For reasons that will become apparent in a future issue of Autocar, I recently spent a day high in the Italian mountains, chasing some of the rarest and most expensive cars ever made.
I can’t say I’ve ever been too closely interested in the real top-end motoring exotica. They’re just far too rarified and too far away from reality to catch my imagination. I have the same view about competition cars, though I have have great respect for rally drivers – surely more skilled the F1 pilots? – and can get very excited by the Lancia 037 or Delta S4. And that’s probably because those cars are based, at least partly, in reality.
Still, when you’ve had the privilege of being overtaken by, say, a 1965 Ferrari 275 GTB/C when high in mountains and watching a 1955 Ferrari 375 America storm by in its home territory, you see things differently.
Watching 40-odd of these cars – most of which were Italian – in close proximity, finally brought home to me the sheer mastery of the Italian car industry between 1950 and 1970. These cars are, without exception, stunning. It is obvious that if today’s mainstream Italian car industry could tap into the effortless style of this era, its dire situation would be somewhat improved.
Of course, it is exceptionally hard to capture the spirit of another era, especially when you are dealing a massively complex consumer durable such as a car, rather than music or a fashion. My drive through the mountains made me think of the long chat I had with Saad Chehab, the CEO of Chrysler and Lancia in February. Chehab, who was born in Beirut before moving to Detroit has arrived in his position from an unusual point. He qualified as an architect and got involved in brand identity and building dealerships for the Ford empire, including Aston Martin.
He then became involved directly in brand strategy and advertising for Chrysler, such as the award-winning ‘Imported from Detroit’ and ‘Born of Fire’ campaigns. I asked him how, when Chrysler and Lancia have effectively merged, the same products can be stretched to cover Chrysler’s ‘gritty urban Detroit roots’ and Lancia’s pursuit of, what Chehab calls ‘La Dolce Vita’.
This can be roughly translated as ‘the good life’ and is pretty much the uber-stylish period that gave birth to the Italian cars mentioned above. To his credit, Chehab put up a spirited defence, claiming that the Lancia Thema (or Chrysler 300) was ‘beautiful, premium and the quietest car in its class, quieter than a Lexus’.
But out on the Geneva show stand I saw the way that the demands of Detroit and Milan will inevitably clash. The Thema was fitted with one of Dr Dre’s ‘Beats’ audio systems. The Beats logo looked incredibly incongruous against the stainless Lancia kickplate.
‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Eight Mile’ are two films that encapsulate a city and a period, but trying to cover 1950s Italy and 1990s inner-city Detroit with the same cars could be a marketing stretch too far. Something tells me that Dr Dre and Audrey Hepburn will make awkward bedfellows.