The most significant automotive launch of 2018 will not be a car, but the fulfilment of the dream for the brand conceived 88 years ago by a young Battista Farina. This week Mike Hanlon spoke with Automobili Pininfarina's Chief Design Officer, Luca Borgogno and Chief Executive Officer, Michael Perschke, who were hosting the North American brand launch at a private event at the Wagner Hotel in New York.

The pair revealed never-before-seen designs and offered unprecedented access to the company's philosophy and product road map, along with details of the first of a product line of sustainable luxury electric cars it will be revealing in 2019, and releasing in 2020.

New automobile brand launches have become ever more plentiful in recent years as the digital tools have emerged to manifest and test every part of a car inside a computer, at a fraction of what such engineering would once have cost.

Having a scalpel does not make one a brain surgeon however, and the most significant automotive launch of 2018 will not be a car, but the final dream for the brand conceived 88 years ago by a young Battista Farina. Battista was the tenth of eleven children, and his nickname, "Pinin", referred to his being the baby of the family.

When he opened his own coachbuilding company, that name would become known globally, so much so that he changed his surname to Pininfarina in 1961.

Pininfarina has designed and developed cars for most of the world's largest automobile manufacturers, and many of its early designs are now worth tens of millions on the auction block. The thought of what can be created by a company with such extensive experience in exquisite design is indeed tantalizing.

"We can relate to Pininfarina a little bit like Elon Musk would relate to Nikola Tesla," says Automobili Pininfarina's Chief Executive Officer, Michael Perschke, a veteran of 14 years in management at Volkswagen and nine years at Audi.

"Pininfarina SPA went through many phases, including contractual manufacturing, vehicle development, design and engineering … but what we are doing right now is what Battista Pininfarina had in mind when he began his company in 1930: to build his own brand of vehicle."

"He wanted his name on the front and the back of cars, not just the side."

Automobili Pininfarina may seem to be a brand with an 88-year heritage, but it is a start-up. It comes with the massive body of work, knowledge and philosophy that constitutes the Pininfarina design heritage, and it is backed by a $20.7 billion investor in Mahindra Group, but it is a digital start-up as much as any spawned in Silicon Valley.

Remarkably though, it begins with a globally recognizable name with all the right brand values. It is a name associated with timeless elegance, superb functionality, elite luxury, and its most famous and successful client has ensured the name is recognizable by anyone who has ever admired a Ferrari.

Only a handful of production Ferrari models since 1950 have not been styled by Pininfarina. The rest of Automobili Pininfarina though, is beginning with a clean sheet, and in a world beset by digital disintermediation, that looks like a considerable advantage as there are no legacy models, business, sales, process or any other form of old world detritus to bury.

Mahindra's ingenious hero brand strategy

It is also a most ingenious new way for an automobile company to create a premium brand. Pininfarina SPA was purchased by Indian conglomerate Mahindra Group in December, 2015.

As the automotive arm of Mahindra Group, Mahindra & Mahindra is India's 17th largest company, but that might be misleading, as other Mahindra subsidiaries such as Kotak Mahindra Bank and Tech Mahindra are also ranked in the top 50 companies.

Mahindra & Mahindra makes cars, commercial vehicles and motorcycles and it has a large and growing share of the world's largest accessible single market at its fingertips.

The massive company is on a steep growth trajectory as the penetration of automobiles in India is still just getting started at 50 cars per 1,000 population. That's the same penetration of cars that America had in 1916, and with a home market of 1.35 billion people, and a global market becoming increasingly available due to the efficiencies of manufacturing in unprecedented volume, reliable sales growth seems assured. The cash it has stockpiled and is currently generating means it can fund any acquisition deemed necessary for the future health of the company.

Like most car companies, it has long wanted a flagship name – a premium brand to add undisputed credibility to the company and it initially gave serious consideration to purchasing one, actually bidding for Aston Martin, Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover before pulling out.

Creating premiums brands from proletarian brands is not new. Nissan did it with Infiniti, Toyota did it with Lexus, and Honda did it with Acura, but it took a long time and a lot of money for those brands to become established.

Buying historical brand names and reviving them is also an established methodology. BMW did it with Rolls Royce and Volkswagen did it with Bentley and Bugatti (despite owning Lamborghini and Porsche) and Daimler Benz did with Maybach.

Now Mahindra is doing it in a very clever way, spinning a luxury car company out of Pininfarina, which it purchased for just €33 million three years ago. By comparison to Volkswagen's expenditure on rebuilding the Bugatti name, the purchase of Pininfarina was almost insignificant.

Daimler Benz similarly spent oodles on reviving the Maybach name before finally giving up. Just to add the perfect ingredients to the mix, Mahindra already has a competitive Formula E team, and with the track record and elite clientele of Pininfarina well established, there's incredible potential and rock solid credibility before we have seen anything more than a design sketch.

"My job is really to build the company from a commercial point of view and a brand point of view," Perschke told NewAtlas, "and Luca's job is to build it from an aesthetics and design point of view, of course in very close collaboration with Pininfarina Spa, but at the same time, we are creating our very own identity."

"Pininfarina has always been a B2B company, selling industrial design to car companies, yacht companies, bike companies, even to property development and furniture companies. We will only market Pininfarina-branded products which happen to be cars, but at the end of the day they will be super beautiful luxury items."

This year, Automobili Pininfarina will privately show its initial design model of the PF0 (that's PF Zero) during Monterey Car Week in late August to the elite clientele who will be the company's first customers. The PF0 is billed as the world's first sustainable luxury hypercar.

The raw numbers read thus: 2000 bhp of peak power, a 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) time of under 2 seconds, 0-300 km/h (0-186 mph) time of about 12 seconds, a top speed of more than 400 km/h (250 mph), and almost a 500 km (310 mi) battery range.

Already the order books look promising. "We expect that we will make somewhere between 100 and 150 PF0s, because we have had some very encouraging enquiries," says Perschke. "We're saying not more than 35 to 40 cars to the United States, around 35 to Europe, 20 to 25 to the Middle East, and another 20 to 30 to the far East … Asia and China. We will only be offering the car in a Left Hand Drive version, so that limits some markets which will not allow registration, or only allow very special registration."

Is there scope for Automobili Pininfarina to build vehicles beyond the four-wheeled car?

"Let's say for the time being, say the next two to three cars, we are looking at cars. You've already seen the design sketches we're about to release today and the first car is going to be hypercar for very good reasons."

"Pininfarina has already done 64 car designs for Ferrari, so we think the car and the claim to fame should be on top of a pyramid of automotive engineering and design.

"The next car is probably going to have more of a sporting lifestyle body style and beyond that … say five or more years down the line, there can be further potential for very innovative products ... we're not looking right now at anything with two wheels, and the two-wheeler market is not something we intend to do short term.

"There are some bicycles that have been branded by Pininfarina but that's Pininfarina acting as a design company. We are not looking at motorcycles. For the time being, our products will have four wheels, but medium to long term, anything is possible. In the short term, we want to create a luxury, sustainable car company."

What types of vehicles will follow the PF0 Hypercar?

"It isn't an SUV as has been reported, so let's call them sport activity vehicles or maybe electric experience cars. More for experience driving and less for pure track driving. It will have a certain utility attached to it which is beyond purely a two-seater."

Will autonomous capability or passenger limousines be part of the brand's future?

"Our brand positioning and the first phase of vehicles we are going to bring to the market are predominantly targeted for an owner, self driving mode … we are not at all looking at car-sharing services or self-driving lounges … at least not until maybe 2023, 24, 25."

"The hypercar will probably have level 2, plus or minus, capability on board," says Perschke. By way of explanation, Level 1 autonomy is essentially driver assistance, and Level 2 is partial automation in that the car can steer, accelerate, and brake in certain circumstances. Level 2 examples include Audi Traffic Jam Assist, Cadillac Super Cruise, Mercedes-Benz Driver Assistance Systems.

Level 3 involves conditional automation, where in the right conditions, the vehicle can manage most aspects of driving, including monitoring the conditions, and could prompt the driver to to take over at any time. Audi's Traffic Jam Pilot is an example of this.

"We're thinking that the hypercar doesn't need Level 3", says Perschke, "because the people who buy such cars want to use the car for fun, and if they want autonomous mode, these people will have plenty of other cars in the garage to choose from."

"From our second car onwards, I think we'll be looking definitely at Level 3 capabilities."

Will you need to have the skills of Nick Heidfeld to be able to drive it near its capabilities?

"I think for the owners of the first car, we'll have customers do a handover exercise with Nick Heidfeld because the PF0 will take you from standstill to 300 km/h so quickly that it is very similar to what happens when an F-16 jet fighter aircraft begins accelerating down the runway. We're thinking that there is a benefit to getting some instruction and tuition from Nick on how to use it safely and appropriately. All the cars beyond the first car, I don't think you'll need advanced driving instruction as much as having someone like Nick teach you a few tricks on how to get the maximum fun out of the car."

Ferrari does a lot more than just sell you a car, offering exclusive experience programs, track days and much more. Is that going to become part of your offerings?

"Definitely, medium to long term. Similar to Ferrari, and I don't really want to compare us to Ferrari, but we also have a racing team attached to us. It doesn't have the same branding, but it is a sister company, so we can also provide some experiences around Formula E racing, and around Formula E racetracks. So we do intend to develop some exclusive and very compelling experiences, but it takes time to develop these programs and we have until the end of 2020 to bake that program and do something special for our customers.

How much is the software part of a car now?

Luca: "Our car will have many possibilities that an internal combustion engine car cannot have. We will have torque vectoring that is beyond the level of anything that is on the road right now because we will have an individual engine for each wheel … that doesn't mean we will have in-wheel motors … that takes the torque vectoring into a totally different league from a performance and safety viewpoint. We will offer a driving experience that is another level beyond any car on the road right now."

Michael: "There are many different software and application levels. There is a software element between the sensors and the driving, and there is also the integration of connectivity into the car, and there's also the integration of your consumer instrument (he holds up his smartphone), and the features and the elements and the profiles, and then of course there are many other aspects which are in the making.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel, so we will look also at partnerships rather than having hundreds of engineers doing our own software programming. We have had some interesting discussions with companies like Google, which has an operating system known as Android Auto, and we're having discussions with to integrate personalization eco-systems and we see ourselves very much on the forefront in that we don't exist just to create our own proprietary systems, we want to integrate consumer electronics as much as possible, and optimize the usage of your personal phone with all its apps and features, rather than asking you, the user, to embed yourself into another environment, that is not compatible with your phone and home environment."

Croatian company RIMAC is rumored to be involved in the development of the PF0. Is that correct?

"Mate Rimac is a friend of ours, a good friend of our brand, and yes we do talk. As was reported in the media, RIMAC just gained even more credibility with Porsche taking a 10 percent share in his company, and they have some very unique capabilities."

"We know their drive train and battery pack very well, and it could be, and that's a very big could, that we will use a number of their components in our car," said Perschke, essentially confirming the rumors.

Accordingly, the components pictured above, being the two front and two rear electric motors from the C-Two, the rear motors with gearbox and the RIMAC battery pack, are quite likely to be seen again when we see the PF0 in the flesh at the Geneva Motor Show in March, 2019.

It would appear that the componentry that has already been announced by RIMAC for its C Two electric hypercar marries up well with the specifications of the Automobili Pininfarina PF0's specifications, as both cars have almost identical performance figures quoted.

There are obviously many synergies with Mahindra's Formula E team. Where does Formula E sit compared to Formula 1 in your thinking?

"If you look at the viewership on TV, if you look at the advertising spend, if you look at the number of manufacturers exiting Formula One and entering Formula E ... I wouldn't say Formula One is a dying format, but it has been curated for somebody who created the series to collect a lot of money from brands to bring them together to a circuit, neglecting the viewers and the audience. It is pretty much a brand play, but less of a viewer play."

"If you go to a Formula E event, it is much more family oriented, it is more interactive with the audience, you can tweet, you can boost, you can involve your audience into the race … so I think Formula E is taking it to a level where you can engage the guys who come from the Playstation and other gaming platforms, and who like to be engaged with a connected series."

"There's the potential to have a lot more interaction between the driver and the audience and the media. We live in digital times, and I think that Formula E is simply more relevant, because it is much more a digital format. It has an offline aspect that can be super amazing, but there is also a connection between the digital elements and the offline happening."

"By contrast, the Formula One Club, from an age and from a mindset point of view, is a little bit old school. If you are a brand and you are entering Formula One now, for me, that statement means you are stuck with internal combustion engines. If you are entering Formula E, you are saying 'I am thinking about the future.' Formula E is probably not yet equally as exciting as Formula One, but it is definitely the more inclusive of the two series.

"If you look at what happened in Zurich last month, Formula E became the first motorsport event held in Switzerland for 63 years, and 180,000 people watched the race. With Formula E taking motorsport back into the center of cities, it is attracting a new audience and people who might not exactly be interested in Formula One, can get excited about Formula E. It is zero emissions and it is much less noisy.

"So we need to think about where we will be in 10, 15, 20 years, and I think that by then, Formula E will be what Formula One was ten years ago."

"Today, we still have most of the drivers in Formula E being ex-F1 drivers, but we will soon have heroes in Formula E who don't have a legacy in combustion engines, and have graduated from E-karting into Formula E. One day, and we've seen it beginning to happen already, drivers will graduate from Playstation straight into offline racing at the highest levels, more like the Tron story."

Automobili Pininfarina is already a sponsor of Mahindra's Formula E team. Do you forsee becoming the primary brand?

"We have had some good discussions (he laughs). Unfortunately my colleague from the Mahindra Formula E team is judged by the advertising money he collects, and I am too stingy with my budgets to consider that just yet.

"The first race marketing expenditure we will do is with Nick Heidfeld and he is going to be our ambassador for our race-to-road story from a technology point of view, and then the branding will be coming … (he smiles again) … after."

The raw numbers: 2000 bhp, 0-100 kmh under 2 seconds, 0-300 kmh in 12 seconds, top speed over 400 kmh, almost 500 km battery range and €2 million ... are those figures accurate?

"They are more or less correct. Please allow us to be plus or minus 0.01 seconds on some of those because we're definitely challenging the laws of physics, but those are the numbers we want to achieve. Hopefully, we land on the dot, which we'll see in the next couple of months when we do the dynamic testing."

What levels of customization will be offered with the PF0?

"We have the capabilities ourselves to offer complete customization of the cars, but if we come to the limit of our capabilities and a customer wants something we cannot provide internally, there is a one-off department of Pininfarina Spa that can take it to the next level, so … will there be a spyder? Maybe. Will there be a monoposto? It's not planned but … (he shrugs) … fair enough, if people want a monoposto … these are things we will need to address as we come down the road, but will we have a carbon package for sure. Will we have infinite colors and visualization and contrast stitching and your choice of the brake caliper colors ... of course … lots of individualization is possible because at the end of the day it is no different to how our clients customize their jet, helicopter, yacht or mansion."

Exactly what will happen at Pebble Beach in August?

Pebble Beach will be the first time the dynamic model of the PF0 will be shown. We are currently recruiting very experienced luxury retailers here in the United States and Canada, who will have the exclusive right to nominate a select number of their clients to join us at Pebble Beach, and we're expecting 150 to 180 serious prospects there to see the car, so we're quite confident that post Pebble Beach, post Europe and post Middle East and Asia, we'll clock in quite a serious number of reservations for the PF0."

"We're quite confident that when we present the car to the public in March next year, that the connoisseurs will know the product pretty well already. Right now, we have people coming to our web site asking what they need to provide as evidence that they should be considered as serious buyers.

… and exactly what is that criteria?

"As an idea, maybe it would be having 10 to 20 Ferraris in your collection already. We're seeking people who are already associated with the Pininfarina brand and who have a compatible mindset … people who have an affinity with sustainability and future technology.

How is the launch of Automobili Pininfarina going to affect Pininfarina's relationship with Ferrari?

"That is why we have two very separate companies. Automobili Pininfarina will use Pininfarina SPA just like any other automotive company does. It will be an arm's length relationship. We know them, they are a sister company, but we will have Chinese walls between us and them because of what they do for other brands in regards to design, and we have to pay them equally as does any other client.

"Ferrari is one of those clients, but so are many other automotive companies, and that is how it has been for 88 years. It's similar to Porsche Engineering, which supports brands that are nearly competing brands to Porsche AG. We need to be very professional. My colleague at Pininfarina Spa knows that this is in some ways a balancing act, but at the same time, he knows that I can become one of his largest clients so … you know, I think we're getting it right at the moment."

We've seen the conceptual sketches. What are your primary inspirations for the PF0?

"We want to do something that becomes a part of the legacy of the Pininfarina history. Not only the cars that Pininfarina has made for Ferrari in the past, but the cars that are related to other brands as well. There are a number of cars that come to mind straight away as being the biggest inspiration for the PF0."

"The first is the 512S Modulo, a concept car developed in Pininfarina in 1970."

"One of the biggest inspirations we always have is the Cisitalia 202 from 1947. There will be an example in Pebble Beach as a show car to illustrate our heritage. The Cisitalia 202 is a car that perfectly embodies the concept of timeless beauty, which is something that we really want to apply to our cars."

"We don't want to overexaggerate our design. We want to link as much as possible to the heritage, and make it work in harmony, functionality and beauty. The Cisitalia was a car that embodied those aspects, and it was really ahead of the times even if now it looks a little bit dated, and with that kind of surface treatment, it anticipated everything that came in the sixties and even later on."

"Ideally, what we envisage, is that the PF0 will in 20 to 25 years, will become a very interesting modern classic car in the history books of modern car design for super and hyper cars. That's the inspiration we have: applying modern technologies and modern business models but yet creating timeless masterpieces that our initial clients will definitely value very much."

"This is a tipping point, in making EV technology ready for the supercar league, and becoming one of the first to apply that, and to challenge the traditional combustion engine manufacturers in the supercar segment.

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