need but we were looking to create something different.
‘The Marzal was much easier, but I have to admit that I was saved by the technical representative of SIV [Società Italian Vetri, an Italian glass company]. With the model almost finished, I asked him for the glass panels. He said it was technically impossible to make them. It took me some time to understand the reason for this technical limitation, but at the very end, with me adjusting a few things and him being supportive, we found a solution.
‘Everything was simpler back then. Imagine asking Saint-Gobain, which bought SIV, today for a one-off series of glass to be delivered in few days, when everything is standard yet takes 12 weeks to be delivered. Everything was happening so fast; the Marzal and the Miura each took less than two months from first idea to finished model.’
From supercars to trucks, and a bold commission from Renault. ‘When I was designing the new truck that became the Magnum, the only restriction was that it had to respect transportation rules. I invented a sort of Boeing 747 concept on wheels, with a two-level cabin. The living part was in the upper level, very accessible and full of living space. Renault loved it, but there were two limitations: the first was to do with a new, taller, engine Renault wanted to use, the second concerned the total length of trucks.
‘The rules dictated a maximum length for a truck, including 2.5 metres for the cockpit. In reality all the trailer manufacturers illegally used part of that 2.5 metres as load space. My truck would have been too long for the law when attached to about half of the trailers on the market. It was impossible to change such a widely ignored rule, so we had to go back and be less innovative.’
Now we pass a mini-car with a British connection and many blind alleys in its story. ‘One of the most difficult cars ever was the Innocenti 90. I did a model as asked by the Innocenti family, but by the time it was ready they had sold the company to British Leyland. The British stopped the project for a few years, and then started to ask for modifications. I think we did 17 prototypes in total, one every 20 days, before getting approval. But, to me, the first was still the best.’
Next we stop by the Autobianchi-based Bertone Runabout, the 1969 precursor of the Fiat X1/9 and, indeed, the Stratos. ‘I was left free to be inventive with this car,’ says Gandini, relishing the memory. ‘I really liked it a lot, and I loved the pictures of me standing behind it that became popular in magazines of the period. The Runabout demonstrates perfectly the importance of colours on a show car, something that’s often neglected.’
By the end of the 1980s, Gandini could see that external design firms and their show cars were becoming redundant. That’s when he picked up his metalworker’s hat and reinvented himself. ‘It was evident that the industrial process, making thousands of cars a day, was a nonsense. It was like building a bottle and then, only then, building a ship inside it. If somebody used that production approach in a refrigerator company, he’d be fired in no time.
‘If there are fewer parts and better accessibility on the production line, whether handled by people or robots, there is a huge impact not only on the time spent making the products but also on the size of plants, which is one of the most hidden costs in the car world. Even the most humble vehicle needs about 100 square metres for every single operation to install a part, even a small one. A car manufacturer has to buy that surface, build on it, organise it, keep it safe, clean, warm and fresh.
‘I put these concepts into some design prototypes, and as the cherry on the cake I have even been able to sell them. Today I’m still designing cars, but it is more and more difficult to finalise projects and transform them into reality. My last effort concerned a small car, to be built at 100 units a day by a 100-person company using a nano-factory of 3000 square metres.’
That’s recent reality. Despite everything he has achieved, does Gandini have any unfulfilled dreams? ‘To have been the father of the Citröen DS. Not for its revolutionary shape, but for the freedom given to Flaminio Bertoni and the power and charisma he showed when defending his ideas. He did a car that looked like a child’s dream for a car of the future. It was amazing: a three-metre wheelbase when 2.3 metres was normal, frameless side windows on a four-door saloon when it was already difficult to make them watertight on a sports car, the plastic roof, the hydraulic system that managed so many functions, the big bonnet. Everything happened because of him.
‘Those were different times, of course. But I would have loved to be in his position.’
Clockwise from facing page Gandini explains to our man Delbò why his original Innocenti 90 was the best; two-wheelers and a helicopter also feature in his portfolio; where the Stratos started; where it finished; Runabout concept led to the Fiat X1/9; an extraordinary array of styling renderings never before seen together in one place. Clockwise from top right Miura was Gandini’s first big hit; styling models include black Cizeta-Moroder V16T; humbler vehicles included second-gen Renault 5; Espada evolved from glassy Marzal; Countach is one of Gandini’s best known designs; Meccano model symbolises the origin of Gandini’s urge to design cars. Left and above A young Gandini with his boss, Nuccio Bertone; Gandini today.