Cadillac’s long-standing Italian love affair with Pininfarina

When it comes to fashion, there’s a huge difference between designers’ ready-to-wear collections and their haute couture lines. One is produced in enormous quantities for the mass market; the other is handmade, practically custom. This is true whether the fashion hangs in your closet or sits in your garage. Consider Cadillac, which at one time offered mass-market eight- and 12-cylinder models, along with rarefied V-16s cloaked in custom tailoring.

One such 16-cylinder Cadillac, a 452A Pinin Farina Boattail Roadster, won Best in Class at the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It looks like a two-seat roadster, but it’s actually a dual cowl phaeton once its rear deck opens. Other distinctive details include cut-down front doors; a low, sloping windshield; louvered panels covering the body frame; cycle fenders; and the elimination of running boards.

Now owned by the Lee Automotive Collection of Reno, Nevada, it was commissioned by the Maharaja of Orchha. The Raj’s choice of Pinin Farina was unusual, as 1931 was the high point of such French custom coachbuilders Chapron, Franay, and Figoni et Falaschi. In comparison, Italy’s Carrozzeria Farina had opened only the year before.

The Cadillac Starlight by Pinin Farina. Inspired by the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, this car has a plexiglass top.
The Cadillac Starlight by Pinin Farina. Inspired by the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, this car has a plexiglass top. Photo courtesy of Pininfarina

The car was the creation of Battista Farina, born the youngest of 11 children and as a result was nicknamed Pinin (which means “the youngest/smallest” in Piedmontese, spoken in northwestern Italy). Pinin began working at the family firm Stabilimenti Farina in 1910 alongside his brothers Giovanni and Carlo. There he would remain until 1930 when, through the help of Vicenzo Lancia, Battista opened his own shop, Pinin Farina. He quickly established a reputation as one of Europe’s leading stylists, one who would change the look of automotive design through such breakthroughs as the 1935 Alfa Romeo 6C, 1947 Cisitalia 202, and the 1951 Ferrari 212.

Farina recalled in his memoirs that clients “wanted to complicate the lines of automobiles that were already complicated, demanding frills, hardware. I did everything in my power to avoid such disasters.”

That he did, giving form to the finest Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and Maseratis ever built. Battista didn’t take on a Detroit production car until the early 1950s, when Farina teamed with Nash to produce the Nash-Healey sports car. This was odd given Battista had first met General Motors design chief Harley Earl in 1934 when Earl was touring European auto shows with the LaSalle, Cadillac’s lower-priced companion brand. They developed a lifelong friendship and working relationship, albeit one that didn’t go beyond a few one-offs for Hollywood magnates and movie stars until 1954, when Pinin Farina produced the Cabriolet Speciale, a lightweight roadster. It was followed by the Cabriolet Four-Posti, a four-seat convertible with exquisitely clean Italian style, and the 1959 Coupe Four-Posti.

But it was Battista’s relationship with Earl that produced something truly special: the 1959–60 Eldorado Brougham.

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham by Pininfarina.
1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham by Pininfarina. GM Archives

Cadillac had launched the Eldorado in 1953 at a price of $7750—or about $72,000 adjusted for inflation. Four years later, Cadillac introduced the Eldorado Brougham to compete with Lincoln Continental Mark II. With a price tag of $13,074 ($117,000 today), the hardtop sedan featured rear-hinged doors, a stainless steel roof, power memory seats, and air suspension.

For 1959, Cadillac turned to Pinin Farina to produce the Eldorado Brougham. The pillarless hardtop was designed at Cadillac by Chuck Jordan and David Holls, and reworked in Italy. Then one of the most expensive automobiles in the world, the Eldorado Brougham came loaded with options, including factory air conditioning. It was powered by a 345-horsepower 390-cubic-inch (6.4-liter) V-8 and Hydramatic transmission.

Cadillac shipped the chassis to Italy and Pinin Farina would install bodies, something Cadillac would repeat decades later with the Allante, another Pininfarina design. Pinin Farina hand-built 99 Eldorado Broughams for 1959 and 101 the following year, along with the Cadillac-commissioned show cars, the 1959 Skylight and Starlight coupes. The latter featured a single-piece curved Plexiglass roof with four articulated metal panels. When not used, the panels can be stored behind the parcel shelf. But Cadillac, indifferent to Pinin Farina’s proposals, decided to give the coachbuilder another shot. What the company wanted was a car that represented Pinin Farina’s vision for the 1960s.

1954 Cadillac Cabriolet Speciale, a custom car by Pininfarina.
1954 Cadillac Cabriolet Speciale, a custom car by Pininfarina. GM Archives

The result was the 1961 Cadillac Jacqueline, built in honor of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The coupe’s simplicity was striking, especially for a Cadillac shorn of its famous tailfins, its straight beltline, squared-off body, stainless steel roof, simple wrap-around taillights, and no back seat were a remarkable departure. Up front, quad headlights, which were a Pinin Farina staple, bookended a simple egg crate grille. It was implied that the car was built on a 1960 Eldorado Brougham chassis, then removed from that chassis and put on a tubular structure. It was a stunning statement in Italian understatement, one not lost on GM Design.

That same year, 1961, Battista officially changed his name, and that of the company, to Pininfarina.

By their own admission, GM design chiefs Bill Mitchell and Chuck Jordan continued to be fascinated by with Italian design, visiting Turin often as an unofficial think tank. Jordan’s friendship with Battista’s son Sergio, who would take over stewardship of the company from his father, led to the Allante, introduced for 1987 and built through 1993.

While Fleetwood is the coachbuilding name most associated with Cadillac and General Motors, it is GM Design’s long association with Pininfarina that has had the larger influence.

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