In Kuwait to mark the 50th anniversary of the DB4 GT, Andrea Zagato talks about the company's heritage with Aston Martin, consumerism and the future of car design.
Car design chief Andrea Zagato looks back before the big leap forward
If you watch closely, you can see it. It is the moment just before a car is revealed, when the assembled press, hardened reporters and grizzled photographers alike, lean perceptibly forward to catch a glimpse of the new creation, a great, heaving mass of humanity hoping to see greatness.
Andrea Zagato is no stranger to this phenomenon. The chief executive of the storied Milanese design agency that was established nearly a century ago by his grandfather Ugo, he's on-hand to gauge the reaction to his latest design, the V12 Zagato in production trim at the Kuwait Concours D'Elegance last week. Taking a break from the judging of the event, he explains that the car was designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original DB4 GT Zagato.
"It is also the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the collaboration between Aston Martin and Zagato," he recalls. "A 50th anniversary is always important. What would be significant? The idea came out to do a car that starts as a racing car but could also win a Concours D'Elegance. So we planned to go to the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este [held on the shores of Lake Como in Italy], and one week later to race in the Nürburgring."
With Aston Martin's model lineup stretching from roadsters to saloons, the choice of car was crucial - and Zagato knew that only the V12 Vantage could fulfil his guidelines of being compact and easy to drive.
"When we did the DB7, Zagato shortened the wheelbase. Instead of doing that to the DBS or DB9, the package of the V12 was already perfect so we didn't have to intervene or change anything. Plus, if you want to race, the car has to be fully tested on the track so, in this case, we had an already proven car as well. That was the donor car we decided to work on," he says.
Design work for the car was split between Zagato's team and Aston's in-house group, led by Marek Reichmann, although he bristles at the thought that either group can claim credit for the final design.
"There is no competition between our designer and the client designers. Marek Reichmann had to transfer the 'Aston Martin-ness' and we had to transfer the 'Zagato-ness'. Everybody had a task," he confirms.
"There was a little bit of healthy competition because this is in the tradition of Zagato. We don't want to demonstrate that we are better than our clients in designing their cars - we just want to say that we are better in designing Zagatos."
That's not to say the design process was incident-free. While the finished car contains a number of Zagato design cues, including the double-bubble roof and the enlarged front air intake, the tail proved to be a bone of contention.
"Should it be a truncated Kamm tail or a more elegant, smooth tail? Would it need a rear wing? At the end, Marek convinced us that the round, low tail was more elegant and that a rear wing in carbon fibre would fit the car. In the end, we agreed on 98 per cent of the car; the last decision was the tail," he laughs.
"And it's not that I don't like round-tail cars. We did one on the Bentley Zagato, another is the Alfa Romeo SZ Round Tail Coupé."
It's not the first time a Zagato design has debuted in the Middle East. The Italian company, which also works with various transportation companies, designed the pod cars at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. But here in Kuwait, the focus is on Zagato's sexier vehicles. The 2009 Bentley is on display at the Kuwait show, as well as another of his creations, the TZ3 Stradale, built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Alfa Romeo last year. Not many will be aware that the low, stunning coupé is built on the underpinnings of something very un-Italian - the Dodge Viper.
"When Sergio Marchionne [Fiat CEO] decided to raise shares in Chrysler, we started thinking that a new generation of cars will be built on shared platforms with Chrysler and Dodge, the most astonishing and famous of which is the Viper. The Viper is very wide, low and has side-exiting exhaust pipes, while the bonnet goes around the engine. It inspired us to do a TZ of the third millennium based on the Viper."
A new Viper is set to arrive very shortly - and Zagato admits that he is keen to put his stamp on the new car with a bespoke version.
"I haven't asked yet and don't want to interfere because they first have to do the car," he says. "But it makes sense. We broke the idea of having an American chassis and engine with an Italian design and brand [with the TZ3]. It's something that can easily happen."
While the look of a Zagato is unmistakable, modern car designers are often accused of creating homogeneous designs that are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Zagato believes it's a case of differing levels of freedom - but he has sympathy for his colleagues in the mass market.
"Today, you have to distinguish consumable car design from collectable car design. For consumable car design, it involves clinic tests, focus groups, to revise your design 100 times and, at the end, marketing guides you to a certain result. Everybody tends to go to the same results, because clinic and focus groups give you the same answers."
But computers, he says, are not to blame. "That's a myth. It's because it's guided by a marketing brief and designed for the masses - and the masses all have the same tastes. You don't want to do the most beautiful car, you want to do the car that everyone likes, which is completely different.
"When you work in a niche, you have much more freedom. Somebody might call it the ugliest car they've ever seen, somebody might be completely in love. What you try to invoke is passion and a reaction."
With typical Italian grace, he hammers the point home with a painting analogy.
"You have two techniques. One is oil - with oil painting you can go over what you have already painted many times and refinish many times until your painting is ready - this is typical of consumables. If you paint with enamel, something that dries quickly, you have to be quick and emotional and, if you make a mistake, you don't care, because it's part of the emotion you give to the painting. Even if there is a little mistake or something not really refined, it's the beauty of the car."
Sadly, the emotional way isn't as profitable as it used be, and traditional coachbuilders are a dying breed. Zagato itself was sold to Coventry Prototype Panels last year, becoming part of the Spyker portfolio owned by Vladimir Antonov.
"Think of a coachbuilder as an assembly company that builds a car in the traditional way. First is the complication of the product," he begins. "Every product is becoming more and more complicated. Second, most of the major manufacturer assembly lines are very flexible, like the Japanese who invented lean production.
"Unions also don't like it very much when you bring a job that can be done by your own workers outside.
"These reasons are why it's impossible for me to see again the coachbuilder as an assembly line," he states firmly.
"For me, it's gone back to the original 'atelier' or workshop scenario - concentrating on designing and making very low-volume cars, of a maximum of 1,000 units. To me, this way has potential."
It is interesting to note that Zagato's latest creation exists as a modern interpretation of a classic design - a motif that can be applied to the entire automotive industry as a whole. Mini, Mustang, Camaro, Pullman - retro fever refuses to subside. But, Zagato says, this period of reinvention is normal just before a historic leap forward.
"Normally a big revolution in communication is followed by a big revolution in transportation. We expect a big change from internal combustion engines to hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles. So before approaching something you don't understand, people celebrate the past. We are doing the same, using iconic cars like the Cinquecento, the Mini, Mustang and Corvette. It will never end.
"In this scenario, the name of the model becomes more important than the name of the company. Beetle is more important than Volkswagen, Cinquecento is a more important, iconic brand than Fiat. Everybody doesn't know Piaggio, but everyone knows Vespa. So the Cinquecento can be electric or fuel cell-based - who cares? It's a Cinquecento," he explains.
So will there be a hybrid Zagato in the future? The answer, he laughs, is obvious.
"Why not? We are a case designer, so we design a case for the mechanicals. It can be electric or electromechanical - we don't care."