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Wind tunnel

Wind Tunnel Wonder

By Wayne Batty

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Pininfarina’s wind tunnel in Grugliasco, near Turin, Italy. Judging by how many other coachbuilders have come and gone over the years, half a century is already a considerable time for an automotive design house to survive, but the (ongoing) Pininfarina story goes back a long way before 1972.

Founded in 1930 in Turin by Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, Carrozzeria Pinin Farina’s initial business was to design and build bespoke luxury car bodies for the wealthy elite. The company found early success with cars such as the 1932 Hispano Suiza Coupé and the Fiat 518 Ardita.

Right from those early days, decades before computer-aided airflow analysis and simulation software arrived to demystify what has long been considered a ‘dark art’, Battista displayed a rare intuition and flair for aerodynamics. This gift is patently evident in his 1936 Lancia Aprilia Aerodinamica. Built on the chassis and floorpan of the series Lancia Aprilia, Battista arrived at the final shape after merging mudguards and side panels, fitting wheel spats and adding a teardrop-like taper to a lowered and elongated roofline. The car’s performance advantage over cars of equivalent size, weight and engine capacity was proof of concept.


Above: 1936 Lancia Aprilia Aerodinamica: essentially a radically rebodied production Aprilia.

Eleven years later, he bestowed on the automotive world one its greatest gifts in the beguiling shape of the 1947 Cisitalia 202. A genuine watershed moment in car design; the first car to be permanently displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Of the Cisitalia, Pinin wrote: ‘I knew that the old shapes were out. Cars had to have pure, smooth, essential lines too.’ Wind-tunnel tests carried out years later measured its drag coefficient (Cd) at 0.37 – simply lightyears ahead of its peers.

Above: Battista Farina alongside the 1947 Cisitalia 202 coupé.

Battista Pininfarina – he’d successfully changed his family name in 1961 – died in 1966, handing the company over to his son Sergio and son-in-law Renzo Carli. Crucially, he’d also passed his passion for aerodynamics on to Sergio and, though he never got the chance to see the fruit of it, had already begun a feasibility study into the building of a full-scale wind tunnel. The decision to go ahead and build one was made by Sergio in 1970. It would be a large, potentially risky investment for a relatively small company – only six other such facilities existed worldwide at the time. With no equivalent facility on site, even the aerodynamically astute Malcolm Sayer was forced to do full-scale testing of his technically advanced Jaguars in the 24ft wind tunnel over 100 miles away at Farnborough. To his ultimate credit, Sergio believed that the competitive edge a wind tunnel would provide, especially considering Pininfarina’s increasingly important relationship with performance brand Ferrari, would more than justify the investment.

1963 renzo sergio

Above: Pictured here in 1963 are Battista Pininfarina’s son-in-law Renzo Carli (left) and son, Sergio.

Construction, at the firm’s Studies and Research Centre in Grugliasco, took almost three years. It was Italy’s first wind tunnel capable of testing automobiles at full scale and was immediately put to use as a performance enhancer.

Above: Ferrari 365 GT BB – one of the first models tested in the new tunnel.

Just a year later, with the 1973 energy crisis in full swing, the tunnel’s focus was quickly turned towards shaping more fuel-efficient cars. By 1976, aerodynamic efficiency had become a core tenet of car design. This led to many collaborative studies with Turin Politecnico. One of these was to define what the ideal average passenger-car body shape would be while pursuing a minimum Cd value. The result, produced on behalf of the Italian National Research Council, was the CNR of 1978 and I think it’s fair to say that aesthetics were sacrificed on the altar of aerodynamic pursuits with this one.



Above: 1978 CNR may have been a fine achievement for automotive aerodynamics, but ignored the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet [still] Acceptable) design principle.

Thankfully, another Pininfarina design, shown in 1978, restored the company’s legendary mix of style and slipperiness, the Jaguar XJ Spider – the F-type that should have been.

For so many enthusiast observers, the absolute highlight of Pininfarina’s back catalogue arrived at the end of the next decade in the masterful shape of the 1989 Ferrari Mythos. Now more than three decades old, it still bewitches all who lay eyes on its powerful rear haunches, air-cleaving wedge profile and mythical beauty.

Above: Striking Pininfarina-designed Ferrari Mythos in the wind tunnel

That these cars, along with the countless modern marvels – Coupé Fiat, Peugeot 405 Coupé, Ferrari 360 Modena, Maserati Birdcage 75th, to the latest Battista – that have emerged from the styling studio at Cambiano and the wind tunnel at Grugliasco have such a strong common bloodline, can only be down to the aerodynamic ethos infused into the Pininfarina DNA by Battista himself. 

‘Going to the mountains in winter I saw how the wind had streamlined the snow at the side of the road, carving out curved or sharp shapes at the edges. The wind event gives shape to trees. I wanted to copy those lines…’ – Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina

Other articles by Wayne Batty
Images supplied by Pininfarina
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