Ford revives Vignale

Once-upon-a-time there were carrozzieres. The highly skilled craftsmen, metalworkers and upholsters from these coachbuilders in Turin were responsible for visualising and sculpting the metal that clothed the motorcar. Depending on their size and expertise, they helped larger carmakers designs concepts, and some created exclusive one-off cars for aficionados of the motorcar.

One such carrozziere was Vignale set up in 1948 by Alfredo Vignale in Turin to collaborate mainly with local Italian carmakers Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari.

Vignale was inspired by new fabrication techniques from the aviation industry, and by the lightweight and aerodynamic racing cars that were winning races at Mille Miglia and other circuits.

He utilised lightweight aluminium to be able to sculpt free-flowing panels with rolled edges, hand stamped louvres and contours shaped using molten alloys sanded for hours to create the perfect finish.

His small team of highly skilled craftsmen collaborated with carmakers to create low-volume variants of their main production cars like the Fiat Gamine, Samantha and Eveline. They also worked on unique vehicles such as the Ferrari 212 and 250 and Fiat Maserati 3500.

Ford purchased Vignale in 1973, but has only now decided to reincarnate the marque. The first production model to benefit from the Vignale treatment is the Mondeo, to be joined later this year by the latest S-Max.

The exterior benefits from a high-quality metallic paint finishes, special chrome trim, and 18-inch alloys. The cabin offers a peaceful sanctuary thanks to upgraded sound insulation and active noise cancellation. Emphasis here is on the detail – so that all our touch points, and whatever the driver’s eye can catch, is encased in luxurious soft Windsor leather all with hexagonal quilting and ‘tuxedo’ stitching.

The Vignale cars will sit at the pinnacle of the brand. The design team is also creating a range of accessories to complement the cars.

We caught up with Chris Bird, Ford of Europe director of design, in Rome at one of the new Ford Stores.

DT. You have had Vignale in your archives for some years, ever since you purchased Ghia in 1973. Why reincarnate it now?

CB. When we started looking at creating a more premium line we realised that we needed to take a strategy that was really unique. The decision came from us in design. The Vignale team were a small group of highly skilled craftsmen, experimenting with new technology and materials and their execution. There has always been a connection with Italy and the US – the history of Ford and Ghia, for instance, goes back a long way. So we said why don’t we look at the Italian aspect of it – try a contemporary interpretation of what is actually quite a traditional industry.

DT. How do you intend to re-imagine the Vignale marque for the present day and for Ford?

CB. We are deeply interested in what is going on particularly with the Italian fashion and furniture brands. The fact that they are dealing with this idea of how you take traditional craftsmanship, or Italian values, but move out of the area of classic and into the contemporary and modern. It is summed up by the buzz at events like Milan’s Salone del Mobile where a lot of the forward thinking design is connected to Italian craft values.

DT. How did you work with Vignale to achieve this?

CB. We don’t have the funds or expertise of Mercedes or BMW for the fine execution and detailing, so here we are not doing something generic that has been seen and done before. Vignale gave us a chance to come up with an execution that is Italian, and to utilise the expertise here.

DT. So far you have incorporated the Vignale concept into your production models starting with the Mondeo and S-Max….

CB. The S-Max concept, in particular, shows the direction we’re going for the time being especially with the unique colour and trim options. We’re looking at taking the whole quilting idea and expressing it in new ways and applying it to new areas such as on the arm rest. We’re looking at different quilting pattern opportunities that are more contemporary. There is a lot more to come.

DT. Are you saying you have plans for a stand-alone Vignale sub-brand?

CB. The S-Max (success) will hopefully drive the size and the seriousness of where Vignale is going. At the moment we don’t have this in our plans but I’m hoping the great work that design does on future Vignales will lead to making this happen.

Nargess Banks

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In Reverse by Ron Arad

Ron Arad has compressed six full-size Fiat 500s to make his largest steel creation to date for his latest exhibition. The artist/designer’s career has been carved out of cutting, welding and bashing metal, and this intriguing show at the Design Museum Holon gives us a great insight into his work. In Reverse focuses on three decades of Arad’s work in metal culminating in a major new project exploring, through physical experiments and digital simulations, the way in which automobile bodies behave under compression.

Six crushed Fiat cars sit silently on the white walls in the upper gallery, each flattened to resemble the outcome of an accident in a cartoon or a child’s drawing that lacks a sense of depth. The crushed vehicles surround a curved wooden forming buck, a mould that was used to shape and fit the metal panels of the 500 – on loan from the Fiat Archive and Museum. Nearby Arad presents Roddy Giacosa, a recently made sculpture created by positioning hundreds of polished stainless steel rods on a metal armature in the shape of a Fiat 500. Each contoured section takes the shape of one of the vehicle’s panels and the parts fit together to form the body of the car.

Brought to international fame by his Rover chair and Bookworm bookshelf, Arad has since collaborated with leading brands such as Alessi, Vitra, Swarovski, Kenzo and Yohji Yamamoto.

In Reverse by Ron Arad will be at the Design Museum Holon, Israel until 19 October 2013.

‘Last Train’ is a collaborative work with Ron Arad and Steinmetz Diamonds created for the 2012 Venice Biennale and on show at Design Museum Holon until November. Watch the video here.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

Looking back: retro car design

Retro is an overused word these days. But unlike in the fashion industry where often the heady days of 60s Carnaby Street – or an era equally evocative – is replicated, retro within the car industry can mean something completely different. It essentially involves taking a design classic, an iconic car, and giving it a 21st century twist.

Thirteen years ago, Volkswagen lifted the veil off the new Beetle and so begun a whole new genre in car design. Since then, we’ve seen the phenomenally successful Mini and later Fiat has entered the arena with the 500 – both incidentally the work of designer Frank Stephenson currently the head of design at McLaren Automotive (see our interview in DT).

However, drawing inspiration from the past isn’t a new concept for car designers. Carmakers are keen to tell the story of their heritage, and the best way to do this is by incorporating past design cues into new models. They may not be so overtly retro-ish, but somewhere within the folds and creases of the metal they’ll be more than just a nod to company’s history.







In fact it could be argued that it is more about maintaining a corporate identity. For example, a Rolls-Royce is immediately identifiable by its grille and mascot. And let’s take a closer look at the Phantom; doesn’t it also err on the side of retroism? It may be at the top of league for engineering excellence yet the bodywork has been styled to replicate the halcyon days of motoring.

The buying public want assurances. Not only are they purchasing a car, they are buying into a certain lifestyle, and by radically changing a winning design can easily alienate the customer. Chris Bangle, the former BMW design director, found this out to his cost. He wanted to give BMW a new style direction and in 2002 set about re-vamping the entire range. This was more than a nip and a tuck; it was throwing away everything which had gone before and starting afresh.

The finished products received a less than lukewarm reception. Bangle had made a fundamental error, he designed cars which he thought the public should drive, not what they actually wanted to drive. His designs were seen at the time as being too extreme and a far cry from what even the most ardent of BMW customers were expecting. They voted with their feet and chose instead to buy a Mercedes or an Audi because they knew there wouldn’t be any surprises. Bangle resigned his post from BMW in 2009 to pursue a career away from the car industry.

Now, comparing pre-Bangle designs to the BMWs we see on the roads today, the last laugh is with Bangle. His vision was spot on, he just didn’t implement the changes gradually enough and the leap of faith he was asking from the BMW customers was just too far outside their comfort box.

Of course, the same can’t be said for the Mini or the Beetle or Fiat 500. Their originality was born out of a time when the world was full of optimism and the need to get mobile. Perhaps that’s why these three cars have transcended time so well; they all define an era yet still remain timeless. They always held the affection of several generations of drivers, and perhaps that’s why, unlike the Bangle debacle, their modernistic twist was heralded by the popular motoring media as a new dawn in automotive design.

The Beetle has had the most convoluted existence, from being the brainchild of Hitler to then becoming the post-war hippy love bug and now, in its 21st century guise, to twice being voted Gay Car of Year. There is a new, second-generation, Beetle in the pipeline which is due for launch early 2012, and I’ve driven it. It’s much more focused towards the driver than being a fashion statement. It is still instantly recognisable as a Beetle but it is a lot more credible than the car it replaces. This may be due to the fact that Volkswagen realised that if they wanted the Beetle to remain a mainstay of their model line-up then they had to cleverly evolve it.

Despite selling over one million of the outgoing Beetles, it was always perceived as nothing more than a Golf in different party frock. This new one, however, has a much more individual feel which is mainly due to the fact that for the first time since the original 1930s conception was launched, it has been designed to be an original and not a second-grade facsimile.

The Mini, on the other hand was built as a completely new car. It plays homage to its past but holds a totally different ethos to what Sir Alec Issigonis originally had in mind for it. His design was textbook perfect: form should follow function. And it did. Simplicity was the fundamental quality to the success of his Mini and by harnessing it to an extreme he solved the problem of allowing the British masses to get mobile, and on the cheap. Even though the Mini of yesteryear has been masterfully encapsulated within the metal panels of today’s Mini, it has become more of a consumable which should colour match its drivers’ Prada handbag rather than a mode of family transport.

The argument for these retro cars becoming trinkets for the well-heeled fashionista is cemented in truth when you learn that the Fiat 500 outsells the Fiat Panda by a ratio of 2:1. What’s so surprising here is that the 500 is based on the Panda – it uses the same platform, running gear and engine – yet costs at least £1,500 more. Form may still follow function, but style has an uncanny way of sniffing out the money and doesn’t stop until its bleeds it dry.

The thing is, car designers can never move forward until the past has been completely cleared and swept away. And, as we now know, good design never fades it just evolves. Plus, no one in their right mind would want to quash the memories from a time when the world had felt an unprecedented faith in the future and where designs embodied the promise of progress which had aimed to liberate us all.

This, perhaps, explains why the Mini, the Beetle and the Fiat 500 will continue to be built. All that’s missing is the amazement they would have inspired earlier generations with.

Guest blogger Danny Cobbs

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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