In the 1950s, Italy's design maestro, Pinin Farina, changed the shape of automotive architecture while drumming up new business for his expanding carrozzeria. Here's the story of the dramatic show car -- the 1955 Lancia Florida -- that touched off a worldwide styling revolution with an influence you can still see today.
The Lancia Florida is now some 50 years distant, so its colossal significance may not be fully appreciated by today's style-conscious observer. Yet few design studies offer such a clear-cut example of a truly new form.
There was nothing like the Florida in Pinin Farina's earlier work, and the maestro certainly didn't copy it from any of his rivals in Turin, London, Milan, or Detroit.
When he sprang his surprise on the world at the Turin Salone dell'Automobile in the spring of 1955, everyone was unprepared. And no one could grasp at that moment how much the Florida would influence the art of car design in years to come.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, it's not. With the Florida, Farina bid farewell to "monolithic" shapes and said hello to a new principle: body development by symmetrical juxtaposition of curved panels.
Look at it this way: If older cars were sculpted, as if hewn from a lump of clay, the Florida was just the opposite. It was built like a house of cards, each card preformed to a certain aesthetic concept. The starting point was not a solid object but merely a surface.
The Florida was remarkably clean for its time. The major theme was form, with a near-total absence of decoration. Horizontal emphasis was provided by the beltline, which picked up from the front fenders and stretched into the high rear fenders, blending with the backwards sweep of the C-post.
Further strengthening the horizontal motif was a full-length sheet-metal crease just above the wheel cutouts. A hardtop coupe built in steel, the Lancia Florida also featured a wraparound windshield and "dogleg" A-posts, prompted no doubt by the contemporary U.S. styling fad originated by General Motors.
The grille was not new, being merely a variation on the flattened oval that Farina was using on so many Ferraris. Headlamps were housed within the grille frame, with smaller auxiliary lamps recessed into the front fender tips.
In proportions, the Lancia Florida was perfect for its time. The profile was long and sleek, and rear deck length was sufficient for full visual balance with the hood, thereby giving extra emphasis to the car's static 50/50 unladen weight distribution.
The shallow greenhouse and big wheels may look dated to modern eyes. However, those wheels -- shod with Michelin X 165-400 tires -- seemed smaller than expected for a 104.3-inch-wheelbase car in 1955, and the absence of fixed B-posts counteracted the low roof, giving a definite airiness to the interior. The prototype was originally finished in two-tone paint, with white on the roof and decklid and dark blue everywhere else.
How was this amazing vehicle created? Learn more about the Lancia Florida's design on the next page.
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1955 Lancia Florida Design
We know for certain that the 1955 Lancia Florida was designed by Pinin Farina himself. He worked on it with a staff of no more than 10 draftsmen and modelers at a time when his total work force numbered 340 and annual body production was only about 2,500.
His closest collaborator in those days was probably Francesco Martinengo, director of Design, Research, and Quality Control. He had joined Pinin Farina in 1952, leaving his post at Stabilimenti Farina (which closed its doors shortly afterward), where he had been since completing his schooling in 1934.
A Lancia chassis was a natural for the Florida. The carrozzeria was already handling series production of the Aurelia B-20 GT coupe and B-24 spider.
What's more, the appearance of the standard Aurelia sedan, introduced in 1950, was already quite dated. Some called it odd. Actually, the Florida was nothing less than a proposal to Lancia for a new model, and it came at exactly the right time.
On April 2, 1955, Lancia hired a new technical director named Antonio Fessia, who wanted to effect immediate changes in the product line. Then 54, he had experience going back to 1925 in both the aeronautical and automotive sections of Fiat.
In 1946, he designed a front-wheel-drive family car for Caproni that became the basis for the Lancia Flavia of 1960. He had also worked on motorcycle engines for Ducati and was a consultant to Pirelli until Fiat brought him back and put him in charge of engineering at its Heilbronn plant in Germany.
Fessia fell in love with the Florida. So did Gianni Lancia, the son of the founder, who was then running the business -- and would ultimately run it into the ground with his careless spending.
Lancia wanted the Florida, but it had to have four doors. Accordingly, Fessia went to work on a new chassis for the car that would soon become the production Flaminia.
Pinin Farina had built the Florida coupe on the standard Aurelia chassis. Although the high-volume models employed unit construction, Lancia also made a separate Aurelia GT platform available for low-volume applications with custom bodywork. This chassis was outstanding in many ways.
Notable was its high-performance V-6 engine designed by Francesco de Virgilio, who had joined Lancia in 1939 and later became one of Vittorio Jano's closest collaborators. Jano was Lancia's chief engineer from 1937 to 1955, and he was as brilliant an innovator as Vincenzo Lancia himself.
Front suspension was by the firm's patented sliding-pillar system, with enclosed coil springs and integral hydraulic shock absorbers. At the rear were a de Dion axle and semi-elliptic leaf springs.
But still, a four-door version was needed. Continue on to the next page to learn about its creation.
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1955 Lancia Florida Four-Door
It didn't take long for Pinin Farina to develop a four-door version of the 1955 Lancia Florida design. It was ready in September 1955, still on the same short-wheelbase platform.
The windshield base was moved forward and the hood correspondingly shortened to make room for the rear doors. Headlamps were relocated from the grille to the fenders, with the parking lights directly below. A Ferrari-like air scoop appeared on the hood, and the A-posts were straightened to vertical, still with a wrapped windshield.
Like the coupe, the four-door Florida was pillarless. Doors were center-opening, and Farina came up with a novel arrangement to make up for the lack of B-posts. When closed, the back doors locked into the fronts, and all doors also latched on the sills.
Frameless sideglass precluded any roof-mounted door attachment points. Lancia had some misgivings about this arrangement, so the Flaminia emerged as a pillared sedan with full window frames and conventional front-hinged rear doors.
The Flaminia was built on a 113-inch wheelbase. Power was supplied by the largest 2.5-liter (152-cubic-inch) version of the Aurelia V-6, detuned to 102 horsepower. Naturally it inherited the Aurelia's front-drive transaxle, thus keeping tooling costs within strict limits.
The de Dion rear suspension was retained, but Fessia departed wildly from Lancia practice by going to a new front suspension design with upper and lower A-arms and coil springs inclined at about 20 degrees from vertical.
Several major manufacturers had noticed the fundamental styling change represented by the original Lancia Florida and began talking to Pinin Farina about doing something similar. What he did was sell a scaled-down version of the basic Flaminia design intended to accept engines of 1.5-2.0 liters (91-121 cid).
It appeared in quick succession at British Motor Corporation in 1958 (Wolseley 15/60, Austin A-55 Cambridge, MG Magnette Mark III, Morris Oxford Series IV, and Riley 4/68), at Fiat in 1959 (1800 and 2100), and at Peugeot in 1960 (for the 404). The French and Italian cars stayed with big horizontal grilles. Austin and Morris used less daring ones, while the Riley and Wolseley had narrower, more traditional, vertical-bar treatments.
Pronounced rear fender "fins" appeared on the British cars, which also had horizontal chrome moldings running back from headlamp center level and curved downward in the rear door area. More modest blades graced the Peugeot, while the Fiats' flanks were straight.
The Florida was already influential, but Pinin Farina had still further plans for this design. Continue on to the next page for details.
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1955 Lancia Florida's Future
With the income from the sale of the Florida/Flaminia design to other automakers, Farina could have judged his commercial rewards from the Florida prototype as more than satisfactory. But his company was engaged in a rapid expansion program by this time, and was thus aggressively seeking manufacturing contracts. Farina had big plans for the 1955 Lancia Florida's future.
In 1955, the firm had purchased land in Grugliasco, a suburb of Turin, and its new production center was operating there before the end of 1958. This capacity had to be put to use as quickly as possible. Assembling the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider (of which 27,000 were eventually produced) was a good start, but it was only a start.
To drum up more business, Pinin Farina made yet another pitch to Lancia with the Florida II, a two-door coupe built in 1957 on a short-wheelbase version of the Flaminia platform. For him, it marked a return to the original Florida concept.
The big difference this time was that he had a production model as a starting point. Lancia approved the Florida II and, with a few changes, it entered production in 1958 as the Flaminia coupe. Lancia insisted on a steeper windshield rake, framed door glass, door vent windows, and a bigger air scoop, the main modifications to the basic design.
Built on a 108.3-inch wheel-base, the Flaminia coupe weighed 3,175 pounds, and this plus an engine uprated to 119 horsepower raised top speed from the sedan’s 99 mph to 111 mph.
Pinin Farina built 5,235 Flaminia coupes over a nine-year period, and some of them came to America. (The Florida II prototype served for years as the maestro’s personal car.) The Flaminia sedan was discontinued at the end of 1963 after production of nearly 3,300 units, including 600 “late” models equipped with a 2.8-liter, 125-horsepower version of the V-6.
Pinin Farina died in 1968. Lancia was absorbed by the Fiat conglomerate in 1969, after 10 years as part of the Italcementi group. The ties between Lancia and the Pininfarina company (renamed in the early 1960s) are no longer as close as they once were, but the collaboration is still alive.
As for the Florida line, it made a strong reappearance in the Pininfarina design for the production Fiat 130 coupe of 1971, and you can see traces of it in the 1980s Peugeot 505. It has influenced countless designers all over the world. In particular, it’s present in some Jaguar, Rolls-Royce/Bentley, BMW, Ford, Nissan, and Volvo models.
A milestone in the evolution of car design, the Florida stands as one of Pinin Farina’s greatest single efforts. And considering his many other masterworks, that’s saying a lot.
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