Written by John McIlroy, CNNGeneva, Switzerland
Any car company worth its salt has its own design department. But when they need extra help, guidance or just inspiration, they turn to firms like Pininfarina.
With almost 90 years of experience, the Italian design and engineering consultancy is best known for its work with Ferrari, for whom it created more than 60 iconic sports cars. But now Pininfarina is doing something very different: making a car under its own name.
The Battista was unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show. Credit: Robert Hradil/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Its new creation, the Battista, was unveiled earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show. Touted as the most powerful street-legal vehicle ever produced, the car's lines are unmistakably those of Pininfarina. This is, after all, the firm behind the mid-engine Ferraris that defined a generation: the 308, the 328, the 288 GTO and, more recently, the 458 Italia.
Indeed, it is the relationship between Pininfarina and Ferrari that may make the Battista so significant. The basic proportions of a car are usually framed by its technical make-up, but supercar lovers the world over owe a huge debt to how Pininfarina took Ferrari's expertise in engines and chassis, and built beauty around it.
Ferrari's secret weapon
Before joining forces, the two companies were actually rivals in some areas of their businesses. The first meeting between Battista "Pinin" Farina and Enzo Ferrari took place on neutral ground -- a restaurant in Tortona, a town located between their respective firms' bases, Turin and Modena.
After an initial agreement was reached in 1951, Pininfarina rarely let Ferrari down on the styling front. Beyond the aforementioned mid-engine models, there were glorious front-engine designs like the 250 GT and the Daytona -- plus the famously wide Testarossa, a poster child of the 1980s, with its flat-12 engine and intricate side strakes. Ferrari even turned to Pininfarina when producing top-end, limited-edition "hypercars." The F40, F50 and the Enzo Ferrari, a 2002 vehicle named after the man himself, were all designed by the firm.
It was not an exclusive arrangement. Pininfarina also designed and, in some cases, manufactured vehicles for the likes of Ford, Fiat, Peugeot, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Maserati, earning supercar buyers' respect in the process.
1/10 – Cisitalia 202 Gran Sport (1947)"Defined as a 'moving sculpture,' it is the only car permanently displayed at the MOMA in New York since 1960. Light, essential, extremely innovative." Credit: © Pininfarina
Like much of Italy's design industry, Pininfarina has fallen on tough times in recent years. It stood on the verge of bankruptcy more than once, with debts of almost 600 million euros
($673 million) near the end of 2008. Rapid restructuring helped stabilize the firm, giving it the time required to attract a new owner, India's Mahindra Group
The colossal industrial conglomerate already had car brands in its portfolio. The company's chairman, Anand Mahindra, had previously explored buying Jaguar Land Rover, before his countryman Ratan Tata did the deal in 2008.
When Mahindra saw the opportunity to acquire a legendary European design consultancy in 2015, he grabbed it. The initial focus was on allowing Pininfarina to continue its existing work, namely pitching for business -- often against the in-house design teams of the very manufacturers commissioning the work.
The Pininfarina logo gracing a car for the first time. Credit: HAROLD CUNNINGHAM/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
But Mahindra had bigger plans. When he created Automobili Pininfarina, an offshoot automaker that operates separately from the design consultancy, late last year, it became clear that he intends to build a respected name into a bigger brand.
The CEO of this new division, ex-Audi, Mercedes and BMW executive Michael Perschke, is clear about the strengths of the Pininfarina badge, which is now subtly positioned along the Battista's side panels.
"We don't need to claim that we know how to make beautiful cars," he said ahead of the Geneva Motor Show. "It's just confidence that we have. You cannot buy the sort of provenance and brand heritage that is behind Pininfarina -- generations of creating stunning cars with beauty, purity and rarity."
The firm's abilities are evident in the Battista, most notably in the aggressive sculpting of the hood, the simple rising beltline along the flanks and the complex range of surfaces providing muscle above the car's rear wheels. It's far from insulting to say that the design is so clearly Pininfarina's, that it could easily be Ferrari's latest mid-engined, twin-turbocharged V8 supercar. Except that it has no combustion engine at all -- the Battista is all-electric.
The output of the car's four motors is nonetheless incredible: 1,873 brake horsepower (bhp), which is over 400bhp more than a Bugatti Chiron. But the sort of emotion that drives the purchase of such a car -- and at around $2.3 million, the Battista won't be cheap -- may be fed as much by exhaust noise as aesthetics or acceleration.
A digital mock-up of the Battista's cabin. The car is expected to sell for around $2.3 million. Credit: Pininfarina
"We saw a window of opportunity here," said Perschke. "We're at a tipping point where EVs (electric vehicles) are becoming more acceptable, and yet we don't have to manage a transition to being an electric car manufacturer. From the start, 100% of our vehicles will be zero-emission.
"And we're not creating a company (just) to do one car, either," he added. "By 2023 or 2024, we will have three or four models in our range, competing with Aston Martin and Bentley."
The Battista is a calling card for Automobili Pininfarina. There are plans for a number of more accessible stablemates that will start at around $110,000. And Perschke said the "conventional" line-up will not only comprise sports cars.
"We could look at other types of vehicles," he said, "including even a crossover or SUV. But the key is that they will all have the purity of Italian design."
A white version of the Pininfarina Battista at the Geneva International Motor Show. Credit: HAROLD CUNNINGHAM/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Electrification will help with this. While the Battista is built on a custom chassis with a bespoke battery layout, Pininfarina is already in talks with other companies -- reported to include the fast-emerging American start-up Rivian -- about licensing and using their all-electric chassis, batteries and motors with its own bodywork on top. This sort of democratization may revolutionize the car industry over the next decade, and Pininfarina could be well-positioned to benefit.
The first Battista is expected to be delivered in 2020, the year Pininfarina celebrates its 90th anniversary. By the time it arrives, it won't be the only electric supercar on the block, and plenty of rivals will have better-established engineering behind them. But on the design front, Pininfarina will always be able to call on one of the most spectacular resumes in the business.