The Pininfarina 1800

When launched in October 1964 the Austin 1800 was praised for its combination of handling and interior space but received rather less acclaim for its appearance. Although it was only 17" longer than the 12' 2" Morris 1100 it appeared a hulking lump lacking the elegance, style and grace of its smaller brethren. The reason for this was that Issigonis was obsessed about offering the greatest amount of space inside the smallest footprint.

To Italians style is everything and they felt Longbridge should have been as innovative with its appearance as the Mini was mechanically in its day. Peter Robinson explains how it could all have been very different....

In 1967 a young Italian designer, Leonardo Fioravanti produced a concept car that signaled a change in family saloons forever. The Pininfarina Berlina Aerodinamica was based on a British chassis so you might have expected the British to be the first to take up the idea. The contemporary report from Autocar described it simply as 'a demonstration that so far as styling for the '70s is concerned, this it the kind of shape we shall all be driving'.

Leonardo Fioravanti devoted his thesis in mechanical engineering while a student at Milan's Polytechnic to 'the study of the engine and bodywork of an aerodynamic six-seater saloon'. For years Fioravanti had been fascinated by aerodynamic design in general and the work of Dr Wunibald Kamm in particular. Fioravanti believed Kamm, the inventor of the Kamm-back theory of design was probably the only person to have understood how to achieve a significant reduction in the drag coefficient of the family car.

Kamm's concept of a sharply cut-off tail appealed to him and the basic principle constantly appeared in his drawings. The work he produced for his thesis bore an astonishing resemblance to the Turin show car. All the key elements are there on this revolutionary two-box design - the complete absence of a conventional grille, the super clean body panels, the multi-curved windscreen, the exaggerated frontal overhang, the wraparound bumpers and, of course, the fastback chopped-off tail. Only the addition of a third side window behind the C-pillar distinguishes it from the Pininfarina car presented as the BMC 1800.

Fioravanti was fortunate. He studied under Professor Antonio Fessia, an accomplished engineer who in his days at Lancia was responsible for the Falminina, Flavia and Fulvia. In his thesis, Fioravanti's car was powered by one bank of the 2.5 litre Daimler V8, an engine he much admired for its compactness and power. With the crankshaft and cylinders suitably modified by Fioravanti, whose engineering skills perfectly complemented his design talents, the engine was mounted transversely across the nose and inclined to the rear to keep the bonnet line as low as possible. As part of his studies, aerodynamic tests were carried out in the Breda wind tunnel and the design changed to incorporate numerous lessons learned there. It was never built but the engineering drawings remain.

After graduating Fioravanti was hired by Carrozzeria Pininfarina in 1964 to work as a designer. At that time the Italian company produced designs for BMC, Peugeot and Ferrari. Production vehicles included the Morris 1100, the hatchback A40, Oxford/Cambridge, 405 and 504. Pininfarina did contribute to the 1800 and can claim credit for the "cows hips" aspect of the rear wing styling as Issigonis's original designs were too rounded giving the rear a bulbous appearance.

Although Pininfarina's contribution to the Oxford/Cambridge was promoted in BMC's advertising and press material no such recognition applied to the elegant 1100, although BMC insiders admitted to the involvement at the time of its release. Pininfarina even acted as consultant in the detail design of the Mini.

In 1964 the 1800 was launched and it was clear to everyone that Pininfarina's relationship with BMC had changed - it was obvious that the design freedom of the past had gone. BMC managing director George Harriman and engineering boss Alec Issigonis dictated proportions which the Italians found distasteful.

Worse was to come when the BMC engineering department turned the 1800 into the 3 Litre saloon. The final nail in the coffin came with the Maxi when a frustrated and financially hamstrung Issigonis told Pininfarina to design a new car with the windscreen, cabin and doors of the 1800. It was, says Fioravanti, 'monstrous'. Pininfarina decided to end the decade-old relationship since it was clear to any perceptive observer that BMC was heading for disaster. However, Fioravanti secured an 1800 floorpan and running gear to build the 1800 the Italians believed BMC should have developed.

Issigonis knew what the Italians were planning but did nothing either to encourage or discourage the project. In July 1967 while Pininfarina was building a full-sized wooden model of the Aerodinamica 1800, a few miles away the young Giorgetto Giugiaro was designing the Alfasud with Rudolf Hruska and, apparently quite by coincidence, developing a similar shape. The Austin 1800 chassis, number 82605, arrived in Turin on 10th August 1967 and the Turin show was due to open on 1 November.

Amazingly, the car was completed in less than three months, incorporating everything Pininfarina then knew about aerodynamics. The company didn't establish its own full-scale wind tunnel until 1973 but experimented with quarter-scale models and, even then, considered aerodynamics as a fundamental in body design.

This was to be a serious study. "A complete car...could be produced in large series," said Pininfarina's press material of the time, although nobody at the Italian company believed BMC would take it seriously. Using the running gear and platform from the 1800, the flamboyant Leonardo Fioravanti began work on a two-box fastback saloon that would change the shape and proportion of all cars. He worked under Franco Martinengo, who ran the studio after Battista Farina died in 1966, but even then it was clear the young man was a rising star destined for greatness.

To understand the impact of the Berlina Aerodinamica you must think in terms of what was on offer in 1967 when virtually all saloons with the notable exception to Renault's 1965 R16 and Simca's 1100, were three-box designs. The public bought Cortina's, Hillman Hunters and Vauxhall 101's by the train load. The idea of combining a coupe-like sloping tail with a four-door body was not just novel but positively outlandish. Fioravanti maintained Pininfarina's tradition of timeless proportions and simple lines and crafted a shape to unbelievable simplicity with minimal brightwork and a massive glass area.

So futuristic was the car that there was no radiator grille in the conventional sense. Instead, the cooling air entered the engine compartment via two large louvres under the front bumper bar that wrapped around to emphasise the extreme front overhang. The headlights and indicators, housed beneath a single perspex fairing, also wrapped around from the nose to the side of the body and were separated by a large rubber nose to emphasise 'a theme of original design and protection for the purpose of active and passive safety' - a forerunner of the ENCAP crumple regulations to come.

Boldly implanted on the nose were three letters - BMC. The cutoff tail resembled Pininfarina's front-engined Dino 'breadvan' shown some months earlier in Paris. Motor called it 'a remarkable exercise on the unlikely base of an Austin 1800. One only has to look at the original to see that this must be the transformation of the decade'. But George Harriman dismissed the car. 'It's fantastic,' he said to Fioravanti, 'but not for us. Perhaps it is good for Jaguar.' Issigonis, on the other hand, was excited and thought the design marvellous. 'We did our 1800 just to make you work,' he told the Italians.

In a study to BMC dated 1 December 1967, Fioravanti reported in detail on the car. He admitted the prototype was overweight because so much of it was built by hand in order to meet the deadline. The prototype weighed 2976lb compared with 2572lb for the production 1800. Fioravanti believed this could be reduced by 220-286lb if the car were to be produced in volume. Although 5ins lower and 17ins longer the drag coefficient fell from 0.45 to 0.35. In road tests conducted with Sergio Pininfarina, Fioravanti ran the car to a measured 103.6mph, almost 10mph better than the production cars' 93.0mph achieved on the same day.

Although aerodynamic testing had been conducted on scale models, Pininfarina used the road for wind flow testing and various modifications were made to improve the shape. It was obvious that despite the enthusiastic public and press reaction too the car, BMC was in no position to put the concept car into production just three years after the 1800 had been launched.

But the 1100 was different. In 1967 rumours of a merger between BMC and Leyland had begun to surface and Issigonis was keen to have a smaller car developed just in case new management might have a different view from Harriman's. Issigonis arranged for Pininfarina to be sent an 1100 platform from Innocenti, which assembled the car in Milan. Fioravanti was keen to show that the same aerodynamic shape and proportions could be transferred to a smaller car. The new model was slightly sharper in definition than the rounded 1800 but look at them in photographs and it is impossible to decide upon the relative sizes. To the untrained eye they could almost be the same car.

The Pinifarina 1100 received the same rapturous ovation as the 1800 but by then it was too late. BMC had sunk and the the BL management under Lord Stokes wanted nothing to do with either an ultra-advanced small car or Pininfarina. The 1800 was sent to Birmingham, where it has since disappeared. Fortunately, the 1100 survived and can be seen at the Pininfarina Museum at Cambiano, south-east of Turin.

In 1970 Citroen introduced the GS and its proportions and dimensions are almost an exact mirror of the 1100. Was the GS influenced by the Pininfarina cars? Citroen has always claimed the GS was designed in-house and Pininfarina admits there was no contact between the two companies during the '60s but Fioravanti remembers turning up at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva when the Citroen was announced and parking the 1100 alongside a GS to let the journalists make up their own minds.

The Alfasud, begun by Giugiaro before the Pininfarina 1800 appeared entered production in 1971. So unfortunately, while Pininfarina was the first to develop the two-box aerodynamic theme, it was the last to get a car into production.

The Lancia Gamma saloon, originally to be built on a Citroen floorpan using the hydroneumatic suspension and with body by Pininfarina, was delayed after the Fiat/Citroen merger fell through finally appearing in 1976 with conventional suspension.

By then the design was old hat, the rest of the car world had become used to the two box design. The red wooden models in Leonardo Fioravanti's study symbolise a tragic lost opportunity, not least for the British car industry.

Fioravanti is a well-respected designer if not so well known as car designers such as Giorgetto Giugiaro, Marcell Gandini and Michelotti which have almost become household names. Leonardo Fioravanti has never achieved the same degree of prominence yet this man, working under the deliberate anonymity of Pininfarina, has created some of the most beautiful and influential cars of the past 30 years.

Apart from the Pininfarina Berlina Aerodinamica, he has also played a major part in the design of the Ferrari Dino 246, Testarossa and the 308. Fioravanti left Pininfarina in 1988 to take up the position of general manager at Ferrari and managing director of Ferrari engineering. He was lured there by Enzo Ferrari and Fiat Auto managing director Vittorio Ghidella with the promise that, when the old man died he would run Ferrari for Fiat.

Enzo Ferrari died soon after and Ghidella suddenly left Fiat. The internal politics changed radically and Fioravanti moved to Fiat's design centre at Obrassano, becoming manager of Centro Stile Fiat Auto in 1990.

In 1997 Fioravanti opened his own design consultancy and eventually left Fiat to devote his considerable energy to his own business, although he still has an exclusive automotive contract with the Fiat group. That leaves him with more time to race his Lancia Flavia HF coupe in historic rallies and drive his small but superb collection of saloons and Pininfarina-designed Italian sports cars, which includes and Alfa Giulia Spider, a Lancia B20 and a glass-fibre bodied Ferrari 308GTB.

© Peter Robinson & LOCI Ltd 2002