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How new investment is revitalising Italy's coachbuilders

By raccars Published

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Italy's coachbuilders were hit very hard by the recession and have endured a rather difficult decade. For a while it looked as if famous names such as Pininfarina and Touring would disappear as small volume, high cost producers were crushed under the weight of mass market firms selling cheap to cash-strapped buyers struggling in the recession.

To lose their craftsmanship and individuality would have been a terrible shame, and some of the most innovative and important names in carrozzeria have crashed and burned: Bertone and Maggiora, for example.

The problem is that coachbuilders inhabit a niche market - and an expensive one at that. They take the running gear produced by other manufacturers and clothe it in their own superbly elegant bodywork. However, the market for such expensive metal is small and the coachbuilding industry has been decimated over time, not just by financial crises but also two world wars and monocoque construction techniques.

Recently, however, interest has been revived in the concept and firms such as Italdesign, Pininfarina and Touring are once again gaining traction in their very specialist markets. New ownership and new investment is behind the resurgence, and while there are likely to be some sticky patches to go through yet, it looks as though survival is possible.

New investment for Pininfarina

For Pininfarina, for example, new ownership is alleviating the burden of a massive £395 million debt which has been weighing it down for a decade. The Italian firm spent years looking for an investor and has now found a solution to its problems in the form of Tech Mahindra, part of the huge Indian conglomerate. By the summer a debt for equity exchange will see Mahindra own the controlling interest in one of Italy's proudest and best known coachbuilding firms.

Pininfarina's CEO claims that the terms of the deal allow the company to retain its autonomy but cushion it with some financial stability and the potential to develop and move forward. A plan has been conceived which will make Pininfarina globally available and double its output over the next five years.

At the same time, Pininfarina's fellow coachbuilders in Milan and Turin were also suffering from the changes in the car industry brought about by the financial storm and by the employment of new technology. Car makers now use CAD to design their products and are no longer obliged to seek coachbuilders' services - the Ferrari LaFerrari from 2013 was the first product from the Italian manufacturer to be designed in house. Up until then Pininfarina was responsible for the design of almost every Ferrari of the last six decades. Now the firm is concentrating on limited edition and custom built vehicles, an exclusive but profitable line.

Italdesign

Car manufacturers are also benefiting from flexible production methods which mean that they can adapt their lines to low volume models which were previously the speciality of the coachbuilders. Bertone couldn't support its empty factories and the 102 year old firm went bankrupt in 2014. Italdesign only managed to stay in business by becoming a subsidiary of VW in 2010. Italdesign now undertakes special commissions for VW Group businesses but is working on a plan to expand and take on new third party commissions.

Touring Superleggera

Touring Superleggera is going down the same path as Pininfarina with custom work and limited editions, such as the Disco Volante Spyder. The Touring name was revived in 2006 thanks to new investment, having been inactive for four decades. It's now delivering low volume craftsmanship at millions of pounds a pop. Hopefully there's enough money around at the moment to keep Italian coachbuilding afloat while it creates a new niche for itself in the fast-changing modern automotive industry.

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