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Marcello Gandini, Grandmaster Of Car Design, Reflects On His Radical Bertone Miura And Countach

Marcello Gandini has sketched some of the most radical cars in the history of automobile design. In his time leading the Italian studio Stile Bertone, his designs included the Lamborghini Miura, Countach and Diablo — cars that were so exotic in shape and daring in construction that they remain icons of car design.

Born in Turin in 1938, Gandini became part of trio of illustrious Italian car designers to include Giorgetto Giugiaro and Leonardo Fioravanti — all born in the same year and within months of one another. Together they helped shape the course of automotive design.

Gandini’s best known work was between 1965 to 1980 and during his time at Bertone where clients included Alfa Romeo, BMW, Bugatti, Cizeta, Citroën, De Tomaso, Ferrari, Fiat, Lamborghini, Lancia, Maserati and Renault. He worked on futuristic concepts as well as practical road cars such as the Citroën BX, the first-generation BMW 5 Series the Innocenti Mini and the Renault Supercinq. He left Bertone to pursue an independent career in design.

Having long admired Gandini’s designs, I got in touch to discuss his life’s work and to engage his thoughts on how contemporary car designers are approaching electric cars.

Nargess Banks: In your time at Bertone, you authored some of the most remarkable cars in design history. The mid-engined Miura and the Countach, in particular, remain as radical now as then. Yet, you were quoted as saying the vehicle architecture, construction, assembly and mechanisms were more important to you than appearance. Am I right to think you allowed design to take shape naturally through process?

Marcello Gandini: I have always considered the car as a complete object with no separation — at least with regards to its design process — between mechanics and style, both in terms of function and aesthetics. The original mechanical setting of the Miura conditioned its shape while with the Countach it was the opposite: the shape conditioned the mechanics. Both were the result of a collaboration and a similar way of thinking between me and the people in charge of the mechanics. Since I’ve always had a good technical knowledge of the automobile in its entirety, the close collaboration with the engineers has always been a fundamental part of my way of working, from the blank sheet to the realization of the running prototype.

You often introduced new concepts to motor cars such as the scissor doors which you pioneered with the Alfa Romeo 33 Carabo prototype. Is inventing new ideas and exploring avant-garde concepts central to your work?

The starting point in each of my projects is always looking for the solution to one or several problems. The clearer the problem, the easier it is to arrive at a brilliant solution, which means sometimes developing concepts that lead to new important ideas. This happened for example with the scissor doors of the Alfa Romeo Carabo but also in less spectacular details, such as the repeaters of the turn signals on the side mirrors of the Maserati Chubasco, which were then taken up by many car manufacturers and which have become a commonly used solution today.

Since leaving Bertone you’ve been involved in multiple design projects, many of which are outside the automotive world. How did your years in vehicle design help shape your future projects from architecture to interiors and helicopters? 

Yes, I have worked outside the automotive field on many occasions. For example, designing houses (both exteriors and interiors), but also furniture and objects and, of course, helicopters. All this was very interesting but it was like a sort of digression from what interested me most and it always happened at the same time as other works.

Looking back, which of your car designs do you feel best explains your philosophy?

My philosophy has always been based on trying to make each project radically different from the previous ones. Every project of mine that reflects these premises is an example. As for more recent times, the car that truly represents my philosophy is a project which is not public. It is part of the research I have been carrying out for over 20 years on new construction methods.

I’m intrigued. Can you explain further?

My background in building prototypes and models, as well as a good knowledge of production systems in car factories, led me to think about possible innovations in changing manufacturing methods. I developed several projects (one in particular) and related patents which I have presented and sold to some car manufacturers. The main concepts involve a dramatical reduction of the number of pieces that compose a car, the use of new materials (mainly composite) and a completely innovative assembly lines and factory architecture. All these are very advanced ideas, partially used by the manufacturers. They are still not easy to insert into current production systems, but represent an excellent personal success in my experience as a designer.

Meanwhile looking forward, I’m interested to know what you see as the possibilities and pitfalls of challenging form language in the age of post-combustion as we explore new powertrains (battery-electric/fuel-cell) and machine learning?

The new ways of propulsion in cars offer an important opportunity to think of the car as an expression of something different. It can be capable of communicating different feelings and shapes in terms of life on-board, in the way we perceive and drive it. It is still an underdeveloped area — let’s say it is a wish, which will happen in the future.

And what are your thoughts on the new generation of electric cars?

I think the electric car is, at the moment, a great missed opportunity in terms of design. The architecture and package made possible by battery-powered engines opens up an infinite number of possibilities to innovate in shape and general concept of the entire vehicle. Designers and marketing people have chosen and continue to choose to imitate traditionally propelled cars to stay on a safe road. Nothing in an electric car currently makes you say at first glance: “Wow, this is a different car, it carries a new message, it speaks evidently a new language of change and innovation”. It is a shame.

Also in conversation, read my interviews with Genesis chief creative officer Luc Donckerwolke; David Lorenz of the electric up-cycling brand Lunaz; radical designer Chris Bangle on completely rethinking car design; and BMW Group’s creative chief Adrian van Hooydonk.

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