For much of the 20th century, Italy’s independent coachbuilders set the design trends that the world’s automakers followed.
Filippo Sapino, former design chief of Ghia, once compared the creations of his firm and Italy’s other coachbuilders, or carrozzerias, to Italian cuisine. “With a few simple ingredients,” he told me, “we can make something extraordinary.”
The recipe proved so alluring that for a good portion of the 20th century, well-heeled auto enthusiasts and carmakers large and small flocked to Milan and Turin to place their orders with the dozens of carrozzerias that were based in those cities. Beginning in the 1920s, these companies produced hundreds of designs that astounded onlookers on the streets and at racetracks. Their cars have won best-of-show honors at the world’s most prestigious concours, and they are often the most prized lots at auctions.
The best of these concerns—companies such as Ghia, Pininfarina, Bertone, Castagna, Michelotti, Vignale, Touring, and Zagato—were staffed with stylists (as designers used to be called), metal fabricators, and other artisans, and they often employed specialized subcontractors for components such as bumpers, headlights, taillights, and interiors. Their work would suit a car’s chassis and mechanicals, but more significantly, it often would set a trend in automotive design.
The following pages spotlight eight road cars I picked to represent the carrozzerias’ most influential design themes and model types. My selections don’t include obvious landmarks such as Lamborghini’s Miura and Countach, Cisitalia’s 202, and Ferrari’s 250 California Spyder. But like those models, the cars I chose illustrate how the Italian coachbuilders’ consideration for surface treatment, proportions, and even color was second to none.
Winston Goodfellow has been test-driving, writing about, and photographing classic cars and new models for nearly three decades. He has served as a judge at the Pebble Beach and Villa d’Este concours and does consulting work for collectors, helping them sell or research, locate, and acquire cars. He’s owned four Ferraris, two Maseratis, two Lamborghinis, and eight Isos.