Car designers are among the most important people in the automotive industry, and it’s arguably because of their work that most of us even became gearheads to begin with, since it’s their job to create concept cars that could be put into production.
To remember the achievements of some of the greats, we’ve made a list of 10 car designers that we think had the biggest influence on the most famous models and manufacturers to date – from both a mass-produced level to the more rarified exotica some of these people have been involved with.
We’d also like to state that this list is by no means compiled from best to worst. We believe all of these designers have made a significant mark on the automotive industry, and the nature of their work is, of course, entirely subjective. Without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
10 Luc Donckerwolke
Very few designers in the modern era are as reputable as Luc Donckerwolke, since the influence he had throughout the 2000s is as big as anyone. Remember, too, just how important a period that was for the automotive industry, given the chopping and changing that was happening all around us.
Undeterred, Donckerwolke gave the world the Audi A2, with its truly wacky but conventional design, followed by the gorgeous Lamborghini Gallardo and then the Bentley Continental Flying Spur. He also designed the 2002-2010 Lamborghini Murcielago, which is yet another car that has aged as well as the others mentioned in this entry. Any surprises there? None from us.
9 Filippo Perini
Heard of Italdesign? Of course, you have. Having made showstoppers like the DeLorean Alpha 5, which we think is one of Italdesign’s greatest hits, and the super limited-edition GT-R50, they’ve got one man to thank for it: Filippo Perini, Italdesign’s Director of Design.
Before his ventures with Italdesign, Perini was the design director of Alfa Romeo. He actually landed the role while still studying a post-graduate degree, and ended up designing cars like the GTV, Spider, and 8C Competitzione. He also worked for Audi and Lamborghini, with the Aventador among his work for the latter.
8 Giorgetto Giugiaro
Where do you even start with Giorgetto Giugiaro? He’s done it all, from vintage classics to everyday cars and a host of supercars for the ages. His portfolio has seen him work for Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, BMW, Bugatti, Fiat, and Ferrari, as well as Maserati, Lancia and Lamborghini. Very few designers have the breadth that he has. There’s also a sizable list of cars that were designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro that everyone forgets.
Dissecting some of his designs, he has worked on the Aston Martin DB4, Cadillac Sixty Special, and the Lotus Esprit – how’s that for a triumvirate? Perhaps his finest hour came at Ferrari, with the 1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta Speciale. That example sold for $16.5 million with Gooding & Company, and proves just how much people are willing to pay for Giugiaro’s very best work.
7 Chris Bangle
This one will no doubt cause division, but when you consider the impact that Bangle’s work had on pushing BMW to new heights during the 2000s, it really doesn’t come as a surprise. And to most of us, a peer over Chris Bangle’s 10 greatest car designs is a reminder of the brilliant work done by the Ohio-born designer.
The Fiat Coupe from the early 90s continues to be one of the most beautiful Fiat designs to date, while his work on the seventh generation Rolls-Royce Phantom essentially helped to bring the brand back from decline. Then there are the aforementioned 2000s BMW models, including the Z3, E60 M5 and E63 M6 – all of which have blossomed into sumptuous designs.
6 Battista Farina
A true pioneer, in every sense of the word. Having formed his legendary coach-building firm, Pininfarina in 1930, he used the name as a basis for creating spectacular post-war designs that have echoed through the ages. In 1952, a certain brand from Maranello came calling, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Some of his notable work at Ferrari included the 212, Dino Berlinetta Speciale and, most memorable of all, the Testarossa. He passed away just one month after unveiling his final design, the Alfa Romeo Duetto, at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show. His legacy will live forever through his brand, which is now looking ahead to new pastures with the Pininfarina Batista – otherwise known as the world’s quickest production EV.
5 Frank Stephenson
In a HotCars exclusive, we sat down with Frank Stephenson and discussed how he designed everything from the Fiat 500 to the McLaren P1, and it’s fair to say, his ability to juggle between city cars, rally cars and SUVs, with a sprinkling of hypercars, truly blew us away.
He created the Maserati MC12 GT1, and had a role to play in designing the wonderfully bizarre whale tail spoiler on the Ford Escort Cosworth. The BMW X5 and the first version of the “new” MINI were also done by him. You can’t be this dedicated to your job unless you truly love it, and Stephenson is not just a car designer, but a true gearhead at heart.
4 Ian Callum
One of Britain’s most well-respected designers, the scale of his work and the breadth of variety to his imagination has no limits. He’s worked on British royalty, ranging from the first-gen Aston Martin Vanquish to the Jaguar XK, and even the crazy C-X75 concept. Some of the best cars designed by Ian Callum will be remembered for as long as gearheads walk the earth.
Callum also played a part in designing the Nissan R390, whose GT1 equivalent is one of Japan’s great racing cars. Other work also includes the Ford RS200, which competed in the insane but tragic Group B series. He now spends a fair chunk of his time devoted to his own brand, CALLUM Designs.
3 Leonardo Fioravanti
A name that won’t ring as many bells as some of the other names on this list, but that doesn’t rub the fact that Fioravanti has some of the finest Ferraris ever made to his name. The list includes the original Dino, 308, 328, and 512 Berlinetta. When we look back at the Ferrari 288 GTO and what made it so special, the fact that Fioravanti designed it will be right at the top of the list of reasons.
But by far away, Fioravanti’s most extraordinary creation is a car that many people agree is the greatest of all time. When you take a detailed look at the 1991 Ferrari F40, what exactly is it that made it so good? The fact that it was the 200mph trailblazer, or that its design was an instant hit? The reasons are endless, but one constant remains: we’ve got Fioravanti to thank for it being here.
2 Marcello Gandini
It’s quite possible that Italy has produced the largest number of truly great car designers in the world, as is partially evident from this list. Marcello Gandini was, like Fioravanti, an extremely important player at another Italian powerhouse: Lamborghini. There, he designed the Countach and the Miura – one of the most iconic cars ever built.
He even cast his influence over the likes of Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Renault, perfectly showcasing his extended skill set and ability to work with various brands that sought distinctive designs. He even played a part in creating the De Tomaso Pantera, Fiat X1/9, and Lancia Stratos. A true juggernaut whose passion for the industry will never be forgotten.
1 Gordon Murray
Having conquered the car world in the 90s with the McLaren F1 – an example of which shattered auction records with a $20.5 million shakedown in 2021 – Murray was previously known for creating a host of successful Formula One cars for Brabham between 1973 and 1986. It’s fair to say, the man knows a thing or two about car design and, in particular, aerodynamic efficiency.
These days, he spends his time working on creations for his own brand, Gordon Murray Automotive. So far, he’s come up with the T.33 and T.50, and enthusiasts from around the world have already hailed both cars as game changers for the supercar market at present. You’d be hard-pressed to believe anything else, given that Gordon Murray is the man behind them, after all.