July 2022 8 Min Read

Interview: Andrea Zagato

By Josh Sims

Andrea Zagato is the CEO of the Italian coachbuilder that takes his surname. Founded by his grandfather near Milan in 1919, originally as an aeronautical company, Zagato would go on to design very limited special editions of some of the most acclaimed cars from almost every major manufacturer, from Bugatti, BMW, and Porsche to Ferrari, Aston Martin, Fiat, and Lamborghini.

To this day, Zagato remains an independent company, and alongside their work in luxury, they have also created other forms of transport, carefully curating their collaborative efforts. We spoke to Andrea Zagato about the fine line between balancing Zagato’s design language alongside that of their partners, the history of Zagato, and the future of car design.

ACM: What was your first memory of your grandfather, and of the company at large?

AZ: I was five years old and he used to pick me up at home and take me to school, because he was the first guy to be up at the company. I’d arrive in a black Alfa Romeo 2.6 limousine – a kind of presidential car. But I wasn’t expected to work for the company when I grew up. I didn’t expect to. I was planning on being a vet: that was my dream. But my father insisted I study finance, marketing and economics at university – he reckoned it would be useful whatever I did in the future – and then in the middle of my studies he said he needed my help … I wasn’t that interested in the work. But I was interested in spending more time with my father – my parents [had] divorced, so I didn’t spend much time with him when I was young, [and] it was more curiosity about him that took me to the company.

“I wasn’t expected to work for the company when I grew up. I didn’t expect to. I was planning on being a vet: that was my dream.”

You’ve said that although Zagato is an Italian company, it’s driven more by German design principles. How come?

I’ll try to keep this simple! Italy isn’t a nation but a number of cities brought together 150 years ago. It wasn’t that long ago that if you travelled through Italy, every 150km or so it seemed that everything changed – culture, architecture, dialects, food, and design. One of the great things about Italy is the variety of things you can find. The north of Italy was originally under the Austrian Empire and so was always a little more Germanic in its orientation, [and] the west was more under the influence of the French. And that had an impact on design. You can talk about ‘Italian design’, but the truth is that the design you find in Milan is opposite to that of what you’d find in, say, Turin, which is more baroque, art deco, art nouveau. It’s more about the French way of design, the application of decoration to an industrial product. Think about a Parisian bridge and it’s all flowers and sculptural elements, added to a functional bridge. In Milan it’s all clean, clean, clean – Bauhaus, Ulm School, Rationalism, less is more. You don’t add anything that isn’t necessary and that’s what makes the product beautiful. You see these very different approaches play out in the coachbuilders in each area.

What do you think makes Zagato stand apart from Italy’s other historic coachbuilders?

I actually started really loving Zagato when I realised how unique it is. All the other coachbuilder-designers are influenced by each other and have typically been involved with large production runs of their designs. But Zagato has never done series models in its more than 100 years. It’s always made in very limited numbers, and that’s peculiar. But what matters is that it means you’re never influenced by the trends of the period as you tend to be with a mass-production car. Pininfarina did the Lancia Florida in the 1960s, to give an historical example, and that followed the American trend for application [of styling details] like ornamentation, chrome elements [and] wings, so it resembles an aeroplane but is actually so heavy it can’t fly. It’s still beautiful. But then look at the Lancia Flaminia Zagato and it’s all about simplicity, about super lightness. The other thing is that a production coach-built car has a higher value [than a standard production car,] of course. But a Zagato is maybe 10 times higher because it was never a trendy product and never a production car.

A Zagato model can be distinguished by the fact that they mostly consist of coupés, spiders, and speedsters.

It’s all about design rather than style – is that the distinction?

Exactly. Design has purpose. It’s not just style, which ultimately is marketing – it’s sales. Ferrari would say that the car that wins the race is the most beautiful. Why? Because it wins the race – it has expressed a purpose, which is to win the race, not just to look beautiful. Style is trying to look beautiful without any other purpose.

Over its history, almost every major car brand has worked with Zagato. What do they hope to gain from this that they can’t do themselves?

It’s about providing a different design language – though, of course, that still has to fit in with the history of each brand it’s applied to. As a car maker, you may have invested in your own styling centre, but that will fit in with the language the company has always used. Those styling centres can think differently, but the competition is invariably so high between car makers now that the attitude is more about maintaining market share rather than gaining it, so it becomes more about retaining your company DNA. But if you cross that DNA with another design vision’s DNA, like ours, the result should be stronger – and a more collectible item. That’s why Aston Martin can sell a Zagato version of its car at a price three times higher.

Over the last hundred or so years, Zagato have consistently pushed the boundaries of car design, experimenting with various design languages over their numerous projects.

Do you think car manufacturers that work with you sometimes worry that the Zagato name has more kudos than their own?

I hope so. The point is that we’re not competitors, because we’re not manufacturers. We only apply our brand to the side of the car. The one on the bonnet is still theirs. The idea is to have teamwork and come up with something that’s a mix of [our] approaches. We’re a supplier, an ally. The tough part of that process now is the dialogue with the manufacturer. It was super easy in the past because invariably there was one big boss and so decisions were very quick. Today, in order to survive, the manufacturers have come together to form these groups – and there are predictions that all brands will be part of one of only six, much bigger, automotive groups in the end. But that makes it hard to talk – because for them, we’re too small. You get all these people [sitting] around a table… it becomes more and more complicated unless the group is ready to delegate.

Is it hard to find the right balance in a collaborative design? What happens if the manufacturer insists on a detail that you don’t think chimes with Zagato?

The more you work with a company, the easier it gets – we’ve done more than 40 special cars with Maserati, for example, and more than 150 for Alfa Romeo. But take the example of [German engineer and manager] Franz-Josef Paefgen when he worked with Bentley – he told me that we should work more freely [and] put more of our DNA into the back of the car, because that’s typical of Zagato, and go softer on the front, because that should be more Bentley. Imagine an Italian sitting with his coffee in the town square and a car is parked there – he wants to see it side-on or three quarters. Germans are different – you’re normally [driving at] full speed on the autobahn, you look in the mirror and it’s important you get scared so you move out of the way. So Paefgen said you had to immediately recognise there’s a Bentley behind you. But, of course, it sometimes happens that something doesn’t have as much ‘Zagatoness’ as we might want – with a trim, perhaps, or a colour. The Aston Martin Vanquish shooting brake we did, the one in the collection, is exactly as we’d want it. But I’ve seen one in pink. What can I say to that? That’s not a car that should be in that colour.

How has technology changed the way you work?

The introduction of leaner, much more flexible production lines – coming from the Japanese experience with Mazda and Toyota – means we can build a Zagato car on the same line. You can make not just different versions of a car on the same line – not just coupe or sedan and so on – but also different shapes on the same line, too. That happened with the new Gaydon facility at Aston Martin – the Zagato model was made on the same assembly line as the normal Vanquish, so the production cost of making the car is identical. You just substitute carbon-fibre parts for steel ones, and so on. And sometimes it’s important for us to design in a way that allows the manufacturer to use their assembly line in this way. The Fiat 500 is made in two facilities, in Mexico and Poland, and they’re different. So if you want to make a Zagato version, as we have, you have to decide which line it will be built on first.

Zagato used to make cars as well as design them, but in the 1990s made the decision to stop manufacturing. Was that a tough decision?

It was a hard decision for my father and uncle because they’d spent their life looking out over a manufacturing facility. For them, stopping that was a big shock. Was that the right decision? Well, a few years later [coachbuilders] Bertone and Karmann filed for bankruptcy, Pininfarina lost control of most of their shares, so probably we survived because of letting go of manufacturing when we did.

Zagato often borrows aeronautical cues and translates them into the automotive sector.

In more recent years, Zagato has worked on the designs of trains and tractors, as well as luxury goods such as watches and cameras. How hard is it to transfer the Zagato design language from cars to other objects and modes of transport?

It’s not easy at all, which is why we tend not to put the Zagato badge on the side of these vehicles – the transfer of the Zagato approach from cars to combine harvesters is probably going too far. But we like to do these kinds of projects because it opens your mind and steers you away from just doing the same thing all the time. We learnt a lot about interior design by doing a tractor, for example, because it’s actually a super luxurious vehicle with the driver in that cab for maybe 10 hours, in the sun. That makes the design highly ergonomic, and why the cab costs a fortune. Comfort and convenience are stressed much more than they would be in an actual luxury car. And because we knew we could maybe triple the cost of a car by applying a Zagato approach, we wondered if we could do the same for other products – and we can. But you have to choose the collaboration carefully; it takes a long time to build a brand like Zagato, but you can ruin it very quickly. That’s why we really see Zagato’s future as still being mostly with cars.

Zagato started out as an aeronautical design company. Do you think that’s still relevant now?

Yes it’s still relevant. At the start, we transferred technology from the aeronautical sector to car design, and we still do that. When we did the Alfa Romeo SZ in the 1990s, that was a similar transfer. That was the first car completely developed using a CAD/CAM system – no models, just computers – and this came from the aeronautical sector too. We used to glue the subframe to the skin, which also came from aeronautics. More recently we designed an Alfa Romeo that was the first entirely carbon fibre car, which is a technology we apply all the time now. Again, that’s technology from the aircraft industry – it’s because it has switched over to use carbon fibre for all airliners now that the material is that much more affordable. And maybe some other innovations will come from aeronautics that we can use too.

As opposed to other historic coach-builders, Zagato has consistently stepped away from the crowd to focus on the design–its function–rather than solely the style of their cars.

Even with that innovation, your design approach has to be consistent decade to decade though, right?

Yes, though what I’ve learned is that Italians are not really consistent in their design innovation at all. Theirs is a more horizontal philosophy – we make something remarkable and the next time we completely forget we’ve done that and try to do something else remarkable but completely different. I think that’s why Italy has never had the same success in design as Japan and Germany, because their design philosophy is vertical – everything builds on what has come before. Look at the Japanese tea ceremony – that’s a process of reaching perfection. Or Porsche – the idea of having an engine at the back, well, everybody said that was ridiculous but they stuck with it and, improvement by improvement over years, the 911 is the best car in the world, from the most consistent brand in the world. I really should try to be more German. But I do at least have a Japanese chief designer and he’s spent more time with me than my wife.

“Italy has never had the same success in design as Japan and Germany, because their design philosophy is vertical – everything builds on what has come before.”

Do you think car design is in a good place generally?

Well, as I said, the industry is moving towards ever bigger groups and, as a company that’s part of a big group, you reduce the number of components you have to develop because you share as many as possible from car to car within the group. So the next generation of Alfa Romeo will be built on a platform shared with Peugeot and Citroën, for example. The end result of that approach is that cars will look the same. We won’t be driving cars anymore, but washing machines. With electric cars you reduce the number of components too, and [under the bonnet] they are much the same inverter, motor, battery. On the other hand, if the question arises of how you differentiate cars one from another, that will be in design, in the ‘skin’ around the cars. So it’s possible that design becomes the main element of differentiation. Of course, that’s my hope for the future of this company. And it’s in the nature of humans to want difference, not least because we won’t be able to find our cars in the car park anymore without it.

Our thanks to Andrea Zagato for speaking to us for this piece and giving us a glimpse into Zagato’s work. Photography by Federica Sasso.