Cisitalia 202- Beginning of an Epoch

The Cisitalia 202 was one of those cars which were so influential that they now look commonplace. But during the 1947 Paris Motor Show the Cisitalia 202 was hailed as an achievement that had completely changed the direction of postwar car body design.

A green Cisitalia 202 on display in a museum
The Cisitalia 202 Coupe

Before the Cisitalia, car designers treated each part of a car as a different box: one for the engine, one for the passengers, and one for their baggage. Headlights and wings were stuck on as extra appendages. Even streamlined contemporary cars looked like this Aero 50:

A red Aero 50 car of 1937 in a museum featuring separate headlights, wings, and a engine compartment.
The Aero 50 of 1937 featured separate headlights, wings, and engine compartment.

At last, the car was conceived as a single shell. But who was the mystery designer who produced this masterpiece?

Northern Italy has a long history of aesthetic excellence that can be traced right back to the Renaissance. Bronze statues and church doors were made by Byzantine craftsmen in the 11th and 12th centuries, and sculpting metalwork became family business.

The Italian tradition of motor car design goes back to the tradition of carrozzeria: the coachbuilding of horse-drawn carriages.

But the most famous Italian car designer of all, Battista “Pinin” Farina didn’t even have the advantage of an artistic family. He was the tenth of a family of eleven children and was nick-named “Pinin” (“baby”) as he was only five feet tall.

His mother struggled to make ends meet and insisted that all the children contributed something. Pinin was set to burnish his mother’s pots and pans and found that he enjoyed polishing the curving metal. He joined his brother Giovanni’s coachbuilding workshop at 18.

Pinin then set up his own design and car construction house; Carrozzeria Pinin Farina, but after the Second World War vehicles from Italy were banned by the French from the 1946 Paris Motor Show.

So, undeterred Pinin Farina and his son Sergio drove two of their creations, a Lancia Aprilia cabriolet and an Alfa Romeo 6C from Turin to Paris and parked them outside the entrance to the exhibition.

This anti-salon tactic worked, as it had for the Impressionist’s Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects) of 1863.

Suddenly the press and the public woke up to the importance of Italian car design. Then Pinin Farina came up with the car that cemented his reputation and began an epoch of beautiful Italian sports cars: the Cisitalia 202 Coupe.

A green Cisitalia 202 on display in a museum, showing the engine compartment air vents.
The body was conceived as one continuous line…

Pinin Farina had clearly been influenced by the new science of aerodynamics and he formed the Cisitalia as one continuous, flowing movement, just as aircraft designers did during the war.

The line follows over the bonnet, flows into the wings, over the windscreen and down over the roof. The wheels and the headlights sink into the body for the first time. The wings and the bonnet bulge like muscles under a tense skin. 

The doors seem not to be cut into the metal but sketched onto the surface.  There are no sharp edges, just gentle swellings and depressions that maintain the overall flow and unity, creating a sense of speed. The side view suggests a crouching animal, ready to pounce.

A green Cisitalia 202 on display in a museum, showing the "one shell" design.
One metal skin

The body was handmade in the old Italian fashion, with aluminium panels beaten over wooden forms. Only 170 copies were made.

One of them is on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was the first automobile to enter the permanent exhibition of any art museum in the world. The curator Arthur Dexler wrote this appreciation:

The Cisitalia’s body is slipped over its chassis like a dust jacket over a book. Modelled by swellings and depressions, the surface of this seemingly one-piece metal jacket is made to incorporate those elements which, in the Mercedes (SS Tourer), are superimposed on the body.

Arthur Dexler, curator, Museum of Modern Art in New York
A green Cisitalia 202 is on display in a museum, showing the beautiful curving door shut line!
The doors looked as if just sketched on the surface

The openings Farina cuts into the jacket provide some of the most skilfully contrived details of automobile design. The grille opening is a modified cross-section of the hood, which thus resembles the cut end of a cigar, while the rolled edge of the opening itself helps to suggest that the grille is part of a continuous structural framework beneath the metal surface.

Because the sloping hood lies below the two front fenders it suggests low, fast power. This hood treatment has the additional merit of making the wheels seem larger, (an illusion reinforced by the high, tight curves of the openings which skirt them) and because they are dominant elements in the design Farina has made them appear to project outside the body by decorating them with slotted, chromium plated discs, as if they were bright roulette wheels.

Arthur Dexler, curator, Museum of Modern Art in New York
A green Cisitalia 202 on display in a museum.
Wheels like roulette wheels

To maintain the sculptural unity of the entire shape its surfaces are never joined with sharp edges but are instead wrapped around and blunted. The door is minimized to prevent it from contradicting the appearance of a taut metal skin. Vertical contrast, necessary for an illusion of length, is supplied instead by the clearly modelled rear fender.

Arthur Dexler, curator, Museum of Modern Art in New York
A green Cisitalia 202 on display in a museum, showing the thin panel gaps.
Every subtle detail helped towards the whole design

The side window is given pronounced forward direction by one sharp corner pointing toward the front wheels, and the roof and window seem to unfurl from this point, flowing back like a pattern of air currents in a slipstream. Perhaps the most subtle device in the Cisitalia’s design is a slight shift in its horizontal axis.

Arthur Dexler, curator, Museum of Modern Art in New York
A green Cisitalia 202 on display in a museum, showing the rear of the car.
The rear of the car had a subtle lift

The back of the car, particularly the fender, is lifted at an angle rising from the strict horizontal base line which gives stability to the design. Thus both ends of the car gain an extraordinary tension, as though its metal skin did not quite fit over the framework and had to be stretched into place. This accounts, in part, for that quality of animation which makes the Cisitalia seem larger than it is.

Arthur Dexler, curator, Museum of Modern Art in New York

In my opinion this was sculpture every bit as accomplished as that executed by the masters of the Renaissance. But this was rolling sculpture.

You’ll see the influence of this design in the Porsche 356, Lancia Aurelia B20, Aston Martin DB2, Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint and many Ferraris and Maseratis.

The Porsche 356 in a museum showing a similarity to the Cisitalia.
The Porsche 356 design was influenced by the Cistalia

The Cisitalia might not look that special now because all cars quickly adopted the “single shell” look, apart from outliers such as the Morgan, which shows us what cars of the 1930s used to look like. 

Pinin Farina went on to design countless cars, being mostly associated with Ferrari. He gave to sheet metal powers of expression that Michelangelo had once given to marble.

Unlike Barthes’ “unknown designers”, Italy’s car designers became nationally celebrated, and they became household names: Bertone, Castangna, Frua, Ghia, Michelotti, Scaglietti, Zagato.

Some had family roots in Italian art: Giorgetto Giugiaro’s grandfather had painted frescoes in Italian churches, and his father, Mario, was an artist working in oils. Giorgetto was sent to study art in Turin, eventually designing the Alfa Romeo 105 coupés and the VW Golf.

What was the specification of the Cisitalia 202?

Cisitalia’s founder and owner, Piero Dusio was a businessman and racing driver. His company was called Consorzio Industriale Sportive Italia. The first car was the D46, a small single-seater which had a space frame with a tiny Fiat 1090cc engine and Fiat 500 suspension.

After some racing success, Dusio decided to build a small car based on the D46’s chassis and Fiat mechanicals. The cars were delivered as rolling chassis and were bodied by various design houses. Pinin Farina was responsible for the first coupe, and as we have seen it received great acclaim.

But the Cisitalia was never successful commercially as the cars were so painstakingly built by hand. Sadly, Cisitalia went into receivership in 1949 and was sold in 1952.

What engine did the Cisitalia 202 have?

The Cisitalia 202 had a four-cylinder Fiat engine:

Capacity: 1089 cc / 66.5 in³

Power: 52.2 kW / 70 bhp @ 5500 rpm

Carburation: 2 Weber 36DR4SP Carburetors

What was the Cisitalia SMM Nuvolari Spider?

The Cisitalia SMM Nuvolari Spider was called the SMM for “Spider Mille Miglia”, and this special open version was built for the 1947 Mille Miglia, and driven by Tazio Nuvolari, who led for most of the race, despite the 1100 cc car being one of the slowest cars in the race. He was in front of cars with engines three times bigger.

At the finish, Nuvolari took second overall and the Cisitalia was first in class. All subsequent competition spiders were thus named Cisitalia 202 SMM Nuvolaris.

How much is a Cisitalia 202 worth?

A Cisitalia 202 is worth between $70,000 and $715,000, with a recent sale of $550,000, according to Hagerty.

A racing Cisitalia SMM Nuvolari Spider is worth around $700,000 – $850,000, according to the Gooding & Company auction company (source: roadandtrack)