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Genevive Obert on Filippo Sapino
Ghia's longtime director.
Photos by David Gooley and Ghia SpA.
May 1997

Artists work in many media, from paint and music to clay, resin, and sheetmetal. Only a few, however, work with human beings. While symphony conductors and film directors are recognized for shaping the talents of the individuals they work with, another artist of this kind is seldom, if ever, credited.

The director of an automotive design studio must bring out the best in three dimensions and in three disparate worlds: material, technological, and human. A phenomenal amount of talent and raw material must be coordinated before the artworks, in this case prototype and show cars, are complete. Yet the press rarely trumpets the director's accomplishments, and few critics applaud his successes. This is not to say that a number of individual directors haven't sought out the limelight-egos are as large here as anywhere. But for all the Harley Earls and Battista Pininfarinas of the world, there are many more examples such as Filippo Sapino-directors who have many reasons to step forward, yet prefer to stay humbly in the background.

Since 1973, Sapino has been the director of Ghia, long one of Italy's great carrozzerias and now Ford's own Turin-based design studio. Yet to this day, he takes little credit for the works produced during the 36 years he's been with the firm. "I prefer to keep a low profile," Filippo says, "and leave the façade role to others."

When asked about his life outside of Ghia, Sapino laughs and says, "Oh, my lifestyle is nothing so exciting-I'm not such a swinging individual!" Sapino describes himself as a "typical Italian family man," spending most of his free time with his wife of 32 years, Maria Rosa. ("One of the sweetest of Italian ladies-she has decently spoiled me," he offers.) Filippo and Maria Rosa's 28-year-old son, Marco, is currently set to graduate from the Turin Politechnic as an aeronautical engineer. "Marco," the father beams, "is devoured by the passion for aircraft!"

Sapino loves to travel, while Maria Rosa prefers the comforts of home. Thus, while the husband has gone to Pebble Beach each summer for the last six years to serve as an honorary judge, he rarely stays out of Italy too long. His recent travels also include a trip to the former Yugoslavia at the height of the civil wars. "It is very close to Italy, of course. I just wanted to know firsthand what their experience must be like."

Still, despite his desire to remain in the background, Filippo has plenty of stories to tell about the characters and cars encountered during his life at Ghia. His tenure began in 1960, when Turin was still considered by many to be the center of the design world. He was 19 years old, fresh out of the Turin Industrial Technical Institute, and Ghia was one of Italy's oldest design houses. Founded in 1918, the studio's work goes as far back as the end of Italy's horse-drawn era and includes some of the world's most successful and exotic shapes: Savonuzzi's Gilda, the De Soto Adventurer I and II, and Dodge's Firearrow II, to mention but a few. Even the Lincoln Futura-the basis of TV's Batmobile-came out of the Turin shop. Closer to Sapino's heart is the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, which Ghia designed but passed to Bertone for production. Sapino still owns a Giulietta Spider, a car that he "always loved as a kid."

By 1960, Ghia had been working with US manufacturers for a decade, and Chrysler's Virgil Exner Sr. still roamed the hallways. Sapino remembers seeing the imposing American, but says, "I was too young and inconsequential for him to notice me." At this time Sapino had yet to learn English, and it was another famous American who gave him some early training in the language-Tom Tjaarda.

While both men were working at Ghia, Sapino recalls, one of Tjaarda's early assignments was to design an American-style dragster. The result was the extremely low and aerodynamic IXG. But unfortunately, the prototype's 900cc Innocenti engine simply wouldn't fit inside the body. Ghia's director, Luigi Segre, was so angry that Filippo and his co-workers could hear the screaming and yelling all over the building. Segre thought Tjaarda had "simply forgotten about the engine," Sapino recalls, but in fact Tjaarda probably had an American dragster in mind-one with the engine poking out of the body on purpose. Even so, the designer recalls that "Tjaarda sometimes did have difficulties with packages.

Another one of his prototypes, called Coins, was only about 40 inches high, and the only access was through a rear hatch! For the Geneva Show, they hired two beautiful models who had to crawl in on all fours to get to the front seats. Needless to say, the photographers went crazy!"

Sapino's own favorite project from his early days at Ghia was a Shelby 427 Cobra commissioned by Alejandro De Tomaso, who at that time was just another wealthy client. "I was introduced to De Tomaso-a man of some very interesting attributes-by Gaspardo Moro in his office. After a preliminary discussion about this new roadster, I asked him if he could give me the package information, possibly in the form of a chassis layout, as was customary.

"De Tomaso just sat there in an armchair smoking a cigar and looking at me as if he wasn't really sure about trusting me. Then, almost as if he'd been forced to do it, he told me the overall length and wheelbase. While taking notes, I asked if he could kindly give me any more information, about the engine position and its main hardpoints, for example. He looked at me again-this time as if he had been seriously bothered-and, still sitting down with his legs stretched toward me, extended his right arm out with the palm of his hand facing the floor. It was about 28, maybe 30 inches off the ground. He said, 'Yes, the hood of the vehicle is about this high....'

"Needless to say, I pulled out my yo-yo on the spot and measured the distance from his hand to the floor before the great man could move it! You that I think of it, that's another of Mr. De Tomaso's interesting attributes-he sure has created a lot of good anecdotes."

Despite the vague nature of the original request, Sapino and his team helped bring the aluminum-bodied Cobra Ghia to completion. The driveable prototype appeared in 1965, and Sapino remembers it as "Very refined-Italian, but with a touch of Jaguar style. Still, looking back now at the reputation the Cobra had, I think we may have missed the target. The car did not look as powerful as the Cobra was."

Another early favorite is Renault's R8 coupe, which "...anticipated the shape of silhouettes to come." Ghia built the prototype in 1963, and Sapino's crew was after "One continuous form-no more facets, no break at the line between the windshield and the roof. To give that line the window was made into a teardrop shape. This was later misunderstood, and some said we were copying Bugattis of the 1930s. The teardrop was simply necessary to give it the line we wanted." Sapino doesn't consider this car a masterpiece, but he does believe that its simple, pure shape has aged very well-the designer's traditional yardstick of success.

But just as Sapino was settling happily into a promising, lifelong career with Carrozzeria Ghia, everything at the design house changed. Alejandro De Tomaso acquired a controlling interest in the firm in 1967, and under the mercurial Argentinean, a shakeup was inevitable.

De Tomaso had originally hired Ghia to clothe his Modena-built Vallelunga, a lightweight mid-engined GT with 4-cylinder Ford power. At that time, Ghia was still controlled by Leonides Trujillo, the son of deposed Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina.

While Trujillo the Younger had relatively little impact on the company, Gaspardo Moro brought new fame to Ghia during this period when he hired Giorgetto Giugiaro. "Working for Giugiaro was tough," Sapino recalls today. "He's a very hard worker, and he expects his coworkers to fully comply with his own points of view. After he joined Ghia, it was immediately very clear that there was no room for anybody else's design input.

"Giugiaro was hired in as the hero that had designed all those beautiful cars for Bertone, and he was immediately offered, as a big promotional plan for Ghia, the chance to design five more beautiful cars. As history clearly shows, he didn't fail." Indeed not: Giugiaro rapidly penned the De Tomaso Mangusta and Pampero, Maserati Ghibli, and Fiat Vanessa for Ghia's stand at the '66 Turin Motor Show. While all were quite successful, the Ghibli and Mangusta rank among the greatest designs of the decade. Only a year after Giugiaro joined the company, Ghia was justifiably ecstatic over the handiwork of this wunderkind.

But the following year, De Tomaso purchased the firm from Leonides Trujillo and a "confused period" began. De Tomaso fired Sapino a year later. When asked if anything in particular led to his dismissal, the designer can't be sure. "There was no particular reason that I know of," he answers, "other than that I suspect De Tomaso just never liked me very much. As you know, he has become quite famous for his extraordinary ability to cut costs in every company he's become involved with, and that was mainly achieved by firing a lot of people. I suspect I was just one of the bunch." Soon after this, Giugiaro left to form Italdesign and Gaspardo Moro lit out to become a respected journalist. While De Tomaso hired Tom Tjaarda back to run the shaken-up Ghia, the fired Sapino took a long hiatus from the firm.

"Believe it or not, I still remember that period with pleasure," Filippo recalls. From September 1967 through 1969 he worked with Pininfarina: "A very creative time it was, too. I felt much more appreciated there than I did back at Ghia, for I could express myself very freely. As was typical of the family-run companies, Sergio Pininfarina and his brother-in-law, Renzo Carli, were firmly in control of the design activities, but there was still an excellent possibility for expression. Really, the only problem was that no designer could sign any sketch; we were still under the 'designed by Pininfarina's personal hand' regime."

Sapino worked on two famous Ferraris at Pininfarina, the 512S and 365GTC/4. He was then coaxed away from this new home, however, by Ford of Europe, which had just created a pilot Italian design studio in the town of Bruino near Turin. While no one knew it at the time, "I believe we were pioneering the (idea of an off-site) design center, like the ones created many years later in Italy and elsewhere, particularly in California," Sapino explains. "It was very nice, too, because Ford understood that we were offering special input from Turin, the design capital of the world, and consequently we were respectfully left to work on our own. I think this approach paid Ford back many times over with good designs. Many examples of our work there had a strong influence on Ford's European production cars in the years to come." It was natural, then, for Sapino to return to Ghia after Ford purchased a co ntrolling interest from De Tomaso in 1971. In fact, the Bruino studio was absorbed into Ghia two years later, and Sapino became chief designer of the overall operation.

During those first few years under Ford, "Ghia was utilized mostly as a think tank. We were given almost a blank sheet of paper and asked to offer our ideas on whatever we thought was most useful for the company. Because of this approach, we began studying certain types of vehicle very much in favor of other ones; maybe sports cars for their image factor, for example." It was a fertile period, but the first year after the merger was a bit disorganized. "In Ford's mind they were combining two skills," Sapino continues. "But from the organizational point of view, now everything was doubled. I was the head of design, but Tom (Tjaarda) was also the head of design! Plus we had two heads of modeling, and so on. Everything we did, we either had to split the projects or somehow divide the work."

Not long after this, Tjaarda, always the individualistic creator, headed out on his own while Sapino, the great organizer and motivator, settled into his leadership of the firm. "I never mentioned how disappointed I was when De Tomaso fired me after seven years," he remembers of this time, "but it was always part of my character that I wanted to stay with one company for my entire professional life. I was very unhappy to be let go, so it almost seemed like destiny that I would later return to the same place."

In 1976, Filippo Sapino was promoted to managing director of Ghia, the title he still holds today. "This brought me to one of the hardest dilemmas facing, I believe, most designers: To be a pure designer or not? "Sometimes I regret that I have gone into the role of director, and wish that I had continued to work more as a hands-on designer. But at other times I realize that there's a tremendous amount of reward in being a coordinator-being one who inspires, a motivator.

So who knows what could have been had I chosen otherwise; the only important thing is that it was my choice." Sapino does still put his hand to a design on occasion. One example is the Ford RS200 rally-car project, which first saw the light of day in 1984. Before that, "We made a scale model in cooperation with Ford Motorsports. They ran windtunnel tests and modified the design as required by the practical needs of rallying, but I'm pleased to say that the original intent was preserved. Full functionality led to an oversizing of everything-the spoilers, the air intakes, the outlets, and so on. Yet the final look was even sportier and more aggressive than that of our original concept!"

Through the 1970s and '80s, Sapino's inspiration, motivation, and organizational skills helped to generate innumerable exciting showcars. The Fiesta-based Barchetta, the visionary Focus, the Ghia Zig and Zag, and the Lagonda Vignale are just a sampling of Sapino's favorites.

But Ghia's value to Ford extends beyond the sizable realm of design and into the world of training. During SCI's visit last spring, a team of designers led by the young American Camilo Pardo had just finished the Saetta Speedster, which was subsequently introduced to rave reviews at the '96 Turin Motor Show. Then Pardo, also a fine artist known for his paintings of F1 cars in action, returned to Dearborn at the end of December and a new young designer came to take his place from Ford of England. Ford typically sends designers to Ghia for 2- or 3-year stretches, during which time they acquire new skills and perspectives to bring back to their home studios.

The results are good for Ford, and they're also good for Ghia. Today, the usual design team in Turin includes talent of many nationalities and backgrounds, sometimes none of them Italian. ("But we all sketch the same," one American confesses, "so I get by with buon giorno and ciao.")

"There's a great diversity of talent here," Sapino points out, "and as long as everyone is motivated to help one another and collaborate, great work can be done." As with that of all modern design studios, such work is often theoretical. "Our contribution is supposed to reach far ahead. We try to give Ford's other designers an orientation, or even the possibility of avoiding a big mistake. We can go ahead and do whatever we do, whether it turns out right or wrong. Ghia's job is to stretch as far ahead as we can, and then to step back so that everyone else can have a look at it. This gives everyone the possibility of visualizing and rationalizing the next logical step."

But this background role also has its drawbacks for the design house. "Often, our contributions are not easy to see. Eventually something we have done might be pulled out in historical reconstruction. If you look at the current Ford Contour, for example, you'll find that a Ghia model was the beginning and they developed it from there. But there's often no direct contribution onto which we can put a 'Designed by Ghia' badge. Sometimes this is a bit frustrating; sometimes you feel 'okay, whatever we do, they'll just pick it up and take it.' And, since you never know exactly what they will or will not do, it's a little like creating a baby and giving it to someone else to raise. You may never see it again, or you may see it again later only to find that it looks very little like your own."

Computers, which allow the designer to test greater variations and to influence shapes at great distances, have complicated Ghia's role further still. Does Sapino see these devices as a help or a hindrance to his designers? "The question is still open. In my view, the answer depends on the individual. Without doubt, computers are useful tools when you can get full control of them and use them effectively. But some designers don't have an easy grasp of computers, and here the technology works against them. If I see that this is the case, I simply tell the designer to go back to manual sketches. I think both can be effective."

In any case, the future and its possible complications do not discourage Filippo Sapino. "I still get a lot of reward and satisfaction. Someday they will have to make me go, but until then, I never make plans. I'll just take it as it comes." This casual, affable attitude certainly isn't what you'd expect from the leader of a major design powerhouse-but Carrozzeria Ghia's impressive output speaks volumes for its effectiveness.

This casual, affable attitude certainly isn't what you'd expect from the leader of a major design powerhouse-but Carrozzeria Ghia's impressive output speaks volumes for its effectiveness.