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April 2024

Farewell to Marcello Gandini, Italian car design genius

Francesca Del Bello

A nostalgic portrait of a time passed by  
Alfa Romeo Carabo, Ferrari Dino GT4, Citroen BX, Fiat 132, Innocenti Mini 90/120, Lamborghini Miura, Lancia Stratos, Maserati Chubasco, Renault Supercinque (and this list could go on for many, many more lines): what do these cars have in common, apart from being iconic models? The mind and hand - or rather, the pencil stroke - of the man who designed them: Marcello Gandini, the Italian designer who died last March at the age of 85. Between the folds of his career, there is the entire history of Italian automotive excellence.

A passion for engines that started with a German cabriolet model and a Meccano box received as a gift when he was five years old, as Gandini himself recounted, and then continued in high school, when instead of buying a Latin exercise book, the young man preferred to buy Dante Giacosa's 'Endothermic Motors'. And then, drawing: 'I began drawing at a time when the word 'designer' did not exist in Italy,' Gandini recounts during the Lectio Magistralis he gave on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree in mechanical engineering at the Turin Polytechnic in January this year.

It is the beginning of the 1960s, Italy is in the midst of an economic boom and Piedmont is consolidating its position as the cradle of the Italian automotive industry. Gandini tries to support himself as best he can by doing a few small jobs for coachbuilders: then, genius meets its destiny. His designs were noticed by Nuccio Bertone, the entrepreneur at the helm of the body shop of the same name, which had discovered and launched some of the biggest names in Italian car design. At first, however, Gandini's entry into the Bertone Group met with some resistance (does the name Giorgetto Giugiaro ring a bell?) and it was only two years after the first meeting that Gandini finally joined the Turin studio. Thus began a partnership between Gandini and Bertone that lasted almost 14 years: a collaboration marked by the trust and great autonomy given right from the start to the young designer, 26 years old at the time of his collaboration with Bertone. These were the years of the biting, angular style, of the most audacious prototypes; two of Lamborghini's most iconic models, the Miura and Countach, and the prototype of the (legendary) Lancia Stratos, were born in this period.

The oil crisis of the 1970s, however, helped to quell some of that enthusiasm and visionary, avant-garde drive: as Gandini himself recounted in an interview, it was a period in which prototype design became more practical, closely linked to production. These were the years of the Mini Innocenti 90 and 120, but they were also the years when the automotive industry began to change. Car manufacturers began to develop their in-house style centres more and more fully, Gandini recounts: 'fortunately I still had my second hat, which was that of a mechanic'. The designer's career then returned to that Meccano box he had received as a gift so many years earlier, and focused on automotive architecture and production systems. As a symbolic crowning of his career, he received an honorary degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Turin Polytechnic. And it is precisely during the Lectio Magistralis that Marcello Gandini gives at the award ceremony that he tells the students - and the entire audience - what the automobile means to him. Words that now sound like a spiritual testament. We quote them in full.

"The automobile is a dream, a desire, that has lasted millennia. It is half a flying carpet and half a home. It is the magical object that gives us the freedom to go wherever we want in an instant, while offering protection, shelter, space that moves with us. It is freedom. Individual. This for me is the very essence of the car, to which many other emotional elements are added. A car is the pleasure of owning a polished, seductive, important object. It is also an expression of the romantic side of mechanics: the psychological extension of the five physical possibilities, the continuation of us, of our desire for speed, for strength, for perfection. Of beauty. And again, the automobile is the object that most exalts man's only true invention, the only element not existing in nature that man has added: the wheel. In nature there was the plane - birds; the ship - a floating log; electronics - the nervous system. The wheel did not. There were round boulders, a tree trunk washer, that could roll, but man added the pivot, and from there he moved the world."
Lectio Magistralis, Marcello Gandini - Honorary Degree Ceremony in Mechanical Engineering - Politecnico di Torino

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