Italian CARchitecture: Part One

As much as I love interior design, I’ve always had an almost equal love affair with cars, especially fast cars, Italian cars.  Born from reading my dad’s Road & Track magazines, I grew up following automakers and remembering horsepower and 0-60 times like how other kids followed athletes.  My fondness for Italian cars stemmed from their superior aesthetic design and performance, especially when compared to their German or American counterparts (of course, there are exceptions).  Cars like Lamorghini ‘s Miura, Countach, and LM002, and Ferrari’s Daytona, Testarossa, and F40 were game-changers; their designs looked generations ahead of other manufacturers during those periods of time.  Who doesn’t remember the awe of seeing their first Countach or Testarossa?  These cars had so much panache and appeal that shows like Magnum P.I. and Miami Vice were thinly veiled dramas that centered mostly around the cars that the stars drove.  Even today, 30 years later, all these cars look as audacious as they did when they first came out.  Unsuprisingly, my primary interest in cars was for their design aesthetic or architecture, like how the headlights formed the face of the car, how the various body panels aligned and met up, how the vents and ducts were shaped and placed, how crease and character lines on the hood and body panels affected the car’s impact, etc.  To me it was the details that counted.  I call this the CARchitecture.

With that as the backdrop, guess how excited I was when I was invited to “test drive” the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano at San Francisco Ferrari on Tuesday?  VERY.  Honestly, I am not sure how I got on this marketing list, but over the years I’ve been invited to a few events from them including test driving the Maserati (their sister brand than Ferrari controls) Quattroporte and Granturismo at Calistoga Ranch and attending the American launch of the upcoming Ferrari California at the Monterey Concours.  But of all the events I’ve attended, I’ve never been given the chance to drive a Ferrari, let alone their flagship model that lists for $302K (base) and packs 620 horsepower.  While I could spend this whole entry talking about the driving experience, which was AMAZING by the way, I’ll stick to talking about the CARchitecture.

Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano

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Walking up to the Ferrari, the trademark red hue was arresting even on this cloudy day.  As I walked around the car and studied the Pininfarina penned bodywork, I was struck by the proportions of the car, which has its engine in the front unlike most Ferraris.  I didn’t realize how long the hood was, obviously a necessity to house the big V-12 underneath.  Conversely, the rear deck was  rather short and quite high.  Taken as a whole, the 599 looked nice, if not a bit back heavy like a Mercedes SLR McLaren.  This car is definitely a Ferrari but I don’t think it will go down as a classic, all-time Ferrari.  My rationale for this slightly blander Ferrari is the company’s extreme focus on and influence by aerodynamics.  In it’s quest for extreme speed (this Ferrari tops out at 205 mph), Ferrari has to design cars with finely-tuned aerodynamics to reach such speeds.

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When studying the rear, I thought the designers did a wonderful job of masking the thickish rear end by lowering the license plate aperature while raising the sweep of the diffuser, one of the many aerodynamic tricks that can be seen all over the car.  In the first picture above, the gray “tray” or diffuser along the bottom channels the air cleanly from beneath the car out the back to minimize turbulence and assist aerodynamics.  From a design perspetive, making the diffuser gray is a visual trick to reduce the amount of aluminum body that we see, making the car look like it has less junk in the trunk, literally!  Suprisingly, the tray was made of fiberglass and not carbon fiber as I expected for a car costing this much.  The jewels of the rear end are the beautiful LED rear lamps, which sport LEDs for both the red ring of braking lights and the orange ring of signal lights.  As a designer, you have to love the beautiful crystalline effect that the LEDs have; from an engineering persective, they use less electricity while providing a safer driving experience because they light up much quicker than standard incandescent bulbs.  The way the rear fenders “wrap around” those lights produces a powerful, muscular rear stance for the car, a not so subtle remidner of the power on tap beneath the hood.

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If you study the top of the car in the second picture above, you’ll note how the “C” pillar actually does not touch the rear glass; there is actually a space between the windows and this structual beam, which is called a “flying buttress”.  The roof of the car is essentially a glass canopy like a fighter jet.  The flying buttress was added for added structural integrity and to give the 599 a classic Ferrari boxer shape like an old 512BB Boxer or a 288 GTO.  From most angles, this flying buttress detail cannot be seen as it is well disguised and blends into the body work.  But upon closer inspection, I think this detail is really innovative and highly architectural, like the curve from a Santiago Calatrava bridge, like this one we saw in Venice over the Grand Canal:

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ferrari599front

The front of the car is its most unremarkable angle in my opinion.  While the lines are perfectly clean and aligned, the front is not particularly distinctive.  The headlamps look like a nicer version of those found on the previous generation Infinity G30 coupe.  Nevertheless it is a nicer version – as the front fender crease continues through the headlamp covers.  The primary intake is classic Ferrari with its large eggcrate grill, though having a separate lower grill along the bottom is very similar to current Audi’s.  A distinctive touch is the two vents in the hood, which is barely perceptible in the picture above.  I think that this not adds some masculinity to the design but also helps the hot V-12 engine breathe.

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Having driven the 599, I can the interior is a nice mix of luxury and straight-forwardedness.  For example, most of the surfaces are covered in fine leather from Poltrona Frau, the same Frau as the fine furniture manufactuer, yet most of the remaning surfaces are carbon fiber (seat back, door panel, etc.) which says to me “we should be saving weight but for $300K we’ll show you some skin.”

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The most striking design element of the interior are the four large vents protruding off the dashboard.  These vents perfectly embody Italian design: they need to be efficient and simple, but be gorgeous all at once.  A Japanese or German car would have made the vents blend into the rest of the dashboard landscape, performing a functional but unassuming role.  The Italians say “let’s make this functional art by making the vents huge and from carbon fiber.”  I particularly like the photo above and how the lights from the Waldo Tunnel on the 101 reflect off the polished surface.

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The instrument binacle on the 599 was an interesting mix of new and old.  Straight-ahead was the over-sized tachonmeter with a red background, clear markings for the 8,400 redline, and digital display indicating what gear you’re in.  Now that 90% of all Ferrari’s are shipped as “auto-clutch manuals” (for a layman, essentially an “automatic”), a display is needed to tell the driver knows what gear they’re in.  And given how easy and fun it is to shift, largely because of the intoxicating sounds of the engine, and how tractable the engine is, it is very easy to get lost in the gears.  Its sixth gear pulls stronger than a regular car’s first gear.  Within the binnacle, the other interesting element is the large LCD screen to the left, a homage to modern times.  This screen functions as the communications center for the car, but in a nod to traditionalists some of the information is presented in digital “gauges”, a la the new Nission GTR, though Ferrari did not hire the GranTurismo game designers to make the graphics like Nissan did.  Nevertheless, I had to take a picture of the instrument cluster for posterity – though I should have probably not done so while driving… the Ferrari consigliere who accompanied me was not happy about that at all and snatched my iPhone…

img_01791The coolest part of the interior though was probably the steering wheel.  Half carbon fiber and half leather, this wheel is at once all business but again gorgeous.  Along the top of the wheel are LEDs inbedded into the carbon fiber (see my first interior picture).  As you pass 6,000 RPMs, the LEDs light up from left to right in an increasingly alarming array of colors – they are warning lights telling you about the need to upshift.  This technology is directly taken from F1 racing – how cool is that!  The funny thing is that in my very brief drive, I didn’t even notice the lights as I was concentrating so hard on 1) not crashing a $300K car while it was accelerating past 6,000 RPMs and 2) not getting a ticket from the CHP canvassing that stretch of 101 as I approached triple digits briefly.  The other cool feature about the steering wheel are two buttons along the bottom, inner carbon fiber ring.  Of course the 599 has the now de rigeur start button (I think Ferrari was the originator?  Regardless, they have to be the best sounding cars upon depressing this button), and the manettino button, which controls the drive settings on the car depending on the external conditions: ice, low grip, sport, race or no CST.  Each setting changes the program in the car’s computer which controls the suspension, traction control, electronic differential and change speed of electronic gearbox.  I had a chance to try sport and race though race is supposed to be track only (no CST means all electronic driving aids are turned off – the suicide setting).  Design wise, it just seems so Italian to put this key instrument on carbon fiber flange on the steering wheel operated by a little aluminum lever that points to some icons and some words.  It’s kind of stubby, awkward and efficient all at the same time.

All in all, what’s there to not love about this car?  I had a blast driving it and won’t forget it anytime soon, if ever… but then why did I leave my heart with another car that day, especially another car that was not a Ferrari?  Stay tuned….

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About Cantilever Design

Designs for Modern Luxury is a blog by Karman Ng, principal of Cantilever Design, an award-winning interior design firm located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Always reading, researching and reveling in “the best of design” for himself and his clients, Karman began his blog as a way to share his thoughts and finds-from furniture to fashion to food. Karman hopes his blog fosters dialogue and sharing of design-related products, news, tips, ideas and secrets so that everyone can enjoy a little bit more modern luxury in their lives. For more information about Cantilever Design, visit http:///www.cantilever-design.com or follow Karman at http://twitter.com/karmanng.
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