To Sergio Pininfarina, it was just one more trip to the United States, one of many in the course of a year. Industrie Pininfarina SpA, one of the world's dominant industrial design studios, is a household word in the automobile business. Along with Bertone, Ghia (owned by Ford Motor Company), Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design, and a few others, it's been shaping many of the cars the world drives for a long time.

The present head of the firm was in the US to take part in a wide-ranging exhibition of Italian automotive-design genius at the Art Center college of Design in Pasadena, Calif. A brief visit to New York City was simply on the way.

It was on this occasion that I met Sergio Pininfarina for the first time.

After lunch at the Palace Hotel, we walked up Park Avenue to the Waldorf- Astoria -- and there, across the street by the curbstone, was a brilliant-red Ferrari 308i, the driver's door ajar, just waiting for me to step inside.

Motioning with his hand, the designer asserts: "The Ferrari is my life and my love." And he means every word of it.

Indeed, the head of Industrie Pininfarina SpA, established by his father, Battista, a half century ago, has been carving and molding and caressing the Ferrari almost since time immemorial, it seems -- a superb example of Italian automotive styling and engineering know-how at its best.

The hand of Pininfarina, in fact, has been shaping the French-built Peugeot for the last 30 years -- "a very long marriage," declares the head of the company -- and has made its deep imprint on the Italian automotive giant, Fiat, Lancia (now part of Fiat), Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, Cadillac, American Motors, and the list goes on.

When the founder of the firm came out with his Cisitalia 202 berlinetta in 1947, Battista Pininfarina ushered in a whole new era for the sports car with a hood that slopes below the front fenders, headlights set into the fenders, almost total lack of chrome, and an aluminum body welded to a steel frame.

In muted tones, the car showed simplicity as the timeless hallmark of carrozzeria Pininfarinam design.

Since then, the Pininfarina studio and factory have had an overwhelming influence on the shape of cars the world over -- and since the early 1950s the present head of the firm has been a major part of it. The elder Pininfarina died in 1966.

But like the work of other creative stylists, some of its designs may never reach the road. The award-winning Modulo (1970), for example, has had a profound impact on automotive aesthetics, yet it never was built.

All of this shows that the post-World War II turmoil in Italy has had slight impact on the creativity of such firms.

"I don't see any direct connection between creativity and the political situation in Italy since the war," asserts Sergio Pininfarina.

"I don't pretend that ours is an artistic profession," he declares, "but I feel there is something connected with art and culture, nonetheless. Sometimes you see it in a painter. The hapiest time is the period in which he is poor. He creates something very good; he flowers. Then comes success, and sometimes with success there is a lack of creativity."

Simply, the designer-industrialist, who not only heads up the local alliance of Italian manufacturers but also is a member of the Parliament of Europe in Strasbourg, views the problems which have wracked Italy over the last 35 years as having little dampening effect on the outflow of Italian creativity.

True style, he feels, is intuitive anyway, no matter what the conditions without.

Industrie Pininfarina SpA employs well over 2,000 people and turns out 18,000 to 20,000 cars a year, the Fiat 2000 Spider convertible (more than 200,000 already built) and the Peugeot convertible among them. Since 1947 the company has produced no less than 425,000 cars which have been shipped to markets all over the world -- a remarkable record by any measure.

The family's roots in the automobile business run deep.

When still a youth, the founder of the firm went to work for his older brother in a shop that fixed not only the newfangled horseless carriages but the horse-drawn ones as well. Here he learned how to work with wood and metal, skills that would help him in later years as his own company grew.

In the early 1950s his son Sergio, fresh with a mechanical engineering degree from the Turin Polytechnic School, moved into the firm.

Like his father before him, he keeps a tight rein on everything that goes out the door.

"There is not one single drawing, one single design, one single style that goes out of the factory without my approval," Sergio declares. Even so, his major effort today is both financial and strategic planning for the future.

"Production and personnel I leave to other people," he adds.

The Italian designer applauds the gradual coming together of US and European ideas for designing and building cars.

While the overall concepts were very far apart a few years ago, the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and subsequent oil and economic crises have forced US carmakers to switch to smaller, lesspowerful, more-fuel-efficient automobiles while European carmakers have adapted some of the comforts of the american-built cars.

Yet as all cars reach about the same overall weight and size, it is crucial that car designers make their cars distinctive -- make them stand out against the competition.

"I feel that design and style are becoming of greater and greater importance these days," he says. "It is more and more important to be different, to look new, to have a personality in cars."

Cars will, of necessity, have to be more and more sleek, more aerodynamic, so as to speed the flow of air over the bodies and therefore icrease mileage under wheel.

"We feel that a rounded shape is easier to make if you use steel or aluminum, " says the designer.

"When you use plastic it doesn't matter. It's a little bit againt nature to make a corner with aluminum, steel, or an alloy. This doesn't mean, however, that what we do is better than anyone else."

What impresses him most when looking back on the work of his firm for the past 51 years?

The four milestones, according to Pininfarina, are: Cisitalia (1947), Lancia Florida (1957), mid-engine Ferrari Dino (1965), and two British Motor Corporation aerodynamic sedans, the 1700 (1967) and 1,300 (1968). "These last two cars have been the model for many cars of today," he reports.

Industrie Pininfarina always tries to keep ahead of the pack. In 1972, for example, it opened a wind tunnel for testing full-size cars, the first in Italy, and one of only a few such tunnels in the world.

It was a lot safer then driving a car fast on the autostrada, he smiles.

Sergio Pininfarina is taking part in the sixth annual Automotive News World Congress, which opens in Detroit July 19 -- and thus, one more trip to the US.

The Carrozzeria Italiana: an Exhibition of the Art and Science of Automobile Design,m held at the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, Calif., between midMay and mid-June, may also be held on the east Coast as well as the Midwest, if Sergio Pininfarina has his way.

It already has been shown in Turin, Rome, and Moscow.

The Moscow showing was "an immense victory for us," says the Italian industrialist.

"You can imagine my satisfaction in seeing people line up for four kilometers to see the products of Western civilization," he smiles.

"I would like to have it shown in New York and maybe Chicago."

As the prime mover behind the show, he'll probably get his way

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