By on April 8, 2010

Thirty hours in NYC, with wife, sister and two kids who’ve never been. How best to turn a potential burn-out into a rejuvenation of the creative juices? The NYIAS? No; leave the world of new cars totally aside, and focus on the source of inspiration, not the end product: Art. So while my daughter and younger son happily spend the second day on an eight-hour guided NYC tour, the three of us go to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). After almost seven blissful hours soaking up Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin,Van Gogh, and Monet, we exit via the sculpture garden (background in photo), and I look back and see it beckoning me from the third floor: the Pininfarina. Back in we go.

A fitting accidental capstone to a remarkable day. The 1946 Cisitalia 202GT Coupe is not at MoMA because retrospectively it is seen as a milestone car, perhaps the first to most perfectly encapsulate the design ethos of the post war era. It was already recognized for its pioneering role in its day: MoMA acquired this 202 in 1951, being the first car to be thusly honored. And it looks as good as the day it left the workshops where it aluminum body was hand formed (hammered) over wooden bucks.

Is the Cisitalia  a truly groundbreaking design? No. But then there almost never is. Or if so, it’s often so eccentric that it stays out of the mainstream, its ideas to be perfected by the masters of design. One just needs to work one’s way through the rapidly changing themes of modern art over the last century or so to appreciate that: ever changing, but the transitions and evolutions, and the borrowings and inspirations are (almost) always apparent. The Cisistalia is a masterpiece not because many of its themes hadn’t been explore before the war, but because it synthesized them so perfectly.

Pininfarina’s Cisistalia reflects the groundbreaking and windsplitting work done in the thirties during the aerodynamic revolution, and repackages it in the timeless proportions of classic era: long hood, short tail, and a hint of a rear fender peak. The perfectly slab-sided and radically re-proportioned streamliners were the pursuit of a functional ideal, and fender lines played no part in that. It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’ll take the risk and say that the Cisitalia was perhaps the first post-modern car, or the first retro design, thanks precisely to that delicious rear fender line.

Enough analyzing and speculations. The Cististalia was the prototype of the post-war coupe, and of course, most of all the Ferarris. The 202GT is the seed from which several decades of front-engined Ferarris sprang, as well as a host of imitators from the other Italian carozzerias. It firmly established Pinin Farina as the dominant designer of the era, and his influence was lasting and profound, on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s a tiny little thing, befitting its roots in the Fiat 1100 sedan that gave its mechanicals to the cause. The Cisitalia is the Porsche 356 of Italy: borrowing the mass-produced engine and running gear from a sedan, and throwing a superbly-designed lightweight coupe body over them. The result was a 1700 lb delight with a tubular frame, 55 hp from the tuned 1100cc Fiat four, and a 103 mph top speed. Just one problem: it was ridiculously overpriced. At prices between $5 and 7k ($65k adjusted), it was twice the price of the much faster and more commodious six-cylinder Jaguar XK-120, and even some two thousand more than the Porsche, which at least had four wheel independent suspension compared to the Cisitalia’s crude Fiat axles.

Not surprisingly, only some 170 of the Cisitalia 202s were made. Their role as a practical and competitive automobile was profoundly limited. But as a work of art, it’s found its place in the world along with the other masterworks of the twentieth century. With its prefect clarity of line, proportions, and sparseness of ornamentation, it may be a while before its current spot on the roost is challenged.

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15 Comments on “Curbside Classic MoMA Edition: 1946 Cisitalia 202GT...”


  • avatar

    Paul, the Cisitalia 202GT is indeed a classic, and all but one word of this summary are perfect. Anyone who uses the term “commodious” to describe a Jaguar XK 120 has obviously lost their mind. ;)

    …or has never sat in one.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Wow, there should be a kneeler there for modern car designers to pause in meditative prayer.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    That is one beautiful car. Too bad it was extremely overpriced and underpowered.

    p.s. It’s not exactly a curbside classic (in the vein of that 356B you saw in Portland for instance) if it’s been parked in a museum for nearly 60 years, is it?

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    MOMA rotates cars through this display. They also have an e-type Jaguar and a first generaton Smart. But wait, there’s more! One of the items in their collection is a taillight from Mazda.

    http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=91740

  • avatar
    findude

    The Cisitalia is my favorite exhibit at MoMA. Second is probably the helicopter: http://www.moma.org/modernteachers/large_image.php?id=324

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    Funny, I have no problem seeing the Cisitalia as a ground breaker.

    Before it designers were clearly,IMO, struggling with how to integrate the various elements of the aerodynamic era.

    Within 15 years nearly every new design on earth had brought the hoodline down to the fenderline, integrated the fenders nearly completely into the bodywork (this is just starting to be challenged again: Enzo, RX-8) and it virtually defined what a coupe should look like for the last 60 years.

    Yes, there were other designs that had some of the elements, but this was the change point. The XK120 is actually an interesting point of comparison, at the same point in time it is, again IMO, a culmination of the old “seperate elements joined together” styling that preceded the C202.

    This car defined how cars were to be styled for half the history of the automobile!

    BTW, I always thought the stylng was overrated until I saw one in person. Pictures do not do this gem justice.

    Cheerio,

    Bunter

  • avatar
    Stratos

    When I was last at the MoMA, there was an exhibition by a south american sculptor and photographer who’s name escapes me. One of his sculptures was an old Citroen DS that was sliced into thirds, had the middle removed, and then welded back together. It was just as long as a normal DS, and looked like one from the side, but from most angles it resembled an elegant French clown car.

  • avatar
    Revver

    Rod, you’re right. Last time I was at MoMA the E-Type was on display. Well deserved too. I’m not sure what other gems they have for us auto folks, but while there for the Helvetica Show (yes, disturbed I am) there was a beautiful Max Huber Monza poster. MoMA is always good for something IMHO.

  • avatar
    KitaIkki

    I guess the trunk(boot) holds just the spare tire.

  • avatar
    2Goldens

    Articles like this are why TTAC stands head and shoulders above other gearhead sites on the web. Bless you, Paul…great narrative.

  • avatar

    I’ve collected car literature since I was a kid. Once while going through Laguardia airport I noticed some MoMA brochures featuring the ’46 Cisitalia and I grabbed a few, so I’m familiar with the display even though I’ve never seen it in the flesh… er … aluminum.

    While there are many emotionally compelling car designs, there are very few that look good from every angle. Even widely acclaimed designs like the CTS coupe have their detractors, criticizing this or that feature, a C pillar or a taillamp unit. So cars like the ’53 Studebaker coupe, or Pete Brock’s Shelby Daytona Coupe are rare. Pinin Farina’s Cisitalia is one of those cars.

    Damn near perfect.

    As Ed pointed out, stylistically it’s also kind of the ur Ferrari even if it wasn’t made by Ferrari. While properly speaking, Giovanni Battista “Pinin” Farina (later Battista Pininfarina), only designed some versions of the 166, Enzo Ferrari’s first road car, and that Carlo Anderloni actually drew the first 166, it’s clear that Pininfarina’s Cisitalia 202 set the mold.

    Actually, come to think of it, maybe the Cisitalia 202 influenced Robert Bourke’s ’53 Studebaker in the way the trunk and vestigal fins look.

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    Thanks Mr. P.

  • avatar
    Sanman111

    It really is a gorgeous car! I have a picture of it on my phone. What people can’t see is the pristine Vincent Black Shadow sitting a few feet from it. What a combination of automotive beauty.

  • avatar
    iicarJohn

    Lovely car, particularly now that someone has replaced the wipers. They were far too long (for far too long) and were more than a bit comical as a result. Thankfully, that has been corrected.

    Since this site has “Truth” as part of its name, it may be important to acknowledge that the car on display is not the same as that which was displayed originally? It may even be the third example displayed at the Museum?

    And, although the “170″ number is often stated in various references, production numbers for the “202″ series are not as simple as taking the highest chassis number known and lowest and doing simple subtraction. This is because there were a few cars built that were not numbered in the same series and, more significantly, Cisitalia routinely built two or even three cars that used some variation on the same number! There is a possibility that the car on display is one of those original duplicate identities. More study is needed!

    It is perhaps not terribly important, because the similarity makes the “style” (art) essentially the same, but there is even a possibility that the example on display was not actually bodied by Pinin Farina? It has Pinin Farina badges and a restoration (in the 1960′s by Pininfarina?) that makes it seem like Pinin Farina but there is some speculation that it is actually a Stabilimenti Farina body. Different companies from branches of the same family. Vignale also bodied some cars that were very similar but seems to have done more “cabriolet” than “berlinetta” versions.

    Cisitalia cars are truly wonderful, particularly if considered in the context of when they were built and what other builders were doing. Although the production picture is not clear at all, we are learning more all the time and may be able to state one day with authority how many were built. We are not yet at that point in our studies. In fact, there are so many mechanical and stylistic variations that I think it will always be best to think of these cars as a series of individuals.

    John de Boer
    The Italian Car Registry


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