MONTEREY, California, USA -- The improved ability of automakers to build small batches of specialty cars in-house, combined with the global recession, made life difficult for boutique coachbuilders. But with the economy improving, Italian styling house Pininfarina is looking to re-enter the game.
The collector-car community has long seen limited-edition coupes and convertibles bearing coachbuilders' badges as holding a premium. And automakers once found it cheaper to contract short production runs to independent styling houses that would boost their brand images.
But the increase in flexibility at automakers' plants in the past two decades meant that volume producers could compete with coachbuilders on a cost basis for volumes of 20,000 to 30,000 units a year. More production came in-house. Before coachbuilders had a chance to restructure their businesses, the recession hit.
In the ensuing bloodbath, Fiat bought the contract-manufacturing arm of Bertone, and Volkswagen took over Karmann. French coachbuilder Heuliez has been in and out of insolvency and receivership since 2006. And, after three generations of family ownership, Pininfarina ceded ownership to its creditor banks, keeping a symbolic 1.2 percent interest.
The only contract manufacturer of any size is Magna Steyr, an Austrian unit of Magna International that handles assembly and subassembly for several Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Nissan and Mini vehicles.
Valmet Automotive of Uusikaupunki, Finland, also does limited contract manufacturing, currently for the Mercedes-Benz A class and recently for the Fisker Karma and Porsche Boxster.
Ferraris and Alfas
Now, Pininfarina sees an opportunity to restart its coachbuilding operations, although at diminished volumes. It hopes to resurrect memories of the numerous Ferraris it built, although to most people Pininfarina is best known for the Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider and Fiat 124 Spider from the 1960s and '70s.
"Pininfarina is the last and only styling house that is adding value to a brand," said Pininfarina CEO Silvio Pietro Angori in an interview during the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance weekend last month. "We are thinking of doing a few hundred cars a year for clients. The days of doing 10,000 cars? That world is gone."
Angori would not say whether its re-entry into contract manufacturing could include assembling BMW's Gran Lusso Coupe concept. Pininfarina unveiled the collaborative concept at the Villa d'Este collector car event in Italy in May, and its executives attended BMW's press conference in Monterey in August.
Angori said a new relationship with premium brands, such as Alfa Romeo, is also possible.
Although Pininfarina factories once built tens of thousands of cars a year, the coachbuilder became burdened with debts after expanding into a "pay-for-production" scheme in the early 2000s.
Normally, an automaker that wants to contract production of a niche car invests upfront for the model. Under pay-for-production, however, the coachbuilder makes the upfront investments and is repaid as it builds cars.
Pininfarina ran up high debts to finance production of the Alfa Romeo Brera and Spider, the Ford Focus CC, the Mitsubishi Colt CZC and the Volvo C70. The cars all sold lower volumes than forecast, leaving Pininfarina unable to pay its debts.
Fabio Filippini, Pininfarina's chief creative officer, said any new production runs will be limited in scale and scope.
Pininfarina currently is renting one of its production facilities for assembly of the Bollore Bluecar electric vehicle, which is used in a car-sharing service in Paris. But Filippini said Pininfarina is in negotiations with several other automakers about low-volume production.
Luca Ciferri contributed to this report.