Designer of the Century. Most influential. Hall of Fame. When you hear these words spoken about a car designer, you know the conversation is about Giorgetto Giugiaro. From Fiat to Bertone to Ghia to his own company, ItalDesign, Giugiaro’s 60-year career was marked by the creation of elegant, forward-looking, or out-there designs that moved the industry forward in countless ways.
From more than 200 designs that made it into production, we’re on the hunt for 10 that made a difference. And yes, there are a few take-your-breath-away Italian supercars on the list. But tellingly, there are more regular cars for the average motorist here. Those are the cars that influenced an industry, rather than a small cadre of high-end manufacturers.
Want to drive a Giugiaro? It may be easier than you thought.
10 1968 Bizzarrini Manta
True, it’s a concept rather than production model, but the impact of the outrageous design – completed in only 40 days – lives on to this day. There are many firsts in this car, as well as a few “onlys.” The constant curve from nose to roofline was certainly unusual in its day and still is today. But perhaps the most unexpected element is the “Venetian blind” window below the windshield, created to help aid with visibility out the front.
While it’s not the only supercar that seats three across (looking at you, McLaren F1), it was one of the earlier versions to capitalize on the advantages of a center position for the driver. More headroom, better visibility, and better pedal offset are all excellent reasons to put the driver in the middle. But let’s not forget that it also just plain seems cool.
9 Maserati Ghibli
A classic long hood, sloping roof, short deck fastback, the Maserati Ghibli set the tone for mid-60’s Italian GTs. Moving away from the more curvaceous coupés earlier in the decade, the Ghibli featured slab slides that felt more modern and were easier to produce. It may have influenced Chrysler’s “fuselage” cars that debuted just a few years later, but the low shark-nose front end with pop-up headlights certainly had an impact on the BMW 8-Series that debuted in 1990.
It’s the design of the Ghibli, rather than the high-tech, hemi-head V8 mated to a 5-speed stick, that makes it an icon. The same mechanicals in a more traditional design might have been a footnote. But the Ghibli remains a sought-after collectible that can be expected to sell – in any condition – for well into six figures. So… this isn’t one for the masses.
8 De Tomaso Mangusta
The only Giugiaro design put into production during his single year at Ghia was the De Tomaso Mangusta. But what a design. Long, low and incredibly muscular, the rear mid-engine Mangusta had a much bigger impact than you’d expect from a mere 401 cars.
While it looked menacing from any angle, the most notable feature of the Mangusta’s design were the gullwing style doors that raised skyward to reveal the engine and rear luggage compartments. Not so useful, as they made it difficult to perform even the most basic engine maintenance, but when were Italian exotics about being useful? The Mangusta had all the style and made as stunning an appearance when new as it does today.
7 Isuzu 117
In the 1960s, every Japanese manufacturer had a small 4-seater. But only Isuzu had a Giugiaro. The Isuzu 117 was the only Italian designed car being made in Japan at the time and its stunning looks made it very popular. It started as a low volume, hand-built model – about 50 cars a month – but public demand was high so Isuzu switched to mass production a few years into the run.
Take a look at the 117 and it’s easy to see why it was so popular. Whether it’s an early round-headlight version, or later square-headlight example, the lines are delicate and sporty at the same time. And since it was powered by an early dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder with electronic fuel injection, it delivered as much engineering as it did beauty. The 117 was a car fit for a pedestal from a brand that today simply feels like a footnote. Interesting how that happens, sometimes.
6 BMW 3200 CS
With a low beltline, airy greenhouse, and slender A and C pillars, the 3200 signaled the end of BMW’s more bulbous designs, and the start of a new, sharper design aesthetic that would last for decades. But interestingly, those aren’t its most influential design cues. Although named for the Head of Design at BMW, and not Giugiaro, this was the first use of “the Hofmeister kink” – the way the C pillar turns back toward the front of the car at the bottom, creating a wide base for the pillar. This design element has been copied by practically every manufacturer since.
The other notable design element is that this was the first BMW use of “roundie” tail lights - a feature that would rise to prominence with the 2002 a few years later. So yes, this design mostly influenced BMW, but bits and pieces seeped into other designs around the world. Only about 603 3200s were made, so good luck finding one. But you can more easily find examples of related designs that followed, such as the 3.0 CS or 2002.
5 Alfa Romeo Alfasud
Nothing about the Alfasud was traditional for Alfa Romeo from the design to the mechanicals to where it was built. The flat-four engine and front-wheel-drive gave Giugiaro more freedom to design around the drivetrain, so he could let form follow function, which in this case was to provide as much interior space and flexibility as possible.
With front and rear seats that folded flat and a dashboard that featured a full-width storage shelf, the Alfasud was all about flexibility. Yet it was based on a simple two-box design format that Giugiaro would visit time and time again, as it maximized interior space and utility. In the case of the Alfasud, it would appear in a variety of body styles from coupé to hatchback to wagon. Unfortunately, while the Alfasud was lauded by the motoring press and owners, the love faded as quickly as the cars rusted. They were never offered in the U.S., so finding one locally could be a challenge, but as they’re all over 25 years old, you can import one without much trouble - if you can find a good one.
4 Fiat Panda
Introduced in 1980, the Fiat Panda was a city car that defied all expectations, selling about 4.5 million of the first series in just six years. It was so popular that nearly 40 years later it’s on its 3rd iteration and still going strong. That longevity is due, at least in part, to a brilliantly simple design by Giugiaro.
As he described it in La Stampa in 1980, “The Panda is like a pair of jeans, that simple, practical, no-frills piece of clothing. I tried to bring into this car the spirit of military machinery, especially helicopters, that means light, rational, built-for-purpose vehicles.” Clearly, it was a design ethos that spoke to many, as so many cars were purchased.
3 Lancia Megagamma
When the Chrysler minivan came out in 1984, it was a revelation to the American motoring public. But only because they hadn’t seen the Lancia Megagamma. Based on the Gamma, but stretched in almost every way – especially up – the Megagamma was Giugiaro’s take on what a real family people-mover should look like.
Unveiled at the 1978 Turin Auto Show, the Megagamma was the world’s first glimpse at a school of packaging that can now be seen on any street in any town in any country around the world. And they all trace back to this show car. Granted, the Megagamma never made it into production, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t invent the genre.
2 Lotus Esprit
The original Lotus Esprit, now referred to as the Series I, is the version we all know and love as James Bond’s submarine car. But it’s so much more than that. Giugiaro ushered in a new design aesthetic with this “folded paper” approach that influenced many. The extreme wedge was long, low, angular, and devoid of ducts or embellishments that would detract from the sheer simplicity and purposefulness of the design. It was intended to slice cleanly through the wind and straight into our hearts. Which it did.
The Esprit helped define the look of the ‘70s and carried on – with some updates – until 2004, by which time it had inspired other designs such as the TVR Tasmin, Vector W8 and more. While many designers created wedges, Giugiaro’s design for Lotus is one of the most iconic.
1 Volkswagen Golf
The last car on the list, the VW Golf – or Rabbit as it was marketed in the U.S. – is by far the best known of Giugiaro’s designs. Nearly 7 million Mk1s were made between the car’s launch in 1974 and the last version to roll off the assembly line in 2004. And although you may have to squint to see the resemblance, it has more in common with the Lotus Esprit than you may realize.
Volkswagen was ready to move past the rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive Beetle platform and wanted a design that would help the new front-engined, front-wheel-drive car stand out. They turned to Giorgetto Giugiaro and he gave them a simple, two-box design that conformed to his “folded paper” aesthetic – sharp creases and flat planes. It could be said the VW was the upright version of the Esprit design. It was, as we all know, a huge triumph and during a celebration of his 70th birthday he had this to say about it: “This is the most important car of my career. Its success opened many doors for me.”