Fascinating news from Italy that Tata is to take an ownership stake in styling house Pininfarina – rescuing one of the best-known names in automotive design from the financial crisis that threatened to engulf it.

Pininfarina has designed the bulk of Ferrari’s recent range, and currently builds the C70 and Focus C+C for Ford. And, like Britain’s beleaguered high-street banks, it’s raising money by issuing new shares.

We don’t know how much of a stake Tata will take – but the Pininfarina family will see its current 55 per cent holding (and the control that brings) diluted to about 30 per cent. Tata is likely to share the extra investment with French company Bollore, a specialist maker of electric cars.

Tata has already commissioned Pininfarina to set up a new design centre in India, which raises the prospect of handsome new Tatas with a European design flavour being sold around the world, including the UK. An application of Pininfarina design thinking to the next-generation Nano is an intriguing prospect, too.

But what’s really fascinating about the Pininfarina rescue plan is the involvement of a mainstream carmaker. Design houses usually avoid direct links with manufacturers, because it puts off other potential customers, worried their secret projects will end up in the hands of a rival. Lotus Engineering suffered when Toyota took a stake in the 1980s, and Pininfarina must be aware it is running the same risk.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Pininfarina’s may clients in China view the involvement of a competitor from another developing car-producing country. There’s already little love lost between Indian and Chinese manufacturers, and rivalries will intensify as the global motor industry migrates east.

Pininfarina’s key clients — Ford and Fiat-controlled Ferrari — must have rubber-stamped Tata’s involvement. Ratan Tata is a director of Fiat, as is Sergio Pininfarina at Ferrari and Tata has just spent months negotiating with Ford to buy Jaguar and Land Rover. “It certainly wasn’t a surprise to us,” says a Ford source.

In fact, I wonder whether Tata is a ‘white knight’, encouraged by Fiat and Ford, to ride to Pininfarina’s rescue? Those boardroom discussions between Ford and Tata might just have gone a bit further than we originally thought.