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When Lorenzo Ramaciotti retired as head of famed Italian design studio Pininfarina in 2005, the designer of some of the most iconic Ferraris was looking forward to spending time writing books about cars instead of drawing them. Two years later Fiat (F) Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne called, asking him to run the carmaker’s design center and inject more style into the tired hodgepodge of model lineups sold under the Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati brands. Ramaciotti didn’t hesitate. “I was born a few hundred meters from Maserati’s headquarters in Modena, and I’ve always wanted to be part of that world,” he says. Ramaciotti originally planned to stay for less than two years. He’s still there after six.
In 2009, after Fiat took control of Chrysler, Marchionne asked the designer to bring greater flair to brawny American vehicles such as the Dodge Durango and Jeep Wrangler. “We must create a stylish co-habitation of the cultures of the U.S. and Italy,” says Ramaciotti, 65, speaking from the former machine shop in Fiat’s sprawling Mirafiori factory in Turin where he oversees about 300 designers. A lifelong auto buff, Ramaciotti visits Chrysler’s headquarters near Detroit for about a week each month to work with the American automaker’s design team.
Marchionne, CEO of both Fiat and Chrysler, expects Ramaciotti’s creations to help boost sales. The company’s factories in Italy are running at just half capacity; losses in Europe reached about €700 million ($910 million) last year. By the end of 2016, Fiat is planning to roll out 16 cars built in Italy, including a small Jeep, a half-dozen Maseratis, and eight Alfa Romeos. Ramaciotti has been handed an “opportunity to recreate an Italian style,” says Marchionne. “He’s unique, one of the few designers who doesn’t have a huge ego.”
Under Ramaciotti, Fiat designed a roomier version of the subcompact 500, called the 500L. The four-door, to be introduced in the U.S. this year, has the rounded snub nose and wide-eyed headlights of the 500 but more than double the cargo space. For Alfa Romeo, he developed the Giulietta hatchback and a rear-wheel-drive two-seater called the 4C, an attempt to bring greater homogeneity to the upscale brand after models that looked like stepchildren. The 4C and another Ramaciotti creation, the $130,000 Maserati Quattroporte, a four-seater unveiled in January that’s intended to challenge the Porsche Panamera four-door coupe, will soon hit U.S. showrooms.
In his three decades at Pininfarina, Ramaciotti oversaw the design of some of the world’s most eye-catching hot rods, including the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, lauded by critics for its long, sloping front end that avoids the overbearing bravado of some of the brand’s other models. “Very few people know more about auto design and automotive history than Ramaciotti,” says Chris Bangle, former lead designer at BMW (BMW). “He’s very much a meister.”
Ramaciotti says one of his main tasks is to maintain the diversity of styles among Fiat’s stable of brands, an especially important mission now that the company is using the same chassis and other components for models from different nameplates, such as a small Jeep and the Fiat 500X SUV. Ramaciotti says the plan is to beef up Fiat’s image as a trendy maker of smaller cars with Italian dash, while maintaining Dodge and Chrysler as brands aimed at more traditional American buyers. “There should be a general sense of good taste, but not every model should come from the same pencil,” he says.
With sales in Europe set to fall for a sixth straight year, boosting sales abroad has become a priority. Fiat-Chrysler plans to open a style center in China and reinvigorate its small one in Brazil, where the local design team has helped Fiat win about a quarter of the market. The company was late to the party in China, but since last summer a new Fiat factory in Changsha has been producing the Viaggio, a compact sedan similar to the Alfa Giulietta and Dodge Dart that Ramaciotti’s team adapted for Chinese tastes.
Roberto Giolito, Ramaciotti’s aide in charge of Europe, says his boss leaves designers ample room to be creative. “We are like a jazz band,” Giolito says. “He’s not a conductor with his baton. He plays with us.”
The bottom line: As Fiat and Chrysler bring their operations closer together, Ramaciotti’s designs will be key in forging complementary identities.