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The hidden links between Detroit’s dream cars and Turin’s design icons

by Jennifer Clark

The Cadillacs and of Chryslers of Detroit's exuberant heyday in the late 1950s, with their high tail fins and low, wide bodies, owe a small debt to Italian car designers, according to an exhibition called “Crossroads, the US-Italy intersection from post-war to the economic boom,”at Turin's car museum the Museo dell'Automobile.

The show explores the back-and-forth exchange of ideas between Harley Earl at General Motors and Virgil Exner at Chrysler with their Italian counterparts Battista Pininfarina, Mario Revelli di Beaumont, Giovanni Savonuzzi and Giovanni Michelotti.

The cross-pollination between US and Italian automotive design started before the war, but after World War II it took off, said Rodolfo Gaffino Rossi, director of the Museo dell’Automobile located near the former headquarters of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in Italy’s own “Motor City.” 

The war left Italy’s car industry destroyed, and the Marshall Plan helped rebuild it from scratch.

“That meant the younger generation got a chance to prove itself and Italian industry was remodeled on the US, which was 30 years ahead,” he said. “Several Italian designers went to the US, some came back to Italy and worked for Detroit, and some stayed in the US.”

The 13 cars on the show range from icons of the American dream to Italian design masterpieces, and seem to have little in common.

The link between these cars is an obsession with aerodynamics. Car engineers started taking cues from aviation as early as the 1920s, testing their designs in wind tunnels as they sought ways to cut down on air resistance and increase speed. By the 1930s, the traditional “metal box on wheels” designs were giving way on both sides of the Atlantic to futuristic-looking streamlined cars, like the 1934 Chrysler Airflow and the sensation-causing Tatra 77.

The Packard Super Eight from 1937 is the oldest car in the show, and despite its excellent tecnical features is a good example of how mainstream car design of the period still echoed an earlier era.

Ten years later, a Hudson Commodore Coupè Six from 1948 formerly belonging to Prince Ranieri of Monaco shows how aerodynamics was starting to influence car design by introducing more rounded shapes.

Both Harley Earl, who is considered the father of US automotive design, and Virgil Exner were influenced by the two-seater sports car the 1947 Cisitalia 202. The one on show in Turin is the Cisitalia 202 SMM Spider Nuvolari by Giovanni Savonuzzi. Another Cisitalia 202, the GT by Pininfarina, is on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

Nearby the Cisitalia is the Plymouth Fury designed by Virgil Exner in 1957, with its prominent tail fins that symbolized the extravagance of US consumers during the post-war boom. The fins-- pioneered by Harley Earl--served a function, Exner insisted.

Not content with proof from his own testing at Chrysler about the practical merits of tail fins, Exner went so far as to have tests carried out by Savonuzzi at Carozzeria Ghia in the wind tunnel of the University of Turin to prove that they weren't just decorative and served an aerodynamic function.

Virgil Exner developed a close relationship with the Carozzeria Ghia, eventually asking it to design the “dream cars” Dodge Firearrows and the Plymouth Explorer and bringing Ghia’s designer Giovanni Savonuzzi to Chrysler as Chief Engineer of Automotive Research and Gas Turbine in 1957, where he stayed until 1969.

Over at GM, Harley Earl and Battista “Pinin” Farina are thought to have met in 1934. If that’s the case, the two designers were already both well known at the time, and share an odd sort of paralell career, having been born in the same year, 1893, and both having started out by working in customized body shops as young men when the auto industry was still in its infancy.

Farina’s first commission for GM came in 1931, a year after he founded his own company, with a Spider version of Earl’s groundbreaking V16 Cadillac. Pininfarina later went on to work for Nash-Kelvinator, and designed several more Cadillacs -- one of them named “The Jacqueline” after US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

The Lancia Florida Pinin Farina (the company later changed its name to “Pininfarina”)  from 1957 on display at the museum was the prototype of his new type of boxy, clean, right-angled design that became very influential in the 1960s.

“For us, the US was a symbol of prosperity to be imitated,” said Mario Giorgio, owner of another Lancia on display, the Lancia Aurelia Pininfarina PF 200 concept car. “It was certainly difficult to merge the US and Italian styles of car design, but Pininfarina was successful at blending the two.”

The show also looks at cross-pollination between Italy and the US in terms of literature, cinema, and popular culture, with sections dedicated to “On the Road vs La Strada,” “Cinecittà and Hollywood,” and “Stars & Latin Lovers.” 

(“Crossroads, the US-Italy Intersection from post-war to the economic boom,” from March 29 until June 25, Museo dell'Automobile , Turin)


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