From Dafs to Ferraris, passing through microcars and futuristic prototypes: his pencil moved in all the car fields you can possibly imagine, with unmatched creative flair. He drew so many cars that still today it’s impossible to draw up a detailed list of them all, as many of his designs were not signed. His son Edgardo has been trying to put some order into the huge heritage of his father’s works since 1989, firstly by setting up a Historical Register and then creating an archive, which however is still incomplete. Out of the around 30,000 drawings Giovanni Michelotti is thought to have done in over 30 years of activity, he has kept and catalogued almost six thousand. For now
Words & Photography Gilberto Milano
Archive Courtesy of Archivio Storico Michelotti
“He drew, drew, drew, all the time. Day and night. Ultimately, I don't think my father ever actually worked, I think he just really enjoyed drawing cars.” These are the words of Edgardo Michelotti, Giovanni’s seventy-one-year-old son, who opened the doors to his father’s precious archives kept in a former workshop just outside the centre of Turin. Edgardo was completing a degree in architecture when Giovanni died in January 1980, and since then his son has been trying to assure the fair recognition of his father’s work by saving as much of it as possible.
The story of Giovanni Michelotti is indeed unique in the history of car design, in Italy and beyond. No other stylist whose genius has illuminated this sector thus far can boast such a broad and varied production of designs as those created by Giovanni Michelotti from 1949 onwards, until his premature death aged 58. Yet at the same time, nobody has ever suffered the kind of “oblivion” that has afflicted the work of this humble and prolific car creator.
Still today he is unknown to most people and little celebrated compared to other legends who have – rightly so – been awarded with prizes and honorary degrees. How can a stylist who, in his short career, drew over one thousand cars, working with all the coachbuilders in Turin (aside from one), the only person to hold the record of 40 cars on show at a motor show (Turin 1954, most of which undeclared) still be considered a minor stylist?
There are many reasons. Michelotti was first and foremost a great car enthusiast, and then a businessman. “I’m not a good speaker, but if they make me draw I’m happy to do so,” he said, talking about his work at an Italian Coachbuilding conference in 1978.
“For me, what counts in a car is style, and style is also what brings it all together for sales. The stylist’s task is a very delicate one. They have to dress up a car, and a car is always made of four wheels, a steering wheel and an engine. You have to know what goes round these parts to create a car that must be acceptable to the general public, the retailers and the technicians.”
And he went round these parts a lot. “He never said no to anyone, and never pulled out when faced with difficulties. And yet he only ever put his name on a design when the client said he could. And above all, he never had anyone to promote his image, a “service” that other coachbuilders had,” his son Edgardo explains. It’s impossible to say how many cars Michelotti actually designed. Edgardo reckons around 1,200-1,300 cars that were actually produced and many others that weren't, perhaps around 30,000 drawings and designs. Quite an incredible number.
“Dad was very prolific, but also incredibly fast. In one night, with a sandwich, some good wine, a pack of cigarettes and the radio blasting, he could produce a 1:1 scale drawing of a new model, showing all the measurements and details, ready to be made,” Edgardo recalls.
“Apparently he made a thousand models from the early Fifties to 1961. For Vignale alone he drew 311 cars, of which 150 Ferraris, which all went into production. He didn’t feel the need to sign off on them all, he loved his work: he was paid just for the design, and even then not much. Perhaps even just the full-size drawing.”
Michelotti began drawing at a young age, seven or eight years old, passing the time he spent in bed – six months – suffering from a chronic inflammatory disease affecting both hip joints, bilateral coxarthrosis. At the time, the only cure was quinine and absolute rest. That was when he realised he could draw. He drew everything. And this disease revealed a talent. His father gave him the idea of cars, when he saw that a coachbuilder was looking for an apprentice. Not just any old coachbuilder, but Stabilimenti Farina, the largest coachbuilder in Turin. It was run by Giovanni Farina and his two sons: Nino, a future Formula 1 world champion with Alfa Romeo in 1950, and Attilio (Giovanni Battista was Giovanni’s younger brother, who set up Pininfarina).
Michelotti was 16 when he was hired. At first he worked under Pietro Frua, a style manager with a tough character. Indeed, Frua was sacked on the spot after an argument with Attilio, and Giovanni Michelotti took his place. He was just 17. And that was when he began to surprise everyone with his creativity.
Michelotti stayed at Stabilimenti Farina until 1949, when he opened the first professional car design firm in Italy. A powerhouse of ideas, he drew everything: in particular, small Fiats and Abarths, as well as microcars, beach cars, sports cars, super sports cars (the two Ferraris that won the Mille Miglia in 1951 and 1952 were his), advertising vehicles, buses, tractors, motorboats, scooters and dream prototypes.
He worked for many famous coachbuilders, including Allemano, Balbo, Bertone, Vignale, Ghia and Moretti. But never for Pininfarina. “I suppose he had some kind of verbal commitment with Attilio to never work for Pinin,” Edgardo imagines.
Although his cars become famous worldwide, little is known of him. Indeed, very few people know that he was the man behind the most original Ferraris of the early Fifties, all the Vignale cars, especially the Ferraris, like the beautiful Vignale Barchetta 166 and 212 Spider, as well as the 1952 Ferrari Berlinetta 340 Mexico Tuboscocca Vignale. Or the 1953 Maserati A6 GCS Spider Vignale; the 1953 Fiat 8V Vignale and 8V Siata; the 1953 Cunningham C3, considered “one of the ten most beautiful contemporary cars”; the Renault Alpine built by Allemano in 1954 based on one of his drawings. And also, the spectacular Demon Rouge built on a Fiat 8V chassis in 1955, the first to use a hidden handle in the door pillar; the 1958 Lotus Eleven Ghia Eagle; the futuristic Lancia Nardi Raggio Azzurro of 1955 and 1958; the 1961 Giulietta SV Conrero Goccia and many others besides. In 1958 he was the first Italian designer to work with the Japanese (Hino Contessa) and in 1959 his first BMW and Triumph creations, further developed in the ‘60s, were produced. The lines were completely different even though they were all designed by the same person in the same period.
Among his many stylistic innovations, we may recall the 1960 “pagoda-style roof”, which added greater side visibility (the sides are higher in the centre) on a more compact car. This solution was later adopted by Mercedes for the 230 SL and Lancia for the Fulvia HF. Or the egg-shaped frame with a square grille, which became a style feature of Ferraris in the 1950s.
“He had clear ideas, when he drew he rarely rubbed anything out and corrected it. Sometimes he didn't even do the 1:10 scale drawings. He didn't do any sketches, he just started creating the car he had in mind in scale 1:1,” Edgardo states.
“His speciality was three-quarter views, which were the most spectacular and effective for impressing the clients, and these took him just a few minutes. He was also a maniac for safety, and his technical and marketing background allowed him to understand the needs of the clientele according to their origin: French, English, German, Japanese. He thought of everything in advance, and delivered projects that were 90% feasible.”
“He had learned that aerodynamics is important in the first two thirds of the car, safety is fundamental for the people in the centre and once you get to the back you can concentrate on saving weight,” the journalist Gianni Rogliatti said of him in 1964.
Of his production in the 1970s, we should remember the Matra Laser (1971) with its wedge-shaped profile; the Fiat 128 Pulsar (1972), the world’s first car to adopt impact-absorbing polyurethane bumpers; the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Nart commissioned by Luigi Chinetti in 1978, with a far more streamlined front than the Pininfarina Daytona; the Lancia Mizar, still today the only car built with four gull-wing doors, and the BMW 2002 Turbo, all between 1972 and 1974.
“He was a man of contradictions: a classically trained designer who became an iconoclastic stylist, a great car communicator in the sense of the poetic metaphor of escapism. But when appropriate, he was perfectly able to work with more restrained models. This is demonstrated by the Triumph TR4 and Spitfire spiders, evergreen forms of majestic simplicity,” the car historian Angelo Tito Anselmi wrote.
Edgardo took over the company when he was just 26, with little experience. He studied architecture, and in the company he was just one of the draughtsmen, an employee like all the others. With twenty or so staff, draughtsmen and workers, he continued until 1991 when he was forced to surrender to the new reality of the car manufacturers’ in-house style centres. “Other coachbuilders had closed, and the atmosphere in Turin had already become tainted. I was 39 years old. We just closed it down, we weren’t even bankrupt,” Edgardo recalls.
And the closure was also fatal for setting up the archive. During the final move, many of the drawings that had been kept in the company were stolen overnight.
“The person who took them later said they did it to stop them from being destroyed. But then they gave them to collectors or sold them at international auctions,” Edgardo states. “Many of those drawings were certainly the ones of the Triumphs, because I have very few of the Triumph Spitfire, the TR4. The Victoria and Albert Museum bought a lot of them and luckily they at least gave me some high-definition digital copies. I’m still missing a lot of the ones done for the Turin coachbuilders, though I think I have all of the ones for Moretti. And I have lots of the Ghia Aigle ones.”
Edgardo has no idea of how many drawings his father did throughout his career. “I have six thousand of them, but I reckon there are between 25 and 30 thousand drawings. Perhaps even more".
"Of course, he didn't take away the ones he did when he was at Stabilimenti Farina, and I guess they’ve all been thrown away. That’s what they did at the time. Vignale threw loads of material away, and so did Balbo and Ghia. When they didn't need the drawings any more, they burned them: nobody thought of saving them for posterity at the time. But I think my archive contains the world’s most varied collection of my father’s work. He worked all the time, doing research and designing new things. Some of them were later literally copied by other designers, as Piero Castagnero did at Lancia, he stole some ideas from the Osca 1600, presented in Geneva in 1959, and he made the Fulvia HF, with the pagoda-style roof that was criticised at the time. My archive contains some patents and some contracts he signed with BMW, Triumph, with Siata. And I’ve got tons of correspondence. I think we can say that it’s possible to reconstruct a significant part of motoring history, from the 1950s to the ‘70s.”
SpeedHolics would like to thank the Archivio Storico Michelotti for allowing us to publish the drawings illustrating this article - http://www.archiviostoricomichelotti.it/
Gilberto Milano, class of 1949, professional journalist, began writing about economics and industry and later turned to motoring. Especially historical motoring, specialising in the investigation of all aspects of collecting. He has written for all major Italian magazines. This is his first article for SpeedHolics.