Last May, I was invited to a demonstration of Ford’s computer design power at its Small & Medium Vehicle Centre near Brentwood, Essex. I left my 1962 registration Austin Healey Sprite in one of the car parks, among the Mondeos and Scorpios – like a Jack Russell in a flock of bovine automatons – and joined the assembled journalists and pinstriped PR folk in a large hall. There, a senior designer displayed his virtuosity with a digital stylus and electronic palette, giving form to an imaginary saloon.
As he worked, his creation was projected on to a screen. His commentary centred around issues of speed and flexibility and ease of manufacture. It was impressive but, as I drove away, I wondered whether record-beating computer networks could help Ford find its soul. Because a soul – or a sense of its own essential character – is what it is missing, and you don’t have to travel to deepest Essex to discover that.
Important elements of car design like identity and continuity seem to have bypassed Ford in recent years. Rather than a family of vehicles that share genes but display different personalities, the Ford Mondeo, Scorpio, Probe, Ka and Puma seem more like distant relatives thrown together by a particularly vengeful seating plan at a wedding reception.
Not so Alfa Romeo, the classic Italian marque that is enjoying one of the most widely welcomed revivals the motor industry has seen for years. Alfa’s latest launch, the 156 sports saloon (see panel right), is a deserving Car Of The Year and marks the culmination of Alfa’s creative rebirth, a process that has gained momentum with each new vehicle and experimental model since Fiat’s rescue of Alfa in 1986.
Stoking the resurgence of the Milanese carmaker is a design philosophy rooted less in the age of transglobal Intranets than in the days of the great carrozzieri (coachbuilders), when marques were stewarded with passion and dedication by outstanding individual designers.
The 156 is the purest distillation for two decades of Alfa’s essence: sporty driving for a mass public, with engines reared on the racetrack and fluid, unpretentious bodies crafted by top Italian design houses. In many ways, it tops the achievement of the much-admired Spider and its close relation, the GTV, introduced in 1995.
The man that all Alfisti have to thank for this is Walter de Silva, the 45-year-old chief of Alfa’s Centro Stile (styling centre). Enter his office at the Arese plant on the outskirts of Milan, and you gauge immediately how connected Alfa’s present is to its heritage (not a dirty word in Milan).
De Silva’s shelves are crowded with Alfa memorabilia, scale models, photographs and books. There are no drawers or filing systems, he points out. His desk is a large wooden table with one or two piles of documents. The computer, he says, is just for show.
There are plenty of screens elsewhere in the Centro Stile, but de Silva’s creations take shape in the margins of his diary. You soon twig that he puts his faith in the kind of creative thought that happens when humans are not glued to computer screens.
Milan is, of course, a world away from Brentwood, but how out of place de Silva would be anyway at Ford. He opens a week-at-a-view desk-planner at a random page. There, in the right-hand column dedicated to the weekend, is a knot of small sketches, some of them worked over and over again. Turn the page and there are more: dream cars, but also more abstract forms and one or two Modigliani-esque sketches of women. “Every day, I think and then I draw. I don’t design cars; I draw my thoughts. This is my inspiration,” he says.
As anyone who has ever picked up a pencil knows, a single line in the right place can occasionally transform an image. Remarkably, this is also true of Alfa’s newest car, the 156. There is a horizontal line running along the side of the car, which is strong over the wheelarches but virtually imperceptible near the door handle. It is a slash of the pencil, preserved intact from a drawing perhaps five-years-old now, through high-level approvals, marketing checks and production engineering. That line alone is evidence of the dedication that runs through Alfa to producing not just vehicles, but “architecture for the road”.
The son of a painter and a graphic designer, de Silva’s best ideas often come when his mind is elsewhere. “From the drawings I can tell whether I was nervous or stressful or calm. This is good (he starts flicking through the pages)… this is good… this is good… this one (a week of appointments in Turin with his Fiat superiors) is grande stress.”
Generally, de Silva seems contented with his ultimate accountability to Fiat: “It’s a great position: we get as much support as we need, but complete autonomy. I am much luckier than my colleagues (Fiat designers) because I live 100km from Turin!” Without Fiat, of course, there would probably not have been an Alfa renaissance. None of what has happened seemed likely in the mid-Eighties. Fiat was the enemy: it was positioning Lancia to challenge Alfa in the mass market. Alfa itself – a nationalised © concern – was on its knees following a slow strangulation at the hands of government paper-pushers.
Bureaucracy and a lack of hard cash had driven the life out of the company. Its cars were boxy and plagued by rust problems. The Italian government tried to tempt BMW to buy Alfa. Ford was interested until Fiat, keen to keep Ford from getting a foothold in Italy, struck a deal.
Committed Alfisti feared the worst: enmeshed by Fiat, the Alfa shield, or scudetto, that characteristically divided the grille at the front of the car would become an empty symbol of “badge engineering”, much as MG has more recently. How wrong they were. Fiat has overseen the recuperation of Alfa by allowing de Silva and his team to unearth the qualities that made it great in the past. And at Arese, the past is inescapable.
A fabulous treat for visitors is to be guided around the Museo Alfa Romeo, where every past model and many prototypes are on display, all lovingly restored. The museum documents the early days of the company, producing three cars a day and winning Grand Prix as ALFA – Anonima Lombrada Fabbrica Automobili. Here, you can appreciate the aura of high speed and exceptional engineering – the kind of thing Marinetti and the Italian Futurists had revelled in – generated by Alfa Romeo in its racing success with legendary drivers such as Nuvolari.
The lure of the Alfa became irresistible when coachbuilders such as Touring started draping the cars in superlight, streamlined forms. Never before had machines been this beautiful. But de Silva and his team look more to the post-War years and the marque’s rapid expansion, transferring racy performance and profiles to volume production. The generations of Giulias and Giuliettas, with bodies by Touring, Bertone and Zagato, were the epitome of cool, sculpted European sophistication in car design and a contrast to the tailfins and death-by-chrome tack being taken by US makers.
De Silva is reviving the look of Alfa, with its distinctive cat’s nose and whiskers – the scudetto and intakes either side. But he is also a believer that Europe is the home of car styling and that Alfa has a responsibility to remind people that. Tradition and cultural baggage are all grist to the mill at the Centro Stile. Of recruiting his team, he says: “Generally, now, designers will move on every three or four years. It is not my philosophy, though. I want people here who love Alfa Romeo, who have a passion, who don’t just care about money. Generally, they are European. If they are American, they are as good as the money they get.”
The mediocrity in car design in the Seventies and Eighties he attributes to forces external to Europe, from Japan: “There was a refusal of cars to be personalities. All the cars from that time were a bit anonymous. The whole of Europe was hit by this perception of the car, and Alfa Romeo did not escape.”
Home is very much where the heart is for de Silva, himself a Lombard from near Milan. His life is about two families: the one he goes home to and draws inspiration from; and the one taking shape at Centro Stile, a family that bears the crest of Milan in the Alfa Romeo badge. The two are intertwined. It is a system that has done both de Silva and Alfa Romeo considerable good, and he expects the same commitment from the people with whom he is planning the next generation of Alfas.
“I tell my designers we have to be first with everything. As soon as a project finishes, you have to think about what can come afterwards. I don’t care about routine: if there is something that has to be worked on over the weekend, you’ll have to see your girlfriend on Monday. It’s not a nine-to-five job. A designer’s wife will notice that when he is involved in a really good, interesting project, he’s a better person! This person will say, ‘Cars are my life!'”
The Alfa Romeo 156
On sale in the UK from the end of February, the Alfa Romeo 156 is a saloon car that thinks it’s a sports car. The 2.5L V6 version has a six-speed gearbox, can clock 142mph and will get you from stationary to 60mph in seven seconds.
If you don’t imagine ever driving at 142mph, the look of the car is reason enough to put it on your National Lottery wishlist. The body is lithe and completely bereft of superfluous chrome or mouldings. Along the side is that free slash of the designer’s pencil and a front door handle that could have been lifted straight from one of the great Giulias of the Sixties. It is the centre of gravity of the car’s profile, so the rear door handle is ingeniously concealed within the C-pillar so as not to disturb the visual balance.
The front section revives the cat’s whiskers tradition of old Alfas and the line from the V of the shield, or scudetto, flows right back over the bonnet to the roofline. In fact, the scudetto itself, which cuts into the bumper and is outlined by a series of incisions, was the subject of a minor battle that reveals de Silva’s passion for Alfa trademarks.
‘When we presented the model of the car to the (Fiat) management, there were three of us who wanted the slits around the shield: me, a colleague of mine and (Paolo) Cantarella (Fiat Group’s chief executive). Everyone else was against us. They didn’t understand why we needed it. But we argued that this was the true face of Alfa Romeo. If you go to the museum, you’ll find exactly the same detail. It is a functional detail (part of the air intake).
But for most people, it is difficult to understand a new model when they first see it. As a designer, when you present the model internally, you already understand it, but when we presented the 156 it was 36 months before it would be produced. So, when the management don’t understand, I am very happy! I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they did. It would mean we are just presenting an old car.’