Two days ago the automotive world lost another legendary figure when Sergio Pininfarina passed away in Turin. This didn’t come as a real surprise to those close to him, for his health had been slipping over the past few years.
There is so much one could say about this true gentleman that it would literally take a book, so I will succinctly sum up my feelings with a simple “he was one of the best men I have met in my life.” Intelligent, ethical, generous, big thinker, humorous, these words barely scratch the surface of Sergio Pininfarina’s character. Over the years we did a good number of interviews, but neither of us really looked at them that way. Rather, it was two friends talking about life and one’s career.
To celebrate what he brought to the world, here are three conversation excerpts that will hopefully offer insight into what made this great man tick, and the rich life he experienced.
On his childhood and the years immediately following World War II.
When the war was finishing I had to escape, to be concealed in the mountains…I was asked to go into the army with Germans and did not want to do that, so I went into the mountains and remained hidden for one year.
When the war finished, I was around 17 years old, very very young. I remember the joy of life and the recovery of my country. It really was a recovery, one that was economical but also mental as well. It was an opening, an awakening and for a young man like me, educated with Fascist ideas, this was…an approach to a new life. It was completely different, not to consider the world something around Rome, but to be able to consider more than Rome…There was the United States, there was London, France. All these others made contributions to civilization.
We were told in school that the Roman civilization was the most informed. We studied very little the Industrial Revolution in England because it was English, and English was not Fascist…Only Rome and the history of Rome and Italy was what we studied. We spent hours and hours on the small republics, the small cities on the history of Italy. And America really didn’t exist!
So it was also a cultural recovery for us…
I started to work in 1952, and this was a very easy period because economically everything had to be remade. If you were only able to put four wheels and an engine together, you could sell the car. This was the period in which Italy started from nothing, from scratch and rebuilt something. It was a very exciting period.
On the origins of the Ferrari-Pininfarina alliance. (Sergio was the last survivor of the original meeting held in Tortona.)
Both my father and Mr. Ferrari were men of very strong character. Ferrari wanted to work with Pininfarina because in his mind, he thought that Pininfarina was the best. Mostly, his judgment was not so much in design but in technique, in quality. He wanted Pininfarina to make his Ferrari cars…because he was making only a tubular chassis and engines, no bodies.
So Mr. Ferrari wanted Mr. Pininfarina to work for Ferrari.
My father had the intuition that, in the future, Ferrari was becoming Number 1, like what Alfa Romeo had been years before…In his mind that Cisitalia would never go there, and Maserati had some trouble…My father wanted to go to Ferrari, but they were both prima donnas.
If I remember well, they met for the first time in 1950 at the Torino Motor Show, where my father invited Mr. Ferrari to lunch. They ate together in the Motor Show restaurant in the rotunda, I was present (and) the two men simply studied one another. They only arrived with a “pleased to meet you,” “I admire very much what you do,” but nothing more.
Then, from the Pininfarina side it was me (trying to get them back together), from the Ferrari side it was an ancient Maserati racing driver, Mr. Carriroli. Carriroli worked for Mr. Ferrari, and I worked with my father to arrange a meeting in the middle…in a restaurant half way from Torino and Modena.
This gives you an idea of the two men. Mr. Ferrari was NOT coming to Farina, and my father was NOT going to Modena. So they met half way, and that meeting was very, very difficult to arrange. When they (finally) sat down at the table, everything became extremely easy. It was “I give you one chassis, you make one car;” “okay, we will make you this car.”
They didn’t speak of any price (and) my father was very enthusiastic, the other man was enthusiastic; both thought this would be great… (At the meeting) I didn’t say one word. I was just listening….
When we (were returning) to Farina, my father was driving a Lancia Aurelia Gran Turismo and he told me, “Sergio, Ferrari is a new customer. I believe it would be a great future for Pininfarina. You take care of him.”
So I said, “I take care of what?”
“Everything. Design, quality, production, prices, everything….This is a good thing because if I put you in some other place, you take some work out of the (older, established) managers. This was a brand new activity, so you go ahead.”
My father…was a very good strategist. It was a way of showing his confidence in me, plus his way of checking what I was doing.
Sergio would work with Ferrari from that moment up to his passing in 1987. Here’s how he characterized the “Old Man,” as he was affectionately known inside the Ferrari factory.
He had a very hard mountain to climb. When you have a very high mountain to climb, you cannot be normal. You must be extraordinary. You must ask the people for more than the average (because) the target you put on yourself are not normal targets, but very high targets. Therefore, working for Ferrari, or with Ferrari, was very difficult.
For example, the racing drivers, he was hard with them because he was, I think, more concerned for the mechanical parts of his car than…about the performance of the drivers. So the human side came second. Therefore, if a driver would dare to say, “I lost because a Ferrari was not good” (makes a gasping noise), can you imagine?
Back then (Ferrari) was used to winning almost every race. When he was winning every race, and I was going on Monday in Maranello, he was terrible, in very bad temper.
You know why? He was afraid that his people were sleeping, that they would relax. So he was very, very difficult, very, very hard. Even in words, in attitude, very demanding, very hard.
On the contrary, in the very few cases when Ferrari was beaten, in that moment I saw him very encouraging, in good temperament. He understood that if he was (difficult), he was destroying the morale of his army. He was a very intelligent man.
Both my father and Mr. Ferrari, in my opinion, they are very famous men for what they did with the motorcar, still today—my father for design, and Mr. Ferrari for races. But in my opinion, they were more exceptional as a human than for their profession.
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