Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina is widely recognised as one of the defining figures of post-war Italian industrial design. More than that he is perhaps among the ten most important and influential men in the history of the motorcar globally, the first to give the car styling its own language separate from its horseless carriage origins.
Though he had little formal schooling he was a person of great insight and intelligence who, having been born in to the era of the first cars of the 1890s, had the vision to see what they might become.
Before Farina the men who drew car shapes were largely anonymous minions. Battista, for the first time, gave the job some glamour, although he denied it was art. His peers disagreed: in the New York Museum of Modern Art Farina’s ground breaking 1947 Cisitalia Coupe was the first car to go on permanent display. Farina defined the basic shape of cars after the Second World War and put Italian styling in the world spotlight where it has remained ever since. His eagerly anticipated show cars became potent symbols not only of the Italian idea of design as an antidote to the baroque excess of fifties America (although the two cultures fed off each other to some extent) but also of the wider Italian ‘economic miracle’ of the period.
While his son, Sergio (born in 1926) had the lean good looks of a Fellini leading man Battista was short, gruff and bullish, testament to the Piedmont hill farming stock he came from.
While Sergio is unlikely ever to have raised hammer in anger it is not difficult to imagine his father bashing out a wing on a tree stump.
True to that image when creating a body Pininfarina was a sculptor rather than a draughtsman. His relationship with cars was highly tactile. He'd sketch an idea on the back of an envelope then pass the idea on to a draughtsman who would then make a dimensioned drawing. From here a wooden buck would be made on which Battista would pass judgement, ordering changes as he saw fit.
It was a hugely expensive way of working but as the man himself said “I cannot express myself in a sketch. You''ll have to trust me.”
Final judgement on a completed car would only be passed when he'd seen it on the road viewed from another car.
In the factory, where workers communicated in Piedmontese dialect until the late fifties, Pinin was held in high esteem by his loyal artisans although they lived in fear of his short temper. One veteran foreman recalled how the boss would ‘demolish a finished car with a hammer’ if his craftsmen had not interpreted his directions correctly.
Like Raymond Loewy in America Farina was high profile, a coachbuilder to film stars, industrialists and royalty. He was no pink shirted dilettante but a true body engineer who understood the motorcar as an entity and could turn his hand just as easily to a one-off Ferrari as he could an Austin or a Peugeot for a mass-market audience. His 403 saloon gave Peugeot its first international hit while his styles for BMC – the A40 and 1100 to name two of the most significant - brought sharp continental fashion and sophistication to the gloomy post-war high streets of Britain.
But Farina was often at his most inspired when asked to clothe a Lancia chassis. His beautiful Lancia Aurelia B20 coupe of the early fifties was really the first GT and was such a success that he was able to mass-produce the bodies for Lancia on a moderately large scale, edging closer to his ideal of stable industrial production.
His equally delectable B24 Spider version of the Aurelia was as lithe and sexy as Brigitte Bardot – in fact he built a special one just for her in 1958 – and a perfect symbol of the increasing wealth of industrialised La Dolce Vita Italy. But it was his Lancia Florida show cars from 1955 that set the style for the sixties with an angular new architecture of juxtaposed panels, strong angles joined by short radius curves.
These new ideas found ultimate expression in the exquisite Florida II, a pillarless coupe first shown in 1957 that predicted the Lancia Flaminia Coupe (series built by Pininfarina) but was actually far better proportioned because it was on the longer Flaminia saloon chassis. It is worth remembering that in the fifties and sixties Lancia was still regarded as Italy’s most aristocratic marque, pursuing high technology, refinement and build quality standards that even then seemed at odds with the harsh commercial realities of the motor industry. The Flaminia was the ultimate Lancia of its day and Farinas modern look complimented it perfectly.
The key to the Florida II was its slender, tense roofline that swept elegantly into restrained fins. The roof defined the outline of the entire car, its volume perfectly in proportion with the rest of the body. The basic shape, with its low wide grille, headlights in the extremities of the wings, sloping bonnet and the bumpers integral to the shape rather than additions filtered down into more prosaic BMC and Peugeot models produced in millions. It became the template for the basic proportions of virtually every subsequent three-volume body design.
The Florida II was satisfying from every angle, as refreshingly simple as the contemporary American car was baroque. Bruno Sacco of Mercedes said the Florida II was one of the cars he wished he had designed. Bob Lutz called it ‘Quite simply spectacular, it truly marked a new era in terms of styling.’
Pininfarina keeps examples of its most important prototypes and the Florida II remains in perfect working order in its museum. It is still family firm and the big Lancia is close to its heart, yet the fact that this highly significant car is now half a century old seems to have passed them by somewhat. Finished in black with vibrantly blue leather its side glasses disappear neatly at the touch of a switch to give a pillerless appearance. It looks, at first glance, like a big two car door but small rear hinged back doors have been subtly grafted in: Farina liked to take his grand children out in the car.
Farina regarded it as his ultimate achievement and it was also his favourite personal car. He used the Florida II extensively until his death in 1966. “Even today I go everywhere in the Florida” he said of it in his autobiography “it is my cabin for both my work and pleasure.”