Designer Paolo Martin talks about one of the most extraordinary and innovative dream cars of all time, unveiled to the public at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show. Through the backstage and with details of its genesis, he explains how it was born, but also how it should have remained. Because from the author’s point of view, the version implemented by the current owner is like tampering with a work of art.
Photos and Drawings courtesy of Paolo Martin Archive
It all began in 1968. Ferrari had sent Pininfarina two chassis of the 25 built for the type approval of the Ferrari 512 S. The chassis had remained unsold, and were sent to Turin to be used to develop a couple of prototypes for a possible future production. One was handed over to Filippo Sapino, my colleague from the style team who at the time was working in Grugliasco, and one to me. The input we had received was to think of a show car – then known as a dream car – suited to that chassis, without any great demands. I made my proposal, a small sketch on an A3 sheet; while Sapino did something better: a beautiful figure. His proposal was chosen. They still weren’t ready for mine, it was considered a rather strange “thing” while Sapino’s was “more feasible”, more of a real car. Although I had tried to make my idea a bit more attractive, it was decided that it wasn’t right and was put to one side for the time being.
And so August 1969 arrived, and I decided to give some three-dimensional shape to my idea. I ordered eight square metres of polystyrene, unloaded it and started to scratch and saw, until I had a car in scale 1:1.
Returning from the holidays, which I missed because I was working on my idea, Sergio Pininfarina and the engineer Renzo Carli – Sergio’s right-hand man and brother-in-law – were quite perplexed and indeed even a bit annoyed.
They didn’t agree with the idea that I had come up with, so out of the ordinary: “What planet are you on, how did you get the idea of doing something like that?” they asked me.
The polystyrene car was hidden under a cloth and forgotten for a while. It remained hidden for six months, more or less. Then one day, just like that, they decided to build it: the Geneva Motor Show was to start soon, and we had to put something scenic on display.
I invented practically everything of the Modulo, without any external inspiration: the idea just came to me, pretty much like all my creations. I had no specific references, not even space vehicles, also because at that time there was nothing you could refer to.
Some say that my inspiration came from the Shuttle, but it didn’t exist at that time. It was a completely personal interpretation. The only thing I wanted to do was to make something different from the usual car.
I merely tried to translate the two dimensions of the original sketch into three dimensions: a graphic work that was developed into a 3D. I started from a graphic shape, so the concept of modularity (and from here the name Modulo) repeated both inside and out: the seats are exactly the same, the controls on the side, graphically all the parts are practically specular. This was the reason behind the inspiration, but many more came after.
The Modulo was presented at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show. Engineer Fioravanti decided at the last minute that the original colour, a pearly pale blue, was wrong and had it painted black on a white background. Later the car returned to its original colour, but after that I knew no more of it, because I left Pininfarina in 1972. I know it was repainted white, but I don’t know whose idea it was.
The story of the Modulo is quite special, because it was the only car that Sergio Pininfarina didn’t want to make, under any circumstances. He was really worried that it would be slammed by the press and not accepted. But when it started to make its name around the world, I received a telegram with apologies. Its success was crowned by the public.
After 50 years, this design still has a certain charm, and everyone tells me that it’s an untouchable car, in the sense that you can’t change anything even by a centimetre, as this would change all the proportions. When you look at it, all the lines are simple, clean, essential and well proportioned. And this goes for all the cars I have designed: I wouldn’t change anything about them, I wouldn’t correct them because there’s nothing to correct. Everything comes to me almost instinctively, from my subconscious. Even when they seem designed by different people and the same hand can’t be seen in any of them, each one is different from the next. They are all completely different. That’s my nature: I like to invent things, and when the work is done I put it to one side. I have no regrets.
The Modulo can’t be explained, it has to be sensed, it has to get inside you, give you an emotion. You can’t explain an emotion. For a critical opinion of the Modulo, Pininfarina even called the architect and designer Gio Ponti, hoping that he would express a negative view of the car so that he could say to me: “You see? Wasn’t I right?” But in fact Gio Ponti really liked the car. He made only one comment, about the holes in the rear window: “The arrow profile gives an idea of movement, but the holes are fixed spots,” he said. I told him that the holes could even be square if he liked, but the air had to come out of them anyway, it didn’t change anything.” The rear window was a bone of contention for Ing. Carli, who wanted it to be made of Plexiglas. In fact, he had it built like that, with the air holes. So in the evening he had the Plexiglas window mounted, and the next morning I put the sheet metal part back in, as I preferred. This went on two or three times, until he said: “OK do what you like.”
I’m the only person to know every single inch of the Modulo. I know how the car was made, because I was the only one to oversee the construction, I worked with the workshop manager, alongside the workers. Everything was left up to me, I could decide whatever I wanted.
For instance, the controls housed inside a ball: in the workshop we tried to build these balls, but even when done on the lathe they were never perfect. So I had the idea of starting from a bowling ball and making a mould, and that’s what we did. From the time I spent at Michelotti I was always used to solving problems on my own. And at Michelotti, I was also the prop guy; I knew all the back streets of Turin, all the tinkers and ironmongers, I always knew where to find the missing pieces. I was really talented at that, and I still am today. I have some stuff that’s been in the drawers for 50 years, and often that’s where the solution lies. It’s the way I work: it’s cheap and very easy.
As we said, the Modulo was a dream car, a trend and style study that more often than not wouldn’t even get on the roads, also for economic reasons: the body shop didn’t care if the car worked or not, it was all about the dress, which could also perhaps be adapted to other models.
So the Modulo was a graphic study, and turning it into a working car, like the current owner has done, is taking it a bit too far. It was like trying to make a plane with short wings or problems of stability fly. If I had wanted to put it on the road at the time, I would have been able to, but by adopting original and special solutions, otherwise you always risk having to improvise.
And in fact, unfortunately that’s what happened. The oil radiator, the engine ventilation - because a 12-cylinder has its needs -, the rear-view mirrors, the “elephant-ear” side openings: put on the road like that, the car gives a completely different impression to what was originally intended.
In my opinion, the great innovation of the Modulo was its simplicity: no convolutions, no stretching it. Perhaps that’s why some people say that “my” Modulo is an unfinished car, but that’s not it: it is perfectly defined, there was no need for anything else to make it work.
But I think that now it has become undefined, now it has been turned into a working car: in my opinion, it’s like someone who owns a painting by a famous painter and discovers that the beautiful woman portrayed is short-sighted so they get another painter to put some glasses on her. Owning a work of art – because that’s what we’re talking about, a work of art – shouldn’t give the owner the right to change it however they like. It makes no sense.
From May to July 2022, Paolo Martin’s work is on display in Venice, with 136 original sketches of his most important works. The exhibition “Vision in design”, at Ca’Balbi Valier Dorsoduro 866, on the Canal Grande, is a private event, and can be visited by sending a request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the website www.bestinsketch.it