The Greatest Automobile Designer You've Never Heard Of
I think it's fair to say that, between the 1950s and 1980s, Italy has "owned" car design more than any other nation. But what if I told you there's been someone who styled around 1200 different cars almost singlehandedly?
Most enthusiasts know well the names most associated with Italy's mastery of the discipline: from the great houses of Bertone and Pininfarina to Giugiaro's Italdesign. But what if I told you there's been someone who styled an incredible 1200 different cars almost singlehandedly?
That man was Giovanni Michelotti and, on the hundredth year from his birth, Turin's National Automobile Museum dedicated a long-overdue homage to his work and legacy.
Michelotti could create such a disproportionate body of work thanks to a combination of sheer talent and hard work, but also thanks to unique circumstances.
After years of working at Stabilimenti Farina, Giovanni Michelotti opened his own studio in Turin around 1949, and there couldn't have been a better time and place to do so. Dozens of small coachbuilding firms each year showed their wares at Turin's motor show, and many took advantage of Michelotti's talent, like Vignale, Bertone, Allemano, or Ghia. This meant that Michelotti often had several cars he designed on display contemporarily each year at the Turinese show.
However, the average visitor would have been none the wiser, as Michelotti's involvement was rarely publicized by his clients, who were much more interested in putting their own names under the spotlight. Nevertheless, Michelotti's name soon became well-known within the automobile industry, leading to long-running collaborations with several automakers, like DAF, BMW, and Hino, a Japanese firm acquired by Toyota in 1967.
For BMW, Michelotti styled two models that would become hugely important for the Bavarian marque: the 700 and the 1500. These two models laid the foundations for the company's successful expansion in the latter part of the 20th century, and some of the 1500's styling cues would be carried on for decades on subsequent models.
But if there's an automaker whose image and fortunes have been inextricably linked with Michelotti, it is undoubtedly Triumph.
Michelotti styled the British marque's most renowned vehicles, like the Herald and the roadsters TR4 and Spitfire, plus its sexy coupé derivative, the GT6. I wish the exhibition could have included a Stag, but those are rare south of the Alps, as the model wasn't officially imported in Italy.
According to a 1978 magazine interview, Michelotti's favorite among his creations was indeed a Triumph, the Spitfire. Having owned one myself many years ago, I can definitely see why: it may have been slow and shoddily constructed, but boy, it looked gorgeous. My favorite details on the car were the bonnet catches bearing an embossed "M" for "Michelotti," in a delightfully subtle homage to the model's creator.
Perhaps fittingly, the last car Giovanni Michelotti ever worked on, before his habit of going through up to sixty cigarettes per day finally caught up with him, was another British roadster, the Reliant Scimitar SS1.
Michelotti prematurely passed away in 1980 due to an incurable illness, and I dedicate this video to his memory.