There is a peculiar intellectual and emotional revulsion that comes with reading about Italy’s endless cycle of economic and political woes — whether having to do with the near-collapse of the world’s oldest bank or the effective nation-wide paralysis of Italian industry. Despite this near-permanent state of affairs, the country’s overwhelming cultural legacy still evokes such awe that a metaphysical idea of Italia persists completely distinct from the ground reality of Rome’s circus maximus of daily self-abasement.
If there is, however, an historic standard by which contemporary Italy could revive its wealth potential, its industrial excellence and its entrepreneurial morale, one needn’t harken back to visions of a city-state golden age — the twentieth century will do. For, it was during the last century that a Renaissance ideal of the visionary individualist and aesthete-inventor flourished amid the ideological upheavals, world wars, dictatorships, civil violence, communist terrorism, economic stagnation and staggering corruption the country suffered during its modernizing decades: that of the Italian luxury auto-maker. The generation that produced the likes of Ettore Bugatti, Enzo Ferrari, Battista Pininfarina, Ferrucio Lamborghini — and in later times — engineer-designers such as Niccolo Bertone, Leonardo Fioravanti, and Giorgio Giugiaro — was arguably what saved the country from itself during those turbulent years (not to mention the great mass-experiment of the Fiat model). A fresh wave of such high-style connoisseur-capitalists is the single most important thing Italy needs today.
The Italian genius has always been the “beautiful fusion” of art and engineering. Like their Renaissance forebears, the great Italian auto-makers were largely self-taught, building their cars virtually by hand; they possessed diverse talents within a single focus, were thoroughly uncompromising, and pursued their respective visions with little concern for “circumstances” or the “political environment” — Mussolini’s harangues notwithstanding. Above all, they were men of remarkable character, pairing stubborn pride with quiet forbearance; visionary zeal with great business acumen and nuts-and-bolts pragmatism. They loved their work, going so far as to refuse to sell to a potential customer if he wasn’t “good enough” for their cars — and this in twice war-ravaged Italy!
The key personality in this is the Milan-born Ettore Arco Isidore Bugatti. In what one might classify as “Bugatti capitalism,” he best typified a generation whose hyper-inventiveness and cutting-edge technological prowess changed the course of Italian industry — and this not limited to autos, but extending into such sectors as the rail industry and train design; aerospace, military equipment and commercial household devices. Bugatti received no formal training as an engineer but propelled himself by sheer will and self-confidence, no matter some of the spectacular failures he suffered. He referred to all of his designs as “pur sang” or “thoroughbred,” reflecting the regard he had for his work.
His first vehicle, a motorized tricycle powered by two engines, prompted investment in the young engineer by an aristocratic patron, and then invitations by German carmakers for whom Bugatti worked on and off during the First World War. In his spare time, he started work on lightweight vehicles in his basement and later went on his own into his make-shift garage where he completed his first real car, the Bugatti T13 (1922) — a roadster that fetched $950,000 at an auction just last year. In just over ten years he brought forth such spectacular creations as the Bugatti Type 41 Royale (1926–1933), the iconic Type 50 Superprofilée (1931–1933) and Type 55 Super-sport Roadster (same years) and, as designed by his talented son Jean, the phenomenal Type 57 series (1935–1937), including the Atalante (no fin) and the 57SC Atlantic (with fin), the latter of which counts only two left gracing this earth; of one of the former, a sale of $30 million in 2003.
Bugatti was also a tireless inventor, having designed electric cars, cinematography equipment, a portable furnace, an electric-powered fishing rod, a self-driving floor polisher, a “perpetual” conveyor belt, a machine-tool heating system, a wind generator, a torpedo, and a pasta-making machine from spare automobile parts. Other designs were for boats, aeronautics, and railways. Bugatti never lacked for resourcefulness: based in Molsheim, in Alsace (then-Germany, then-France), his first train had to get from the Molsheim factory to the local train station. Since there was no rail connection because of the war, the rails were laid during the journey. They were put in front of the train and, once it had passed over them, were moved to the front again.
Bugatti cherished his autos, and — in defiance of what wartime circumstances might otherwise dictate — selected his clients accordingly. He refused to sell a car to King Zog of Albania owing, so the legend goes, to His Majesty’s display of poor table manners. Another customer angrily informed Il Maestro that his car would not start properly in winter; Bugatti told the man that if he could afford a Bugatti he could afford a heated garage. His philosophy could be summed up in a statement he once gave to an interviewer: “I build the cars that I like. If people wish to purchase one, we can see that it is arranged.”
The same stubborn ambition infected the other great automakers of his generation, who almost inevitably started off with few prospects, few if any industry contacts, and an onslaught of war-era impoverishment. Enzo Ferrari began as a blacksmith assigned to putting shoes on mules for the Italian army; his father and brother had died during the flu epidemic during the First World War; the family metal engineering firm had also collapsed. Today, certain Ferrari models are so valuable that a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO — one of only 39 produced — recently sold for $52 million, while the Ferrari 275 GTB that had belonged to the late actor Steve McQueen went for $10 million.
Ferrucio Lamborghini was born in 1916 into a poor family of grape farmers and went on to establish a tractor building company during the Second World War that made him very wealthy. He was close to fifty when he started Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini, vowing to build the best super sports car ever. Dismissed as mad for attempting to “jump into” luxury car design, and famously dismissed by Enzo Ferrari as “that farmer” who would go nowhere, his first car was his first masterpiece and dubbed “mindblowing” at the Turin Motor Show in 1963. This was the the 350 GTV, acknowledged as a 12-cylinder work of art. Just about every car since then has been a work of art as well.
Battista “Pinin” Farina, born in 1893, began working at age eleven in his brother’s body shop in Turin and by age eighteen was designing radiators for Fiat. In 1920 he went to US to see the great developments in Detroit, meeting Henry Ford who asked him to stay on and work for him. He declined, but later credited his American visit for instilling in him an enthusiasm for private enterprise. Pininfarina, as he came to be called, was one of the great carozzeria — coach builders — who designed the bodies for the top automakers of the day, including Ferrari, Maserati, and Bentley. His works were no less stunning then his better-known peers: Pininfarina’s CisItalia 202 Gran Sport (1947), defined as “moving sculpture,” is the only car permanently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Indeed, there may be hope for the future. Today, the Italian automobile design industry based in Turin is the best-kept secret of Italian entrepreneurship, with star engineers spinning off start-ups highly sought-after by the German and Japanese car industries. The global market for independent automobile design is worth about $3 billion to $5 billion. If Italy would make the most of these great creative resources, mired as they still are by state incompetence and initiative-draining bureaucracy, there is truly no telling how far Italy would go, as the motor of its own recovery and the designer of a prosperous future the country so richly deserves.