The incurable enthusiast: Mark Walton on Giorgetto Giugiaro, CAR+ September 2015

Published: 01 August 2015

► Giorgetto Giugiaro's concept designs
► Walton compares Giugiaro to the Pope
► 'It was like meeting Mozart'

Growing up in the 1970s, there were two terrible pitfalls of pronunciation that a young car enthusiast had to avoid to maintain credibility amongst your peers: one was learning how to correctly pronounce ‘Countach’; the other was confidently saying Giorgetto Giugiaro’s name as if you spoke fluent Italian.

Living in a small Yorkshire village it was easy to get it wrong: none of us knew any Italians to ask, and our accent was a hindrance. Plus, the always popular use of ‘Lamba-Geena Cowntack’ did (we had to admit) sound more like a supercar name than the mysterious, foreign word that supposedly rhymed with ‘moustache’. Giugiaro’s name came out as a stuttery ‘Shja-shje-sheta Shje-sje-sjo’ which sounded (ironically) like a car with a flat battery attempting to start. 

Top Trumps, cars and kids of the 1980s

But these words were important to us, because our school-yard conversations at that time revolved around wedge-shaped supercars and Top Trumps prototypes. Incredible to think now, that Giugiaro (along with his nemesis Gandini) defined a whole era with just a handful of concepts, over the course of just three or four motor shows. Gandini, who’d replaced Giugiaro at Bertone, produced (amongst others) the Alfa Carabo in 1968, the Stratos Zero in 1970 and the Countach in ’71. Giugiaro did the Bizarrini Manta in 1968, the Maserati Boomerang in ’71 and the Lotus Esprit in ’72. And we still talk about them today. 

It became hard, in latter years, to connect that gifted, revolutionary designer of my past with the jovial, silver-haired
Giugiaro who was a regular sight at the Geneva motor show. His company, Italdesign, was bought by the VW group in 2010, and since then Giorgetto’s personal brand has remained strong, but the concept cars themselves have sometimes looked like a studio going through the motions: like the over-styled gullwing Brivido of 2011, or the forgettable Gea of 2014. When the 76-year-old Giugiaro finally announced he was stepping down last month (with VW buying out his final 10% stake), I was pleased – I hope we’ll now forget the corporate figurehead, and remember Giugiaro the gifted young artist. 

And he really was an artist, a portrait painter who caught the eye of Fiat designer Dante Giacosa at the age of just 17. Giugiaro became the head of Bertone at a precocious 21, serving out his National Service in the mountains, designing the Alfa Giulia GT in the barracks and drawing portraits of his officers in return for his special privileges. After leaving the army he was responsible for a golden age of curvaceous Bertone cars, including a beautiful one-off Ferrari 250 GT.

Meeting the legend that is Giorgetto Giugiaro

After designing the Maserati Ghibli (swoon) in 1966, he left Ghia to set up his own company, Italdesign, switching from curves to futuristic ‘folded paper’ wedges. This is the Giugiaro I want to remember, the epitome of the Italian stylist. And it’s the Giugiaro I met back in 1998 on the launch of the Maserati 3200GT.

We were at the refurbished Maserati factory in Modena, with journalists and Ferrari executives milling about everywhere. I asked for an interview with the new car’s designer, Giorgetto himself. For a bit of peace and quiet we walked round the corner from the main yard, and stood in an open factory door, the old lattice-work roof above his head and a dark blue 3200GT behind him. Giugiaro wore sunglasses and chinos and didn’t speak any English, so his son, Fabrizio, accompanied him to translate.

It was like meeting the Pope at the Vatican, or Italian royalty, or perhaps a benign mafia don who wanted to talk about cars, rather than bury me up to my waist in concrete under a new Modena bypass. Either way, I was in awe and he was perfect, with a surprisingly high-pitched, hoarse voice (think Marlon Brando in The Godfather, only without the cheeks), speaking in sentences like, ‘this is a very fluid, harmonious set of curves – no points shout too much – a three-box look is sober, but two boxes are too massive at the back. This way looks lighter and gives more shape down the sides…’ His hands swooped over an imaginary car as he spoke. Looking back now, it was like meeting Mozart.

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast