It’s not a rational or responsible desire to dream of expensive looking sports cars. But still, the 20th century image of a curvaceous four-wheeled form continues to foster a culture of envy. The high price tag attached to these cars that made them a symbol of aspiration, greed, and everything in between, has endured, as the performance numbers and prices on supercar reach astronomical seven-figure levels. What has been lacking in the rare European supercar category are cars powered by electric powertrains. But the days of the rude gasoline-inhaling performance car may be dwindling.
Pininfarina is the newest Italiana brand to attach itself to the fast-growing list of luxury EV makers, but among the cult of Ferrari enthusiasts, Pininfarina is already a big deal. On Thursday, Automobil Pininfarina, a spinoff of the 90-year-old design house, unveiled teaser images of the PFO, its planned first-ever production car, a 250 mph battery powered hyper car.
“As a super sports car brand, no one has embarked fully on an EV strategy”
In an interview with The Verge, Automobili Pininfarina CEO Michael Perschke says the PFO will have a range of 300 miles on a single charge. “As a super sports car brand, no one has embarked fully on an EV strategy.” He estimates that it will take 10 to 15 minutes to charge the battery up to 80 percent. The performance numbers are dizzying — it will fly from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under two seconds.
Those images of the PFO show a curvaceous, sculptural exterior two-seater carbon fiber form encased in sweeping glass. A single ribbon of light cascades from the headlights across the front end. It’s message is clear — it’s an object of beauty that screams speed. Translation: it’s a truly Italian sports car. It’s the latest smoke signal that the electric future is nigh, pairing screensaver-worthy cars with a Tesla-blazing powertrain, and perhaps eventually spelling the end for gasoline. In January, Ferrari revealed plans to make an electric supercar. These announcements follow on the heels of the reveals of the Porsche Mission E concept and the BMW i8 roadster, and McLaren’s intentions to spend $2.1 billion on electrification.
It’s the latest smoke signal that the electric future is nigh
For a couple hundred potential well-to-do customers that can’t resist this latest sub $2 million dollar proposition, the PFO will be unveiled as a concept car at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show and be delivered in the second half of 2020. The company will start taking orders later this summer when it shows a prototype to select groups at Monterey Car Week where some of the world’s most expensive cars are auctioned, flaunted, and fawned over.
Pininfarina is in its element at Pebble Beach. The prize-winning 1936 Lancia Astura Cabriolet, once owned by Eric Clapton, won top honors at the Pebble Beach Concours D’elegance in 2016. The iconic Turin, Italy based coach builder is responsible for the aesthetic of the world’s most collected cars including the Ferrari Testarossa, as seen in the SEGA game Outrun. Pininfarina namesake and founder Battista Farina was nicknamed Pinin, local dialect for a short guy, the lead designer told me. Farina found a kindred stubborn spirit in the engineer Enzo Ferrari when they first met in 1930. The Pininfarina house also built custom cars for Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Cadillac and has a list of over 1000 cars in its books. More recently, its design arm has been hinting at alternative powertrains. It showed the Nido EV concept in 2010 and the H2 Speed concept, a hydrogen powered raced car in 2016. Its list of star clients includes Jackie Kennedy and the Sultan of Brunei.
The value in that star-studded legacy inspired its current ownership, the Indian-based Mahindra Group, to double down on its historic pedigree and move the name badge of Pininfarina from the side of the car to the front hood of an electric supercar by founding the official Automobiliti brand. Mahindra is one of the driving forces on the Formula E circuit, which holds its New York race this weekend, and is well versed in EV production. The venture was first announced in April. This week, Automobili Pininfarina says that Formula One and Formula E racer Nick Heidfeld will join the as development driver next year as part of its growing leadership team.
But this classic brand isn’t approaching technology as an afterthought. It hopes to strike a note with potential customers in Silicon Valley. “We assume that we appeal to customers like a Larry Ellison or Marc Benioff, who also have an affinity to sustainability and see technology as an advancement to get to the next level,” Perschke says.
Part of its business plan is to seek out partnerships with tech companies to own the hardware inside of the vehicle. “We will not have large department. We’d rather talk to others like Apple, Google, and Salesforce who are into technology, and integrate them rather than do our own systems. OEMs are still defending infotainment architecture. I’m happy to full integrate an iPhone. But do you need to sell infotainment system at a surplus of another $5000?” he says.
“We assume that we appeal to customers like a Larry Ellison or Marc Benioff”
The design arm of Pininfarina counts Volvo as one of its past clients, an automaker using a more contemporary approach to its in-car technology. “If you try to be a software company as a car company, per definition, you will always be second,” Pershcke says. “You’re gaining a lot of accessibility and speed in open source systems.The apps are what clients are really interested in.” It’s a very different approach than a car with a similar price tag and mind-numbing performance, the Bugatti Chiron.
But in order to persuade customers to splurge on a two seater performance car, it has to live up to its exclusive reputation, rooted in awe-inspiring form. Pininfarina has credence as the ultimate art car. The Pininfarina-designed Cisitalia 202 was the first car included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
Design Director Luca Borgogno says that building beauty is paramount instead of sticking to the design adage of form following function. “We want to make a car that is not overdesigned. We want something that is super clean and impossibly simple.” As it is primed to grow, the 10 person design team is borrowing members from Pininfarina SpA, the company’s traditional design house. That branch of the company recently showed another high end transportation project: the Princess R35 Performance Sports Yacht.
Pininfarina plans to incorporate sustainability into its design appeal, modeling itself after Stella McCartney’s approach to materials in her high-end fashion brand. That vision includes materials that have been ethically sourced, natural woods, and paints without chemical ingredients. “The constraints are there, what is good is we live in the moment we can work a lot between human and machine. We want to make a big statement as well,” says Borgogno.
“We want to make a big statement as well”
To build its cars, Perschke says it will share a factory with a few EV companies, suppliers, and assembly partners. Other vehicles are planned to follow the PFO, and the company will investigate hydrogen-powered vehicles, as referenced in the H2 concept. It’s also working on plans to repurpose its batteries. “For future cars we want a second life strategy,” Perschke says. “In 2023 to 2025 we will be perceived as a sustainable luxury brand.”
To make it to the next car, first, the over-the-top PFO needs to capture the hearts of discerning customers. If they are successful, it may be a sign the culture associated with unapologetic gas guzzling engines is dwindling, an impact that could ripple into more affordable spaces as battery technology and lightweight materials become more affordable. But at this level, the ridiculous price tag is part of what makes the car so appealing to the high-rolling car collectors.