Buick’s global exterior design chief comes from a family of Italian-car aficionados.
Bob Boniface is the son and brother of surgeons, so no one in his big Catholic family from Ohio would have been surprised if he’d gone to medical school. Instead, he went into finance, landing a job in Boston after attending Vanderbilt University, but he soon tired of spreadsheets and realized he wanted to make a career out of his family’s shared passion. Not medicine—automobiles. Bob’s dad, Raymond, is a serious car guy, particularly an Italian-car guy, and all of his kids caught the bug. Even though cars became a lifestyle for most of them and their families, Bob, the youngest of eight children, decided to make cars a vocation.
In 1989, he packed up his Alfa Romeo GTV6 and headed to Detroit to study automotive design at the College for Creative Studies. After graduating, Bob joined Chrysler, the hottest design shop in Detroit at the time, where he helped design the second-generation Dodge Intrepid sedan, the first Jeep Liberty, and the Stow ’n Go fold-into-the-floor seating in Chrysler minivans. During this period—12 years in all—Bob restored a 1960 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider his dad had bought for $300 as a parts car. “I repainted it myself in my driveway,” Bob says. “It’s a ball to drive. The steering is sublime.”
Today, the two Alfas are part of a collection of Italian cars—four Alfas, two Ferraris, one Lancia—stuffed into Bob’s two garages. Bob joined GM Design in 2004, and the ATS coupe sitting in his driveway on this warm spring afternoon is a product of his recent stint as head of the Cadillac exterior design studio. We’re on his big back lawn, where he’s artfully arranged his fleet, each car a reflection of his tastes and his sense of product design and mechanical beauty. You might be wondering how a man who makes his living designing American cars has no collectible American iron. When asked whether this has ever been an issue, Bob shrugs. “No one’s ever said anything about it.”
Nor should they, because Detroit designers have looked to Europe, especially Italy, for inspiration since the days when Harley Earl established the Art and Colour Section at GM. Any automotive designer who doesn’t understand the grand traditions of Italian automotive design is akin to a chef who doesn’t appreciate the fundamentals of French cuisine. Bob, who headed the team that designed the 2006 Camaro concept car, speaks passionately on the subject. “Pininfarina understood the ratio of wheels to body,” he says, pointing at the Giulietta. “They always had a wheel-opening shape that was sympathetic to the wheel.”
But it’s not all Italy for Bob, who acknowledges a hankering for an air-cooled Porsche 911. “The Germans have a more cerebral way of designing than the Italians,” he observes, then pivots to the Chinese, who, he says, are making huge strides in their auto industry. Bob is currently the director of exterior design for Global Buick, which is a big player in China, so it’s his job to keep tabs. “The quality of the interiors at this year’s Beijing auto show,” he says, “was amazing. And now many [Western] designers go straight to China out of design school.”
The conversation returns to Italy, and Ferraris, and Alfas. “My father bought a 250 Lusso for $9000! It was the best one in the country. I still think it is the most beautiful Ferrari ever made. It’s painfully pretty.” Bob’s father also bought a 1962 Ferrari 250GTE that was originally owned by actor Peter Sellers. “I still remember the day it showed up at the house, in 1973,” Bob recalls. He was eight years old, so you can imagine the impression this sleek coupe made on him. “My dad drove it to work and occasionally on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He had it for two years and sold it for $4800 in 1975.”
A few years ago, Bob decided to find the Sellers 250GTE and began asking around in Ferrari circles, but no one knew its whereabouts. In December 2016, he posted on the Ferrari Chat forum and a few weeks later received a message from the car’s owner, Mike Bodine, who lived in Joplin, Missouri.
“Who tipped you off that I was looking for the car?” Bob asked.
“Nobody,” Bodine replied. “I haven’t shown it since the late 1970s. No one knows I have it. I don’t drive it anymore and decided I wanted to sell the car. I joined Ferrari Chat, and there you were.”
Kismet. The two struck a deal, and now the 250GTE, which was originally white but was painted red long ago, is sitting on Bob’s lawn. He opens the hood to reveal a tidy bay and the 3.0-liter V-12, then describes in detail the Rube Goldberg setup for the brake booster, which increases the pressure on the front wheels by acting as a proportioning valve. Bob hasn’t done much to the car other than add new Pirelli Cinturato 185 tires, but he’s girding himself for the inevitable. “A Ferrari is like a free horse,” he jokes. “You’re just getting started.”
Bob’s other Ferrari is a 1988½ 328GTS, which his 23-year-old son occasionally sneaks out of the garage. The young man clearly has good taste, like his father. A 1982 Alfa Spider, mainly used for errands, is the most modest car in the collection but is attractive with its ivory paint over brown interior. A 1991 Lancia Delta HF Integrale 16V, a recent addition, is a touchstone for any car enthusiast Bob’s age (52). “It was the coolest performance car in the world,” he remembers. “Amazing chassis, 0 to 60 in 5.0 seconds. And talk about a design solution! Here’s an econobox. How are you going to integrate all the performance functionality—the flares, the vents? Design is not all about beauty. A lot is about presence. The Integrale has stance.”
Speaking of stance, Bob spent a lot of time getting his 1975 Alfetta to sit just so on its Ronal wheels, endlessly tweaking the torsion bars. “The front one has 36 splines and the rear, 37. It was difficult to fine-tune, but I’m a stickler for ride height,” he says. “This is probably the nicest Alfetta sedan in America,” Bob jokes. “And of all my cars, this one gets the most attention. It’s very nonthreatening.”
But it’s the car of his youth that is the most valuable to Boniface: the 1984 GTV6, modified with a 3.0-liter engine from an Alfa Milano Verde in place of the stock 2.5-liter. “If I had to sell every car but one, I’d keep the GTV6,” he says. “I bought it in October 1988 in Boston for $5400, and it was my daily driver for three years.” A parking permit for the 1990–91 school year at CCS is still visible in the hatch glass, evidence of a young man’s crucial decision to toss aside one life plan for another. Worked out pretty well for him, we’d say.