A Rosy View of Italian Coachbuilding at the Petersen Museum

The independent Italian automotive design house, or carrozzeria, is a touchstone of automotive culture. It is not without its blemishes, however, as the financial difficulties of several prominent carrozzerie have recently illustrated. But at the exhibition opening Saturday at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the headlines will remain out of sight.

Leslie Kendall, the museum’s curator, said in a telephone interview that the impetus for “Sculpture in Motion: Masterpieces of Italian Design” came from the return of some familiar nameplates to the United States that are closely associated with Italian coachbuilders.

“With Fiat back in the U.S. and Alfa coming, it’s a good time to show that the Italians have influenced international brands for a long time,” he said. Fiat began sales of its 500 supermini in the United States last year, and limited sales of the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, a supercar with a price of over $200,000, occurred in 2008. Alfa is expected to begin sales of its mainstream models in America in coming years.

Coachbuilders big and small, like Pininfarina, Bertone, Zagato, Touring, Ghia, Scaglietti and Italdesign are represented among the 17 vehicles on display, most of which were lent to the museum by private collectors. The show is arranged chronologically, beginning with a 1932 Ford cabriolet by Pininfarina and ending with the Alfa 8C, another Pininfarina design. Immediately preceding the 8C in Petersen’s chronology is yet another Pininfarina model, the 1991 Cadillac Allante. The Ford and Cadillac illustrate the global reach of the Italian carrozzeria, Mr. Kendall said.

“That’s a testament to the influence of Italian design even in America,” he said. “I don’t know what it is — the weather, the history of architecture and art, fashion or food, but there seems to be an innate creativity in Italy.”
A 1953 Nash-Healey roadster by Pininfarina, donated recently to the museum by the collector Ray Scherr, was among Mr. Kendall’s favorites. “I wanted one for the show, and just by chance I learned we were going to have one donated,” he said. “It is about the best I’ve ever seen.” The sporty car demonstrated that Pininfarina could match the Nash’s bumper-car-like face with the dynamic and graceful lines for which the carrozzeria was celebrated.

Mr. Kendall said he wanted “Sculpture in Motion” to document, through the prism of Italian coachbuilding, the evolution of the automobile from an assemblage of disorganized parts into a single, cohesive, visually appealing unit. Among the well-known cars enlisted toward that goal is a 1947 Cisitalia 202 GT from the Petersen’s own collection; that same model was the first car added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There’s also the 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero, a wedge-shaped supercar designed by Marcello Gandini for Bertone.

But there are offbeat items as well, like a 1953 Cadillac Series 62 coupe by Ghia and the beak-nosed 1949 Alfa-Romeo 6C 2500 Villa d’Este Coupe by Touring. Fans of the “Back to the Future” films may be surprised to learn that their beloved DeLorean was a product of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign firm.

The fierce individuality of these cars contrasts with the circumstances under which many of their designers currently work. Mr. Giugiaro sold a 90.1-percent stake of his firm to Volkswagen Group in 2010. Stile Bertone was ordered by bankruptcy commissioners last year to auction six of its most influential concept cars. And this week, Pininfarina’s creditors agreed to a debt-restructuring plan that would allow the coachbuilder to repay its debts by 2018 rather than 2015.

Such concerns are not part of the Petersen’s survey.

To keep the show fresh, Mr. Kendall plans to rotate cars in and out of the exhibition during its yearlong run. And he already has his eyes on one potential substitute.

“Think of the original Volkswagen Golf,” he said. “That rational, crisp design comes from Giorgetto Giurgiaro.” Mr. Kendall is hunting for a first-year Golf to include in the exhibition.

“Sculpture in Motion: Masterpieces of Italian Design” remains on view at the Petersen through Feb. 3, 2013.