The Italian Carrozzerias That Created Some of History’s Most Iconic Car Designs

  • Winston Goodfellow
MARCH 06, 2016

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.

Featured Slideshows

From Around the Web...
1952 Ferrari 340 America Spider Vignale’s. Image courtesy of Petrolicious
An entry in that year’s Mille Miglia, this Ferrari 340 America Spider recently returned in style…
A BMW 507 once owned by Elvis Presley.
Found deteriorating in a barn, the roadster was meticulously brought back to its original beauty…
The 250 LM that took the checkered flag at Le Mans in 1965.
The 15-car exhibition includes some of the marque’s most memorable machines…
 2018 Jaguar F-Type
The 2018 Jaguar F-Type now offers a wider range of power trains and tech features to choose from…
Lamborghini Huracán RWD Spyder
The recently released raging bull is a wilder ride than its all-wheel-drive counterpart…
Infiniti’s QX80 Monograph concept.
Revealed at the New York Auto Show, the vehicle displays the marque’s enlightened exterior design…
Porsche Design Tower Miami
We head to the opening of the Porsche Design Tower Miami for a ride in the famed Dezervator…
The 2015 McLaren P1 GTR being offered at the RM Sotheby's Villa Erba sale.
A McLaren P1 GTR, a Ferrari LaFerrari, and Porsche 918 Spyder to be offered at Villa Erba sale…
The Fittipaldi EF7 VGT by Pininfarina
The coachbuilder teamed with renowned racer Emerson Fittipaldi to create the carbon-fiber...
Jaguar and Bentley are among the marques charging ahead on all-electric cars and concepts…