Alfredo Vignale was captivated by speed. He was fascinated by the latest fabrication methods in aviation, and by the lightweight, aerodynamic racing cars he saw winning at Mille Miglia and other thrilling circuits. Making the most of that passion, Ford is giving the Mondeo and 2016 S-Max the true Vignale treatment.
Having established his eponymous carrozziere in Turin in 1948, Vignale set about collaborating with local Italian firms Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari. The city harboured a long tradition of coachbuilders – these were highly skilled craftsmen who once constructed horse-drawn carriages and were now working on cars.
In the early days of the automobile, carmakers typically created only the engine, gearbox, chassis and controls, leaving the rest to these artisans. Vignale was one of the first to realise the potential of ‘clothing’ the chassis with unique body designs.
In his modest workshop in Via Cigliano, skilled artisans rolled and hammered sheets of metal into smooth voluptuous form. Vignale worked with aluminium to sculpt free-flowing panels with rolled edges, hand stamped louvres and contours shaped using molten alloys sanded for hundreds of hours for perfect finish.
By the 1950s Vignale’s reputation was such that wealthy automobile enthusiasts would travel the world over to his workshop to commission unique vehicles. It is this background that has pushed Ford to now position the Italian marque at the pinnacle of its brand. Yet just over a decade later, the carrozziere was forced to close – the production methods proved simply too expensive in the age of mass production.
Ford purchased Vignale in 1973, yet it has taken the car giant 42 years to revive the name. There were earlier failed attempts at reincarnation - the Aston Martin Lagonda Vignale concept of 1993 (when Ford had ownership) and the 2004 Focus Coupé-Cabriolet, originally conceived as the Focus Vignale.
This time Ford is positioning the Italian marque at the pinnacle of its brand, applying the Vignale treatment to a select group of production cars starting with the current Mondeo and 2016 S-Max.
This involves exterior and interior treatments that reflect a more refined approach to car making, and much higher technology specifications than on the mainstream cars. The design team is also creating a range of Vignale accessories. Ultimately Ford would like the coachbuilder’s ethos - its rich history of craft, technological advancement and intricate tailoring - to inform the brand.
We caught up with Chris Bird, Ford’s European design director, at the Mondeo Vignale launch in Rome. He explained that the S-Max concept car was physically created in the original Turin workshop so as to allow his team the chance ‘to come up with an execution that is Italian’, he says, and to ‘utilise the Vignale expertise.’
Guiding us around the car, Bird notes that whatever we see and touch has been given the Vignale treatment to be of higher quality, to be tactile. The focus here is therefore on including more refined materials – so expect a great deal of soft, squishy real leather, cold accents of metal, and shiny wood. The hexagon shape associated with Vignale is a signature feature here interpreted in a number of novel ways on the front grille, and inside on the quilted leather seats.
The S-Max concept, in particular, reveals the direction Ford is heading with the brand. ‘We’re looking at taking the whole quilting idea and expressing it in new ways and applying it to new areas,’ says Bird as we peek inside the concept car. ‘We’re looking at different quilting pattern opportunities that are more contemporary. There is a lot more to come,’ he promises.
It certainly lifts the mood inside the Mondeo Vignale we drove in and around Rome. You almost forget the make and model of the car once cocooned in the soft, quilted Windsor leather seats (with cooling function to combat the heat outside), clutching the leather-encased steering wheel, cruising in silence thanks to the Active Noise Cancellation system that monitors and counters cabin noise.
Bird reassures us that the Vignale application isn’t a superficial exercise. He feels it is with such an evocative marque that Ford has a chance of doing some exciting designs, perhaps one day a stand-alone model, a small sports car or crossover to attract younger customers. This, he says wistfully, depends mainly on the success of the Mondeo and S-Max.
‘I’m hoping the great work that design does on future Vignales will lead to making this happen,’ says Bird. For now, though, this will remain a design treatment, a way of positioning the Ford brand at a more premium level.