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Carving the future

29 marzo 2021

Words - Giosuè Boetto Cohen

Long before computer-aided design and 3D printing, full-scale prototypes of new Ferrari models were assembled by artisans using wood, steel sheets, and lots of patience. It was a work of precision... and love

In the 1950s and ‘60s, all prototypes began life on paper. It made no difference whether they were one-offs or production models. The first sketches – from the scale drawings that were usually 1:10, all the way up to life-size views – all started out on a blank sheet of pale pink paper that looked and felt like the stuff butchers used to wrap steaks in.

This was how the designers got to the blueprint stage, the 1:1 ‘piano di forma’ scale design of the bodywork that was the cornerstone of the project and provided a two-dimensional idea of the car.

The transition to 3D wooden model-making came next. Incredibly skilled workers crafted all the necessary sections in wood from the blueprints. The paper designs were pinned down on solid wood, the tiny holes made by the pins creating a pattern that was then cut. The different sections of the car were then slotted together to produce the ‘sculpture’ and any voids were filled with blocks of wood and resin.

After a month’s work, the mascherone was complete. Oddly, although the dictionary definition of this Italian word refers to masks (and grotesque ones at that) the fact remains that for several decades mascheroni were a unique and invaluable work tool for coachbuilders, providing the first three-dimensional form of a new car. A moment of truth, if you will.

The full-scale model took pride of place in the centre of the workshop and would get the occasional touch-up as wedges were added or hollowed out. The battilastra, the man who physically shaped the sheet metal to make the car body, came and went, laying fenders and doors against the form, making minute adjustments by hand or with a mallet until that skin of aluminium or steel fitted to perfection.

In the case of one-off prototypes or show cars the mascherone would be short-lived. Sometimes a complete one might not be made at all, or only the most complex elements would be built.

If, on the other hand, a hand-built small series was being planned, this required both the realisation of a complete model and the reinforcing – with steel – of the outer angles subject to the greatest wear. This process led to the creation of a steel-clad manichino, to which the panel beaters could apply their mallets more freely. Aptly, manichino is the same word in Italian as that which describes the human-shaped mannequins made of padded wood used by tailors to see ‘how a suit falls’.

Sadly hardly any models survive to the present day. They usually fell prey to wear-and-tear or were often burnt as firewood in the stove because space in the workshops was precious and back then no one was thinking of leaving memories.

Paolo Martin and Piero Stroppa lived through the mascherone heyday at Michelotti, Bertone and Pininfarina in Italy, and helped us 'build' this story. Both extremely sophisticated designers and model-makers in their day, they are still extraordinarily dextrous and skilled. Just a few years ago Martin made a wooden 1:1 prototype for a hypothetical Bugatti. Stroppa has been equally busy. ‘I am in love with the memories,’ explains the designer who worked for Pininfarina from 1970 to 1974, ‘and I believe there is no sense in having a love of classic cars if you don’t understand how they came into the world.’

He has devoted himself to illustrating the design methods of that golden artisanal era through drawings, models and even caricatures. His latest creation – something that each one of us would love to have – is the stunning 1:10 scale mascherone of the splendid Dino 206 GT designed by Aldo Brovarone at Pininfarina. The delicate process of creating it is seen in the gallery above, and now, as then, it is more a form of art than industry. 

Long may this one survive.