Pio Manzù: Brilliance and Tragedy
It's the 26th of May, 1969.
It's early morning on a quiet stretch of the "A4" motorway, about 10 kilometers from Turin. At the wheel of a tiny Fiat 500, 30-year-old Italian designer Pio Manzoni, better known as Pio Manzù. He's due to attend a presentation to Fiat's upper management to approve his design for the "127" project: Fiat's future front-wheel-drive supermini.
The son of the renowned sculptor Giacomo Manzoni, Pio Manzù studied industrial design at the influential Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany.
A promising start
While still a student, Pio Manzù and two of his schoolmates won an International Design Competition organized in 1963 by the Swiss magazine "Année Automobile" and their design, based on an Austin-Healey 3000 chassis, was then built by Pininfarina and displayed at motor shows in Turin and London.
Pio Manzù's approach to car design was undoubtedly influenced by his education in Ulm, as he preferred to develop genuinely original vehicle types endowed with functions and performance that responded closely to their actual purpose. That's quite evident in the prototypes built by Autonova, the design consultancy that Pio Manzù, Fritz Busch, and Michael Conrad founded in 1964.
Reinventing the automobile
The Autonova GT project, financed by the German automaker NSU and displayed at the '64 Frankfurt motor show, was a compact Gran Turismo built on the platform and mechanicals of the Prinz 1000 TT.
Manzù and Conrad devised a strikingly modern wedge shape with very clean sides and a truncated rear end whose rear window doubled as a hatchback. But the most unusual feature of the Autonova GT indeed was the arrangement of the headlights, which protruded from the body to help the driver locate the car's edges while driving.
At the opposite end of the automotive spectrum, the 1965 Autonova Fam was designed as a kind of a universal automobile, meeting the different needs involved in transporting people and things cleverly and efficiently. To make the most of its compact 3.5 meters of length, the hood and trunk disappeared into a single, trapezoidal volume predating the minivans of the 1980s. The cabin accommodated up to five passengers, but all the seats were independent and could be folded over to make room for cargo.
Leaving a mark
The originality and coherence of the Autonova prototypes caught the eye of Dante Giacosa, the engineering legend in charge of Fiat's product development at the time. So much so, in fact, that he hired Pio Manzù as a consultant for Fiat's styling center from 1967.
Pio's first project for Fiat was the "City Taxi" prototype, presented at the 1968 Turin motor show and based on the Fiat 850's running gear. Among the first vehicles specially designed as a taxi, it incorporated enough innovative ideas that Fiat filed 15 different patents related to the project. Meanwhile, at the Autobianchi stand, the rather unimaginatively called "Coupé" was a study for a mid-engined sports car... And quite a pretty one at that! Unfortunately, the polyester prototype from the Turin show doesn't seem to have survived, leaving us with just a scale model to admire.
Between one cool car and another, Pio Manzù also managed to leave his mark in product design, with such classics as the "Parentesi" lamp he designed with Achille Castiglioni and the "Chronotime" clock. Both items are still in production today, and I duly bought a black "Chronotime" for my bedside table a couple of years ago.
Yet Pio Manzù's greatest legacy must be the Fiat 127: arguably the first modern European supermini, it became a runaway hit that led European new cars' sales chart for several years and stayed in production well into the 1990s in Latin America.
Sadly, Pio Manzù would not be there to see it happening, though.
He never made it to the meeting that saw his design for the Fiat 127 approved for production as, probably due to fatigue, he left the road and crashed just ten kilometers away from Turin, dying on the way to the hospital at just thirty years old.