When talking about cars, “design” is definitely one of the words that comes up most frequently. Roberto Giolito, head of the Heritage department, has helped us shine a light on its importance by illustrating some of the first major examples of large-scale car design, such as the FIAT 500 A “Topolino”, the Citroën TPV and its direct evolution, the timeless 2CV.
What is meant by industrial design and what is its role in the automotive sector?
Design is a term that refers to numerous areas of interest—production, architecture, publishing, fashion—and seems to change meaning depending on the context in which it is used. As a rule, it denotes the design work done at industrial level with the aim of fulfilling the technical, functional and economic requirements of mass-produced objects. We can define industrial design as the harmonious and coherent confluence of all solutions relating to a product’s functionality, usability, ergonomics, aesthetics and feasibility for industrial-scale manufacture.
One of the fields in which the term “design” is used most frequently, but often imprecisely, is coincidentally the automotive sector. The design of a new car model is the result of a complex process that involves various professions. A multifaceted process that begins from the initial planning phases and does not end even with final assembly on the production lines.
Based on my practical experience, I believe that automotive design has never received due recognition as a noble form of design thinking; it is more often than not relegated to the level of product design or restyling operations.
The feeling is that all too often, the work of designers is confused with that of automotive stylists.
Within the microcosm of automotive design, there is a clear distinction between designers and stylists. The former focus on interior design and general layout studies, and only shape the external volume at a later stage, whereas the latter directly deal with the concept of an external form that, in practice, constitutes the most distinctive and widespread aspect of automotive design. The car stylist’s work often entails respecting and updating styles that make a specific car brand recognisable. A bit like in a conservatory, the goal is to propose new models that firmly uphold a brand’s defining technological solutions and aesthetic principles.
However, when you set out to solve problems that, in certain cases, arise from the new needs of target users, or from a new mobility model that is being presented, it is necessary to break free from current conventions in order to try and come up with new solutions that will respond to the users of tomorrow. The car designer must constantly figure out a catch-all solution to the various issues underlying an industrial product, in this case the car.
When did the concept of design enter the automotive world?
I would say right from the start. The 1930s was a period in which people began to think concretely of cars as a means of transport for the masses. And although cars remained a luxury that few could afford until the 1960s, even during this initial period it was necessary to deal with issues such as process optimisation, the lean use of materials and components, and the general reduction of vehicle weight All this with the aim of containing production costs to make cars affordable to the widest possible demographic. Between the two world wars, the escalation of political tensions and the aftermath of the Great Depression spawned new ideas regarding vehicle construction layouts and architectures. Subsequently, in the period after the Second World War, the car was no longer an exclusive luxury and began to be conceived as a vehicle for middle-class families. It came to symbolise the dream of emancipation and progress. This immediately had a strong impact on the collective imagination and consumer attitudes. It was at this time that the idea of the “people's car” emerged.
Starting from this decisive and revolutionary milestone in the evolution of the automobile, the real challenge facing designers was to develop cars consisting of improvised solutions that delivered good performance based on limited economic and material resources. This, in a certain sense, gave rise to the phenomenon of automotive design as we understand it today: a process resulting from the combination of invention and the optimisation of resources necessary for production, and based on the originality of the solutions and on the identity of the products, which themselves needed to stand out in what was becoming an increasingly competitive commercial environment.
What are the models that first shaped this new way of thinking about cars?
In the history of automotive design there have been timeless projects that managed to bridge the ages because they were visionary and because, thanks to the conceptual and technological solutions they adopted, they managed to amply meet the needs of their target users. They were target-oriented designs, cars that were built with a focus on usability.
I believe that the FIAT 500 A, commonly known as the “Topolino” (the Italian name for Mickey Mouse, meaning “little mouse”), certainly falls into this category. Especially if you think of the solutions that the great designer Dante Giacosa came up with to solve the problems of space saving. He devised the period’s greatest innovation: a minimal platform onto which the frame, engine, suspension and passenger compartment could be assembled. In 1934 the engineer Antonio Fessia, then technical director of FIAT and the project’s coordinator, entrusted a team led by 29-year-old engineer Dante Giacosa, who was head of the Aero Engines section, to design the chassis for a small, economical car that could sell for just 5000 lire, according to directives received from the management. As is widely known, Giacosa's team had never designed a car: this meant that they were less shackled by tradition, leaving them free to think up new solutions that would change approaches to automotive design forever.
What was the great innovation introduced with the FIAT 500?
One of the most significant solutions related to the passenger compartment. Interior roominess in spite of its very small frame was guaranteed by the ingenious decision to position the engine cantilevered in front of the front axle in the position of the radiator, which was set back from the engine itself: a solution that contradicted the conventional positioning of the engine between the front axle and the dashboard. The winning idea behind the FIAT 500 was to bring the car’s mechanicals “out”, based on what could be described as a centrifugal design. Giacosa wanted the passenger compartment to be unimpeded by the mechanicals and to build a car around the occupants. In order to do this, he created a coherent and organic body style. Take the gearbox for example: the solution of inserting the gearbox between the two passengers enabled him to create a cabin in which the occupants’ feet could be positioned much further forward. In other words, the bonnet cavity was conceived as a space for the feet, rather than for the engine. Thanks above all to this intuition and the decision to opt for transverse suspension, Giacosa managed to create a very compact and spacious car, while maintaining the standard of comfort afforded by a much larger vehicle. It was a revolution. The soundness of the solutions developed for the Topolino is underlined by the fact that this model remained in use long after its heyday. In many historic car races you can see cars with mechanicals from the FIAT 500 body frame... even in the UK, until a few years ago, there was a Formula 500 competition in which all cars entered were required to have a FIAT 500 engine and suspension, whereas the rest (driver's seat and aerodynamics) was unregulated. The FIAT 500 was a phenomenal car considering how much success it enjoyed, including in racing, long after 1955 when its production ended.