Steeped in artistic history, Italy sets the design pace

What is there about Italy that generates so much creativity in car design? ''The atmosphere,'' says Bernard N. Smith, assistant executive designer on the General Motors styling staff.

Pininfarina, Bertone, Ghia, and Ital Design are known wherever automobiles are sold.

''Italy is steeped in artistic history, and this has a lot to do with it. It's the people; it's something ... intangible.''

Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design, for example, looks upon himself as a ''special kind of artist'' who can tap a fertile imagination, combine it with his flair with an artist's brush, and come up with a hit on the highway.

''I believe my work to be similar to that of a sculptor who, with time, refines his expressive ability without losing his creativity,'' Mr. Giugiaro said in an interview at his shop near Turin.

''If in the past I had to be original at all costs, I now look for a balance of form, for the expression of something more refined, more polished, with a certain kind of class.''

Always searching for inspiration in car design, the European, Japanese, and US auto industries have long turned for it to the Italian carrozzerie (design shops) in northern Italy.

Indeed, the Italian carrozzerie, a significant factor in car design for more than 80 years, have had an impact that cannot be overstated.

Industrie Pininfarina SpA has been designing Peugeots for more than 30 years - ''a very long marriage,'' Sergio Pininfarina, the present head of the firm, says with a smile.

The low, sweeping Ferrari also bears the design touch of Pininfarina.

''The Ferrari,'' he asserts, ''is my life and my love.'' Indeed, the company, established by his father, Battista, more than a half-century ago, has been carving and molding the Ferrari since time immemorial, it seems - a superb example of Italian design and engineering know-how at its best.

Ital Design, which highlights a ''complete service'' to carmakers, not only designed but built a BMW supercar a few years ago. At the behest of Karl Lotz, head of Volkswagenwerk AG in the early 1970s, the company also designed the original Volkswagen Golf, which was sold as the Rabbit in the United States and has been replaced by the second-generation Golf. Mr. Giugiaro has designed scores of cars for automakers all over the world. Now, among his many other jobs , he is working on a future major car project for American Motors/Renault.

As far back as the 1960s the Pininfarina company did some work with William Mitchell, then head of GM styling. Pininfarina is now creating a new luxury-bred Cadillac convertible due in 1986. The car, known as the Callisto, is expected to cost about $40,000 and will help the top GM luxury-car division compete against such pricey European imports as the top-line Mercedes and BMW.

''A lot of very exciting cars come out of Italy,'' agrees Ford's Jack Telnack , a world leader in aerodynamic design. ''I do think, however, that the most exciting cars are the two-seaters - such as the Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.

''All are very low, very exciting, very exotic, and very expensive.''

Not everything that comes out of Italy, of course, is a winner, notes Mr. Telnack. ''The Datsun Piazza is one of the best production cars that Giugiaro has done,'' he says, ''but he hasn't done any five- or six-passenger production sedans that are head-turners for some time.''

Mr. Smith, on the styling staff of GM, has gone to three or four Italian auto shows and says, ''They have their share of successful designs, and they have their share of losers.''

Nonetheless, if it's good, solid car design they're after, most designers give a high letter grade to the Italians.

Besides turning to Italy in their continuing search for new ideas, US carmakers have set up design operations on the West Coast, encouraging a less-inhibited attitude toward design than can be found within the tradition-bound walls of Detroit. The major Japanese importers have also set up design studios on the West Coast.

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