Il Designer Dimenticato

Updated: May 5

The secretive nature of a car designer’s job makes it very difficult to give credit where it’s due, to the point that actual authors of celebrated design icons often remain unknown, even among enthusiasts.

Formenti's original drawing for the Ferrari 166 Berlinetta Touring

This sad, age-old state of affairs is particularly unfair in the case of Federico Formenti, quite possibly the greatest car designer you’ve never heard of. While the mention of the name “Carrozzeria Touring” is likely to send most car enthusiast’s minds fantasizing about graceful, elegant mid-20th Century cars, it’s far less likely said enthusiast will know that those timeless beauties were mostly designed by one man. The Carrozzeria Touring was established in Milan by Felice Bianchi Anderloni in 1926 and rose to prominence in 1936 thanks to its patented “Superleggera” (“superlight”) body construction technique, which became so successful that the moniker later became an integral part of the Company’s name, which became known as “Touring Superleggera.” After WW2, the helm of Touring Superleggera was taken over by the founder’s son, Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni: a cultivated gentleman driver and certainly a man of fine taste, but a designer he most definitely wasn’t.

Touring’s designer, Federico Formenti, was as talented as he was shy and reserved: he found perfectly normal for Anderloni, being Touring’s owner and his boss, to often take personal credit of the designs when talking to customers. Those designs were the ones Touring’s name is famous for to this day: the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 “Villa d’Este”, the Maserati 3500 GT, the Aston Martin DB4… The list could go on, and on indeed it did. Until it didn’t.


Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 "Villa D'Este"

By the early 1960s Touring had invested heavily in new, larger premises at Nova Milanese to provide bodies for Lancia (Flaminia GT Coupè and Cabriolet), Alfa Romeo (2000/2600 Spider), and the Sunbeam Venezia for the Rootes Group. Those good times sadly weren’t to last though: the Venezia bombed on the market, Alfa Romeo ceased production of the 2600 Spider without a replacement and new work certainly couldn’t come from a failing Lancia.

Touring filed for bankruptcy in 1966, but Formenti and his former employer Bianchi Anderloni didn’t remain unemployed for long, as their long-time customer Alfa Romeo promptly included both in its ranks: Bianchi Anderloni was put at the head of the body design department, whose area of competence included the “Centro Stile”, directed by Giuseppe Scarnati since its inception in 1956. As far as period documents and first-hand accounts reveal though, Mr. Bianchi Anderloni hardly had any actual influence on the output of the Centro Stile, as Scarnati fiercely defended “his” field until his retirement, around 1975.

In the car design field, fact and fiction often are difficult to tell apart: most people want to grab credit for successful designs, whether deservedly or not, while other more modest individuals don’t and end up being forgotten.

Federico Formenti, meanwhile, put his two decades of Touring experience to good use in the then still developing Alfa Romeo “Centro Stile”: Mario Favilla, a former Alfa Romeo designer I’ve had the pleasure to meet recently, remembers Formenti as a man of extraordinary skill, almost a “one-man design studio”, that with humility helped younger designers to “mature” and provided advice and solutions to the experts.

To learn more about Federico Formenti, I’d suggest you read this excellent book by Mario Favilla: one more reason to pick up those Italian classes you always promised yourself. In the book, Mr. Favilla recalls an episode from 1970: the Alfetta was signed off for production, but a quirk of internal bureaucracy meant that the 1:10 scale scale “four views” drawing, necessary for the model’s type approval paperwork, wasn’t made until the day before its deadline.


Mario Favilla's excellent book

When Giuseppe Scarnati found out, he desperately asked Formenti if he could make that drawing overnight, which was almost like asking for a miracle, as such a task would normally take one week: Formenti agreed and, the following morning, the Centro Stile staff found the requested drawing on his table, together with the butts of all the cigarettes he smoked while drawing (it was a very different time indeed!).

The type-approval procedure for what was to be the 1972 Alfetta saloon could be made on time. In the car design field, fact and fiction often are difficult to tell apart: most people want to grab credit for successful designs, whether deservedly or not, while other more modest individuals don’t and end up being forgotten. But it’s never too late to tell the story straight and give credit where it’s due, whenever that’s possible.

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