Sergio Pininfarina, who died last week aged 85, will be remembered for many things and overseeing the design of many of the finest automotive designs of the C20th, as well as his long-running associations with Ferrari and Peugeot. However, what he might not be remembered for is quite probably extending the life of the mainstream UK car industry by at least a decade.  

The post-war Italian car industry was ahead of its UK rivals in many ways, but most of all in the way its employees were formally trained, rather than too often ‘picking things up’ as apprentices. Sergio Pininfarina trained as a mechanical engineer at Turin Polytechnic and then had to cover design, engineering and manufacturing, rather than disappearing for years to concentrate on a single discipline.

Around the same time he brokered the first deal with Peugeot in 1955 he was approached by Austin. According to the legend, the Duke of Edinburgh had been invited up to Austin and had been shown some of the company’s future designs. Unimpressed, the Duke suggested to Austin boss Leonard Lord that the company should get in touch with Farina (as it was until 1961).   

The Duke, who became a significant promoter of modern design in the 1960s, was probably deeply unimpressed by the upcoming Austin A35 which looked liked it had been inspired by the teapot on the breakfast table of whoever was in charge of Austin’s design department. 

Although the 1956 Austin Cambridge was hardly Pininfarina’s finest hour (the company was just shaking off its obsession with Americana, fins and wrap-around screens), the 1958 Austin A40 Farina was a revelation. Crisp and modern, the Countryman version even had a split tailgate, two decades before the hatchback started to become the mainstream European car. 

Perhaps it should be a surprise that the Italians were so far ahead. In Italy, all design students studied architecture. In the UK, formal product design training was non-existent (training to become a commercial artist was the nearest discipline) and no formal car design training until the RCA began a course in 1969. 

For my money, this A40 also had a positive influence on the Mini, which could have become either another variation on the A35 teapot theme or a plain box of the type the anti-styling Issigonis instinctively favoured. 

But Pininfarina’s biggest impact in the health of Austin/BLMC was its work on the ADO16 Austin-Morris 1100-1300 series. Launched in 1962, it lasted until 1974 and was the UK’s best-selling car for a decade. There’s little doubt that the crisp and sleek ADO16 would never have sold so well were it not for the Italians being allowed to take complete charge of the styling. 

Where Pininfarina didn’t have a free hand (such as the Austin 1800) the result was undesirable mix of space over style. And when the Brits tried to replace the ADO16 solo, the result was the Allegro, a half-baked idea mangled by a failing industrial situation.  

Of course, we know that Pininfarina had the answers to BLMC’s problems, because it built the Berlina Aerodynamic concept in two sizes (1100 and 1800), a shape so influential and prescient, it still has an impact today. 

The other striking thing about Sergio Pininfarina is his accomplishments outside automotive and manufacturing. He was a Member of the European Parliament for over a decade and was made a ‘life senator’ in 2005 by the Italian state. He was typical of the European industrialists that the UK lacks: people who combined immense hands-on experience with industry and the gravitas to operate in international politics. 

Sergio Pininfarina’s life is a lesson to the UK, a country dominated by Oxbridge-educated essayists who couldn’t put up a shelf, never mind run (and grow) a manufacturing business. Britain would undoubtedly be a better place if it were at least partly run by aesthete mechanical engineers.