TURIN - Italy is the cradle of automotive design, but the top stylists at Fiat and Lancia grew up with hot dogs and hamburgers, not pasta and Pinot Grigio.
Peter Davis, head of Fiat's Centro Stile, and Mike Robinson, Lancia's design director, carry American passports.
The irony is not lost on the locals. A visitor wonders if anyone here asks why Americans are leading a revolution in Italian design.
'Only about 20 times a day,' says Robinson, wearily.
Davis and Robinson are not the only Americans holding down important styling jobs in Europe.
Former Fiat designer Chris Bangle heads BMW's studio. J. Mays, the new head of styling at Ford in the USA, was once design director at Audi. All four are part of a generation of American stylists who came to Europe in the early 1980s, when US design was seen to be floundering. They learned their craft and spent their careers here.
'The fact that we have American citizenship is superfluous,' said Robinson, who led the Fiat Bravo/Brava design team before moving to Lancia 18 months ago. 'Pete and I have a lot of European experience. It is not like we were plucked out of a styling studio in California.'
Davis, 41, has been at Fiat for eight years and in his current job for more than four.
He started with General Motors Europe in August 1983, working alongside Bangle. Opel was enjoying a product renaissance while Fiat was in the doldrums. Opel's Ruesselsheim, Germany, studio, under Wayne Cherry, was considered a hot shop when Bangle and Davis were recruited by Fiat.
In those years, Fiat designs were often done by outside consultants like Italdesign and I.De.A. The independent Turin designers still bid on new Fiat projects, but the in-house Centro Stile is on a winning streak.
The Palio world car came from I.De.A., but the last new European Fiat created by an outsider was the Punto, by Italdesign.
'We did the Coupe, the Barchetta, the Bravo/Brava and the Marea,' said Davis. 'We've seen tremendous changes in the development process at Fiat.'
Davis has been given much of the credit, though he says 'I was in the right place at the right time.'
Some believe that he was on the shortlist to replace Jack Telnack at Ford, the job J. Mays got. Davis said there was no job offer, though he did have a long talk with Ford Automotive Operations chief Jacques Nasser last year.
'I can't imagine going back to America and working as a designer,' he said. 'When I left America they were designing inappropriate products. I wanted to go to Europe and do those kinds of cars, not be in Detroit and design land yachts.'
Robinson, 41, spent 10 years at Fiat's Centro Stile before moving to Lancia.
He graduated from an industrial design program at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1979 and did a design internship at Ford's US studio.
Robinson did not like what he saw.
'That was not a happy time in the US auto industry,' he said. 'Jack Telnack had just walked in the door. Gene Bordinat (then Ford design director) was still connected to an older design scheme.
'I saw people who had been doing hubcaps for their whole life. I didn't want to be part of an enormous system. The creativity was not there and the numbers of people were frightening. I had Giugiaro, Gandini and Pininfarina in mind.'
Robinson interviewed at virtually every studio in Europe and did an internship at Volvo. He worked freelance in Turin for three years and then spent two years at Ford's Ghia studio before he joined Fiat in 1984.
He personally designed the Bravo/Brava interior, while overseeing the entire project. He credits then Fiat Auto chief Paolo Cantarella with reinvigorating Fiat design during the Bravo/Brava project.
'He knows as much about styling trends as we do,' said Robinson. 'He had just arrived and the Bravo/Bravo was a chance to change the house culture, to change the system.'
One example was the integrated radio on the Bravo/Brava. They had been on US and German cars for years, but were new to Fiat.
'We had radios that looked integrated, but were really a big rectangular box,' said Robinson. 'Cantarella said we could do it if it cost less than L100,000 (now $57). We did it and it was a big step forward for us in design.'
Cantarella sent Robinson to Lancia in the summer of 1996 in the midst of a crisis. Management was worried about the Dedra replacement. Dealers hated its appearance and the launch was postponed. Robinson was asked to breathe new life into Lancia styling.
'When I got here I found there was not enough positive energy,' he said. 'I thought people should be bouncing off the walls. We're just now arriving at the level of intensity I had in mind when I started. In fact, sometimes you have to tell the guys to stop and take a break.'
Robinson says Lancia lacks the strength of image that has been recaptured at Fiat and Alfa Romeo.
'Lancia is a key player in the image of the group,' he said. 'Alfa is on track. It just won 1/8car of the year.' Now it is Lancia's turn.'
Robinson started by studying the life of Vincenzo Lancia, who founded the company in 1906.
'I wanted to know what the man was like and what he would do if he were here today. I found that he was an amazing guy. I think he'd do lots of things that aren't necessarily happening now.
'Today the leaders in our segment are Germans, all Germans,' Robinson said. 'But it would be wrong to simply copy them. The Germans can afford to just refine, refine, refine. We have to leap over them. Vincenzo Lancia's tradition was to change tradition. That was one of his rules.'