Lorenzo Ramaciotti, the 51-year-old general director of Pininfarina's study and research center, is from Modena - the home of Ferrari. Coming from this part of Italy, cars and engines are an integral part of his DNA.
As a young student, Ramaciotti moved to Turin to study mechanical engineering at the Polytechnic University, following in the footsteps of many car enthusiasts. But instead of drawing up camshafts and pistons, Ramaciotti decided to concentrate on car design.
To date, Ramaciotti has been part of Pininfarina's senior management team for 26 years. He talked to Automotive News Europe's Luca Ciferri.
How do you see the future of car design?
Long-term forecasts are always inaccurate. At times, they are even comical.
For example, there were three research cars which, at the beginning of the 1970s, seemed to sum up the future of car design. These were the Carabo by Bertone, the Boomerang by Giugiaro, and our own Modulo. But the year 2000 has arrived and these cars are way out of time.
Car designers are not credible when they try to predict the future.
What about current design trends?
There are no clear trends at the moment. It is difficult to say what is fashionable in today's car industry. Wedge-shaped forms and tense, sharp-edged lines dominated the 1970s. In the 1980s, sharp-edged forms went out of fashion and smooth bio-design ruled the day. But today, anything goes. So we cannot talk about any particular trend. From that point of view, last October's Tokyo motor show was very enlightening.
Why was Tokyo so interesting?
You would find design contradictions on the same stand. Honda was indicative of this. It showed three radically different vehicles. There was the Fuya-jo - a cross between a city car and a traveling discotheque, designed by Wave, the Tokyo design center. There was a coupe-pickup truck called the Spocket, created in California of course. And there was the more rational Neukom, a square-edged minivan with 'vertical' sections. The Neukom is a project from Honda's Japanese design center that deals with production models.
These specific vehicles, although research prototypes, show a lack of coherence about modern car design. At the same time, there is also a tendency to design according to regional tastes.
Will a true 'world car' ever exist?
The 'world car' has never worked. Cars invented for a world market have never attained global acceptance. On the other hand, there have been cars designed for regional markets that have gone on to achieve global success. I'm thinking of the Toyota Corolla, and above all the first series of the Honda Accord. That car was a success in Japan, Europe and America.
What do you think about the popularity of the minivan?
Of course the minivan is highly influential - it represents the modern way of traveling by car. At the beginning of the 1980s, when the Chrysler Voyager and the Renault Espace were launched, the minivan was an elite product. When I used to see an Espace with only the driver aboard I used to ask myself why he was driving around with six empty seats. But then I drove a minivan and realized it represented a completely new era of car driving. Visibility is better; the floor is flat and functional; conversation is easier and more natural; the interior is more flexible.
It quickly became necessary to create a mainstream minivan for everyday family use. So a five-seat version was born, with a price similar to a medium-range station wagon.
Ten years have passed since Renault invented the Scenic. How has the minivan affected traditional car design?
Again, we cannot talk of specific trends. The minivan has taken over from the station wagon in the USA, but both vehicles are still popular in Europe. Japan, on the other hand, is raging for blocks on wheels that look like commercial vans. Meanwhile, in Korea, everyone is still going crazy for those four-door sedans that nobody else in the world seems to want.
When designing a car, what is your prime consideration?
The most important thing about car design is to give it strong values - values customers are able to appreciate, and which can differentiate one product from another. In these terms, design is more important than ever.
With this in mind, let's take a look at three rival vehicles: the VW Golf, GM Astra and Ford Focus. Although they compete against each other, each has an individual design.
The Golf represents the continuity of a well-made, reliable product, which symbolizes all the VW brand values. At a glance, every new Golf appears to look the same as the previous one. But, in time, the differences become apparent. That gives each new model a long-term appeal, right through its entire lifecycle. The Golf is so important that it could now be considered a brand on its own.
The Astra represents the opposite. It is a typical American approach where each new generation opens up a new chapter. It eliminates the past and blends into the flow of the current trends. There is no model or brand continuity because the Astra buyer is looking for an up-to-date, trendy product.
The Focus leads us in a third direction. It is an attempt to impose a strong characterization, not only as the Escort successor, but also on the entire Ford range. Ford has been through this phase before with the Sierra, which was the first sedan without a radiator grille and with a definite aerodynamic design. Ford's New Edge design could have been reserved for the Ka, but it was extended across the rest of the range. It was a brave decision.
What does a creative person like you expect, not from the new millennium, but simply from tomorrow?
I'm just like a kid who is always playing with his cars. A car dreamer. Car designers are as important to the car industry as special effects technicians are to the cinema. We have to make people dream - not only with esoteric cars, but also with realistic proposals. Every time a designer puts pencil to paper, the journey into the unknown begins.
Design in the third millennium? I didn't really feel the turn of the century was an epoch-making event. It was simply another New Year.