The Italian is only skin-deep
Beyond an appealingly retro design that recalls a much-loved convertible sold in the U.S. from 1968 to 1985, the revived Fiat 124 Spider, arriving here next summer as a 2017 model, shares another key trait with its ancestor: It is not built by Fiat.
Rather, the new Spider wears its Fiat-designed body on the chassis of the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Mazda will build the car in Japan for Fiat. The Italian maker’s own turbocharged four-cylinder engine will provide the 124 with a bit of distinction from its Japanese cousin.
The collaboration is one of economic expediency; building two similar models from one basic platform helps each brand offer an affordable sports car and still earn a profit. In a twist, it is this kind of low-volume mashup for which a large carmaker might once have turned to an Italian carrozzeria – a coachbuilder – to design and manufacture on its behalf. Pininfarina, which produced the original Fiat Spider, was among the largest and best known.
“The various carrozzerias in Torino and Modena were world famous for their elegant and refined proportions,” said Tom Tjaarda, an American who sketched the original Fiat Spider while working for Pininfarina. The company, founded by Battista “Pinin” Farina in 1930, designed the majority of Ferraris and also built bodies of many.
In the 1950s, dalliances between American carmakers and Italian carrozzerias yielded an assortment of limited-production specials. Nash-Kelvinator partnered with Great Britain’s Healey to build the 1951-54 Nash-Healey sports car. The Healey-designed body, however, was replaced for 1952 by Pinin Farina (two words until 1961), with whom Nash had contracted to add glamour to its mainstream cars. Healey installed Nash’s engine and drivetrain parts into a chassis of its own design and shipped the assembly to Pinin Farina for the body. It was an expensive way to make a car; the $5,900 retail price was 50 percent more than a Cadillac convertible. Just over 500 Nash-Healey convertibles and coupes were made.
Nash advertised its association with Pinin Farina, but, according to Robert Cumberford, automotive design editor of Automobile magazine, the news didn’t excite the public. Cumberford attributed American automakers’ infatuation with Italy partly to their proclivity for imitation.
“When one company started working with Italian designers and coachbuilders, others joined,” said Cumberford, who in the early 1950s, at age 19, was a General Motors designer.
Italy also offered a practical draw, Cumberford explained: Its carrozzerias could make one-off and small-volume specialty cars without an investment in special tooling. Chrysler hired Carrozzeria Ghia to build a series of striking concept cars designed by Virgil Exner, who later became Chrysler’s head of design. One prototype, the oddly named Dodge Firebomb, caught the eye of Eugene Casaroll, an American trucking magnate whose company, Dual-Motors, had built twin-engine trucks for the military.
Casaroll commissioned Ghia to produce the car, mercifully renamed Dual-Ghia, on Dodge frames shipped to Italy. The shells had their Hemi V-8s and automatic transmissions installed upon returning to Detroit. Ghia built 117 of the $7,700 cars, and Hollywood elites like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Peter Lawford were among the buyers.
Cadillac used Pinin Farina to build its 1959-60 Eldorado Brougham sedans to an in-house design. Less distinctive than the 1957-58 version, these rare cars (201 built) previewed upcoming styling changes for mainstream Cadillacs.
Today, some of these Italian-designed and built specials can bring several hundred thousand dollars at collector-car auctions. Tjaarda credits Italian design with creating lasting appeal. “This was due to the intrinsic sense of getting the proportions and volumes just right,” he said.
Both Cadillac and Chrysler tried to rekindle their Italian romances in the 1980s, with mixed results. Cadillac commissioned Pininfarina to design and build its two-seat 1987-93 Allanté, but the arrangement proved bumpy.
A convoluted production process spanning two continents caused quality glitches and contributed to the Allanté’s steep $54,700 price. The so-called Allanté Airbridge used Boeing 747 cargo jets to transport modified Eldorado structures to Italy, where a Pininfarina factory attached bodies. The planes returned semi-finished cars to Michigan for completion. The endeavor produced 21,400 Allantés, less than half of Cadillac’s projection.
Similar in concept to the Allanté, the 1989-91 Chrysler’s TC by Maserati – that was its actual name – was bodied in Italy on a shortened LeBaron structure. But its $33,000 price was twice as much as the LeBaron convertible it closely resembled. Few of the 7,300 built had the Maserati-tweaked Chrysler four-cylinder turbocharged engine; most had a standard Chrysler turbo four or a Mitsubishi V-6.
Such ventures are unlikely to return. Cumberford has chronicled the decline of the Italian carrozzeria, blaming internal mismanagement in some cases, but also the predominance of global carmakers’ strong in-house design and prototyping capabilities. Pininfarina was sold this month to an Indian carmaker, Mahindra & Mahindra.
“It’s a natural death of an interesting industrial activity,” Cumberford said.