In conversation with Michael Perschke, CEO, Automobili Pininfarina

16th Aug 2018 1:30 pm

Pininfarina boss speaks about his plans to turn the renowned Italian design house into a full-blown carmaker and global brand.

One cannot be a car enthusiast and not have heard of Pininfarina. The renowned Italian design house has been the talent behind some of the greatest-looking cars ever produced – including various Ferraris, Lancias and Alfa Romeos from the 1930s.

However, things are changing for Pininfarina – and in a big way. Investment from a new owner, the Indian manufacturing giant Mahindra Group has led to the creation of the new 'Automobili Pininfarina' division, which will result in Pininfarina-branded production cars being built in-house for the first time. The first of these is the PF-Zero, which is set to be revealed in concept form next week.

Investment to achieve this ambition extends beyond simply money. Pininfarina has brought in big names to run the company, such as Per Svantesson, who is formerly of Volvo, and CEO Michael Perschke, who has held senior positions at Audi and Volkswagen over the last 25 years.

Our sister publication, Autocar UK, spoke to Perschke to discuss his vision for the fledgling carmaker:

You’re clearly investing big and hiring some prominent industry figures. What is your ambition for the company?
The strategic intention for Anand Mahindra investing in Pininfarina, and also the brand licence agreement, was always to leverage this really historic design name into an OEM in itself. This was planned way back in 2013.

Mahindra’s ambition was always this: ‘look, we have a great name but we are not making full use of it'. We have a very successful and reputed B2B [business to business] model which is design and engineering services for the car industry. But now, we want to turn that into a super-luxury, ultra high-class individual household name.

We want to get into the league of the supercars and the hypercars - and the brand does have that kind of pull based on 88 years of legendary heritage in design. We have a lean and mean but very attractive team. But now we need to develop a robust product range.

What makes you think you can bring a viable electric hypercar to market when more established names are still struggling?
We’re trying to leapfrog rivals with a clean sheet of paper, where bigger OEMs are struggling because they have a corporate culture and challenges to overcome. We don’t have any legacy, we don’t have any scandals, we don’t have any fixed investments which tie us into internal combustion engines for the next 20 years – we have a blank sheet of paper.

We’re starting from scratch, but with a brand image that isn’t an unknown. Yes, we’re putting big names into the game, but it takes a winning team to build a winning brand.

When can it become profitable?
Our ambition is definitely not to copy a certain electric car start-up in California, which hasn’t been making money for 14 years. The most expensive exercise is getting a brand established, and we’re already halfway there. And we don’t want to have any big assets; we want to be light on investments in brick and mortar, we want to be lighter on investments in technology, as we will do technology partnerships. 

Our first product [the hypercar] will be here in 2020, the second product will come in 2021 and the third product will be 2022.  Our objective is that when the second product is in the second to third year of its lifecycle and we gain traction with sizeable volume, we will still be in the league of super-luxury brands, but we will have a volume of around 10,000 [units] for sure. 

But we will keep our investments light, so we will quickly get to a tipping point where our revenue offsets our investment.

How do you intend to build your brand in other markets?
Look, Pininfarina has designed 64 Ferraris in its lifetime. So globally, many Ferrari owners, some Maserati owners, even down to Peugeot owners, will understand what Pininfarina is. Look at McLaren, or even Bugatti: they weren’t known in China, but they have made it into the super-sports market there after a few years.

We are targeting brand activity where the rich and the super-rich start mingling not by nations but by income level. If we can make it into the global league of the high net worth individual, then the message will travel. 

We believe that the first 50 to 100 customers we have are not customers but brand evangelists and brand ambassadors, and their networking and social posts will help us leap and bound across the globe. That’s something that Elon Musk has managed with Tesla.

Will Pininfarina continue to operate solely in Italy as you expand?
We will always remain an Italian car company with an Italian flavour – the look, the feel, the smells, the surfaces – that’s the holy grail. The Italian-ness is absolutely prominent. We will make sure that we have the best technology that money can buy. 

The first batch of cars will be manufactured in Italy, and beyond that we are a global company so we will make decisions based on our success.

Have you taken inspiration from previous Pininfarina designs?
A bit of both. You will see inspiration from the Cistalia 202 - a car on display at the Museum of Modern Art. You will also see inspiration from cars such as the Ferrari 512TB, we will have ingredients from many of our past designs in the new car. The surfaces and the proportions will reflect what Pininfarina has been doing for the last 88 years. There is a purity about this new car.

We are selling to customers that might only currently have the option to buy a hypercar with an internal combustion engine. We can retain our classical, timeless design heritage, but packaged over the latest EV technology.

Will your entire range be fully electric?
Automobile Pininfarina stands for sustainable energy. Our first couple of cars will be electric, then we will look at exploring further technology such as fuel cells when the time is right. All our cars will be non-ICE cars: that I can say.

Is it correct to call your next model after the PF Zero an SUV?
I find the title of SUV too mainstream, but definitely we talk about more of a lifestyle bodystyle than a sports car. I cannot confirm anything for sure, but we will challenge a few paradigms of what people think an SUV can be with an ultra-luxury model.

Will this be a more attainable car than the PF Zero?
It will be in the six figures. Our ambition has to be in the ‘champion's league’, the ultra-luxury league. But we can bring the same paradigm shift at a price point which is around the Bentayga, the Rolls- Royce Cullinan and even the Aston Lagonda. 

These people [our customers] buy planes, helicopters and expensive properties – they always look for something very exclusive, very different and very distinct.

Are you considering partnerships with other manufacturers?
We will have collaborations and partnerships with high tech, very agile, young tech start-ups and EV companies that have a high level of flexibility. We will look at specific component partnerships, for example with battery cells. 

We are not a mainstream brand, we are not about volume, we will always have a very exclusive customer experience and user interface. We have a pull for many companies looking to use the PF Zero as a concept to show off their own abilities.

Lawrence Allan

Also see:

Production-spec Pininfarina PF-Zero electric hypercar to launch in 2020

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