While in Shanghai, we sat down and interviewed the designer of the Pininfarina P4/5 and controversial, ZR1-based, Stile Bertone Mantide. What does this Jalopnik-reading young sports car designer have to say?
Jason Castriota has spent most of his professional career designing some of the most iconic and beautiful sports cars of our era. Cars that kids, for years, will be playing interior decorator with, plastering them all over their walls. With the help of Pininfarina, and now, Stile Bertone, he's managed to put himself at the forefront of the newly re-emerged coach building game being played out at the top design houses around the world. Jason has been fortunate, and insanely talented enough, to have his say with the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, the Maserati Gran Turismo, the Maserati MC12-based Birdcage 75th Concept, Rolls-Royce Hyperion, the Ferrari 612 Kappa for collector, Peter Kalikow and of course, the Enzo Ferrari-based Pininfarina P4/5 for the now famous collector, Jim Glickenhaus.
After the official reveal of the Stile Bertone Mantide at the 2009 Shanghai Auto Show, we were able to catch up with Jason for a chat in between his picture taking with the extremely excitable Chinese journalists that were also attending the show. At first, we thought the man that had designed all of these mesmerizing vehicles would be kind of a self-appreciating prick as so many other car designers are, but our conversation with him proved this wasn't the case. Actually, he seems like a pretty cool guy. But of course he is, he reads Jalopnik, and your comments. But let's talk cars:
The Auto Insider (TAI): So Jason, how did you ever get to be so lucky as to design some of the most iconic cars of our era?
Jason Castriota (JC): Well, basically from the time I was literally five-years-old, I was sketching Ferraris, quite literally, with little Pininfarina badges on the side. People would say; "Wow, is that your name on the side?" And I'd say; "No, that's a Pininfarina badge." It was actually quite funny at the time. And from there I just followed it, though I didn't quite know how to get there.
TAI: What gave you the idea to pursue car design as a career?
JC: Well, around the time i was twelve-years-old, one of my good friends, who was also a very good artist — His father was a in advertising in New York and he said; "You have to go to Art Center, that's where all the car designers go."
TAI: Pretty cool that your friend's father let you in on that little secret — I got mine by happening across a Southern California AAA magazine article about Art Center, not as helpful, but it was a big wow moment to realize that you could get paid to design cars and not just draw them in the margins.
JC: Well, I was always obsessively drawing cars and when it rolled around to graduation in high school, my parents looked at Art Center and said that it was a technical school and "you're not going to get an education there, you need a liberal arts education and be more well rounded." And plus, at Art Center, at the time, the average student was already pursuing their second degree. They were already 24, 25, 26 years old, guys who were really ready to enter the industry, as opposed to being kids out of high school and frankly, now having the hindsight of eventually going to Art Center, it was absolutely correct because at eighteen-years-old, to be doing the things we did, I wouldn't have had the discipline or the head or the mental strength to do it.
TAI: So how did you get yourself ready for Art Center?
JC: I ended up, let's say in classic rebellious youth style, saying; "Okay, now I'm never going to draw cars again!" And I went to film school because I like photography and I also like to write. I was there (Emerson College in Boston) for five years and I had a blast and for about four years it was all about film, and I lived, ate, breathed the indie film scene. It was great, but then around my fourth year I started picking up a pencil and anytime there was a TV Guide lying around I'd start doodling cars again. And, you know, I remember graduating and there was that classic emptiness going, well, okay I'm supposed to go and be a PA (production assistant) on a new film that was going to shoot in New York, I think maybe it was, uh... I don't even remember what it was anymore. It was nothing of grandeur, let's put it that way. And I just said; "To run around and get coffee or to start trying to pursue this dream of being a car designer again and realizing that dream, I think I'll roll the dice."
TAI: Pretty ballsy move. How'd you ultimately get into the program?
JC: I called up Art Center and I said; "Listen, I really want to do this, but I haven't drawn in five years, you know, do you guys have a preparatory course or something to that effect?" And they said; "Yeah, we've got Art Center at night. No one gets in here without going to Art Center at night." They were like, who do you think you are kid? You foolish little boy. (laughs) They said the next session started in four weeks and I said; "Sign me up!" And, I went home that night and told my parents and my girlfriend at the time; "I'm moving to California in three weeks." And everyone wondered what I was talking about, so I told them. I'm going to become a car designer.
JC: During my time there I was under full scholarship, which was great, 'cause God knows it's costly. During my time there I won an internship with Volkswagen/Audi California and then right after that I went to Ford in Dearborn where I worked under Moray Callum actually. Then I came back for my sixth semeseter and right at the beginning of the semester Pininfarina gave the opportunity for an internship, so I went to Pininfarina and I just said to everybody; "I ain't coming back. That's it." I had already had some job offers, but I really wanted to go to Pininfarina. I remember when I walked into Art Center, I said that from day one, and people were like; What are you talking about? That's crazy! No one goes to Pininfarina. Why would you want to go to Pininfarina? Because, at the time, maybe they weren't doing the most exciting stuff anymore and the hot places to go were Audi or Renault, or Honda who has like a mafioso grip on Art Center because a ton of iconic instructors are from Honda.
TAI: It seems like all your dreams came true at that very moment.
JC: When I went (to Pininfarina) the internship went really well, I started actually winning and contributing to real projects and a few months in they offered me a job and asked; "Do you want to stay right now or do you want to go back and finish your dream and come back after?" Because I still had a few semesters left and I said; "No, I'm good." I went to Art Center to get a job. I didn't need another degree. So I stayed on and a year and a half later I won the (Maserati) Gran Turismo project, two in was the (Ferrari) 599, three years was the (Maserati) Birdcage, four years in it was the P4/5 and things just snowballed from there and it was an amazing experience. I really was able to realize all the dreams I could have had there. Eventually being Chief Designer and also being jointly responsible for the special projects program.
TAI: Tell me more about the Pininfarina special projects program and what it meant to be apart of it.
JC: Well there was sort of a renaissance of that type of project because that was something that Pininfarina and Stile Bertone, and actually, all the Italian coach builders, that's what they did. They were coach builders. And you know, there was that famous Sultan of Brunei-era that kinda went away unfortunately when the well dried up over there. And from there on out, things just sorta petered out and there was no more interest. Every now and then, if we'd do a showcar there was some interest, but nothing ever really came of it. But with the Birdcage, that's what really opened up people's eyes again to say; "Wait a minute, there's an MC12 under there?" And that's pretty special and especially when you have the pedigree of basing it on a championship-winning racing chassis, like the MC12, that makes it all the more interesting. Out of that, is really what birthed P4/5 and other sorts of project cars, which a lot of, haven't even been seen because a lot of our clients are also anonymous, they don't present their cars, they keep them garaged. (Jim) Glickenhaus is a little special in that respect that he really likes to put his car out there, which is great. You know, these things should be shared, they should have a life. If you're going to go to that extreme, then you know, why just throw it in your own private museum. I mean, to each his own, but I like to see cars on the road. We're car guys, we're all there on YouTube watching the Nurburgring Ruf Yellowbird video and you know, we're all the same, we're all cut from the same mold in that respect.
TAI: You left Pininfarina prior to the Paris show in 2008. What caused you to make that decision?
JC: That was a great experience, but after eight years there, it was time for something else. And you know, I really had the full intention of starting my own company and I created my little LLC in America and I was all set to go. I really had some good projects on the docket already and then Bertone just kept knocking on the door and they said; "Look, we know we haven't had the best years, but we need to bring this place back." And at the end of the day it's really seductive because you're really following in the footsteps of some amazing designers, Michelucci, Scaglione, Giugiaro, Gandini, I mean, it's unbelievable. Just to be honored like that, to take that role. Not being a guy who internally took the role because some big guy left, but being a guy that they sought after — That was real special for me.
TAI: The Mantide design has become quite controversial, especially among the Jalopnik commentariat. How do you feel about that? And does that gauge its success?
JC: The Mantide is definitely going to be a provocative car that when people see it in images, people are either going to love it or their going to hate it. And that's great. That's what I wanted to design and I love it because it means people care. It means you're bringing forth emotion and whether that's good or bad (emotions), that's a good thing. People hung Chris Bangle on a cross for how many years, for the 7-Series, even though Adrian (Van Hooydonk) did it, but you know, that's great. If you can get people talking about it, that means that it's important enough to be talked about. So that's pretty cool. And I think when people see it in person, as you have, their impression will change quite a bit and I think that's true for a lot of sports cars. Sports cars are so much more three-dimensional and seductive when you see them, you know, compared to a regular car and this car, when you see it next to other sports cars, will still be seductive.
TAI: What was your inspiration for the Mantide? I saw your sketches and there was a little thumbnail sketch showing, what appeared to be, a form study with a huge flying buttress, can you elaborate on that?
JC: Well, I spent half my career at Pininfarina in the wind tunnel, I've worked on Le Mans cars and when you have that experience you really become passionate about it (aerodynamics). Even the Birdcage has a similar theme, in that it's got that teardrop suspended within a wing, so this was a similar type of theme. I believe that iconic car design always has to have a very clear theme that you read, after that, it can have many, many different layers. But you need to first read a theme of volume that creates a graphic statement. So, with the Mantide, what it is, is this teardrop, this central fuselage, much like if you look at an old jet fighter, you know, it has that shark-like fuselage and that's suspended within this wing that basically embraces it. It looks like it's two pieces interlocking, so that gives it a visual strength, but at the same time it's very dynamic because if you look at the Mantide from the rear, you can see that volumes are really all converging to a similar point in space. And then you have this very sensual, yet technical wing that embraces it, and of course it's functional. You know, it's really taking the 599 buttress idea to a really super extreme and it makes for a really strong graphic statement that you can really recognize. And then from there, there's a lot of detailing that ties into Bertone's history of very technical and more geometric, but what I think is really interesting about the car is that it has an interesting blend of being organic yet geometric at the same time. And I think that great design has contrasting elements, you know — There's a sensuality about it, but there's a brutality about it as well. I like to use the analogy of that sexy woman, think of Angelina Jolie with that spiked heel. There's that dangerous quality, you know, you want to touch it, but at the same time you're a little bit afraid. And that's a good thing.
JC: So that's what we wanted to express with it at the end of the day. And of course, for us, it was really important to create something that would get people talking. We wanted the wow factor, we wanted to make people go; "Woah, what is that? What the F is that? What were they thinking? What were they on?"
TAI: I think you've accomplished that goal. So, tell me, what were you on?
JC: (Laughs) You know, people who really know me, know that I'm really boring. I was on San Pellegrino water, which does have very high mineral content though, and protein bars. But, you know, it's one of those ideas that you have in your head for a long time, but when I was at Pininfarina, it didn't matter how much you could tone something like that (the Mantide) down, you know that you could never get that passed the management of a car company. You just go; "Nah, I'll keep this one in the drawer, just keep it in the head." And one day, who knows, maybe an opportunity will come about, where you can go; "Viola! There it is!" And you know, people will love it or they'll hate it.
TAI: We could probably guess, having driven the car ourselves, but why the choice to go with the Corvette ZR1 as the basis for the Mantide?
JC: You know, the ZR1, is a SPECTACULAR car and here's the reality okay, there's a certain snobism, especially in Europe against the Corvette, and I have to admit, I had it as well. I worked on Ferraris and Maseratis, and I always dreamt of working of Ferraris and Maseratis. So, in America, you know how it is. You're either a Ferrari guy or a Porsche guy or a Corvette guy. And everybody's got their blog and everybody's got their opinion and Ferrari guys are like; "You're not in my class, dear." And Porsche guys are like; "We're honest, we're technical, we've done the same car for fifty years, and we're the best." And look, you can't really beat their formula. And Corvette guys are like; "You fancy-pants Europeans don't know what you're talking about, good ol' American V8 muscle." It's three really different groups for three really different buyers, but you know, let's say, true car enthusiasts respect all three and I love and respect all three. The Corvette continues to use, in certain respects, dated technology, but does it in such a clever and efficient way. It's bulletproof and pretty amazing. The ZR1, I have to say, when it broke the record at the Nurburgring, and I know there's a story about the ACR Viper, but you know what kids, that's got a wing on it the size of... you know, its really a race car. And the ZR1 was really built as a road car and it's really impressive. It's got the FXX brakes on it, it's got the same shocks as the 599, it's got an aluminum chassis, the motor, it's brutal. It's not a 9000rpm Ferrari V12, but you know what, it does the job and arguably it does the job more reliably and efficiently. And let's not forget that the Corvette has dominated, DOMINATED, Le Mans and GT racing and you can't beat that pedigree and I think it's time for people to really take notice.
TAI: You're an American living in Italy, did that have anything, at all, to do with your choice in donor car?
JC: A little bit of patriotism came out in me and I like the idea that in this moment of crisis, particularly for the American manufacturers, we celebrate this crown jewel of American industry is important. I think it's important for people to realize that GM isn't the anti-christ, that they're not all bad. They've made some mistakes, and that's okay, and hopefully they'll resolve the issues, but the ZR1 is a masterpiece and it really shows that Americans can be leaders and I can tell you this — When we took this thing apart, and again, I've worked on the Enzo, the MC12, I worked on a Le Mans car that I can't really talk about, the 599... I know what good chassis engineering is and I know what good aerodynamics are. This thing (the ZR1) is amazing.
TAI: Tell me what modifications were done to turn the Corvette ZR1 into the Mantide.
JC: It was difficult to improve it because the car is already lightweight, it has a lot of carbon fiber in the bodywork, the chassis is already aluminum, the upper frame is in magnesium, it already has carbon ceramic brakes. So we decided to redo the entire exterior in carbon fiber, we used Dymag Racing UK for the carbon fiber wheels, there's also polycarbonate in the upper, but the windscreen and the windows are glass and it's the original window drop from the Corvette. We tried to maintain as much of the Corvette so the Mantide will retain full serviceability, it even has a trunk. We added a full FIA certified rollcage, so if someone really wants to go to the track they'll have everything they'd need including the racing harnesses and racing seats, which the Corvette didn't have and we were also able to save some weight there. So at the end of the day we were able to take 100 kilos out of the car, which in a car that already has an impressive power to weight ratio, that's scary. This car (Mantide) is going to be really scary.
TAI: You said earlier, that you had knowledge of aerodynamics. What aero improvements were made over the ZR1?
JC: Well, we put the ZR1 in the wind tunnel and got all the base line numbers, and you know, it's very well-balanced aerodynamically, but there's nothing spectacular or special about it, aerodynamically speaking. We were able to improve the drag point five percent less to .298, which is a really exceptional figure for a sports car, and for those of you like numbers at home, Ferrari 599 is .34, I think the SLR is around .36, the Ferrari F430 is around .34, so for those that don't think that .29 is impressive for a super-sports car with 335 wide tires isn't good, think again. And, we were able to increase the downforce by thirty percent and maintain a fifty percent distribution of downforce, which means the car maintains very neutral balance. It's something that race drivers always want, so the performance of the car should be spectacular, but we're not out here to make any claims, nor will we.
TAI: Based on what you've told me, it seems like the Mantide might just out-perform the ZR1.
JC: Let's say this, if the owner want to take it to the Nurburgring and put it in the hands of an experienced driver — I'd like to have GM's Jim Mero take it for a spin on the Nurburgring. I mean, he's the guy who gave everyone a hammering with the ZR1, so it would be very cool to give the car to him and let him run, so long as he keeps it out of the kitty litter. I'd like to get the car on Top Gear. We'll have to see if The Stig is still around.
TAI: The car on display here in Shanghai is a foam model with a waterline interior, what, if anything did you do to improve on the Corvette's lackluster interior?
JC: In the real car, of course, we've maintained all of the interior structure and airbags. We've added the roll cage, racing seats, but the whole thing was created out of carbon fiber, but it's very minimal, very spartan. We use the same digital display that's in the FXX, LEDs on the wheel and some Italian touches like a gated shifter. We added a little more romance, a little more Italian sensuality to it. But it's very, we like to say in Italian, puro e duro, which means pure and hard. It's very spartan, very race car like. It's not a show car interior, you know, it's function driven and light and user-friendly. The ergonomics have remained absolutely that of the Corvette. Unlike a car like the P4/5, which has a very different roof line and is very tight on the passenger cell; this maintains the interior space of the Corvette. So, we've got one of our engineers, who's 6'5" — He can fit in the car with no problem with a racing helmet. The car maintains its tremendous usability.
TAI: So what's coming up in the future? Any more special projects coming down the pipeline?
JC: The future? Well we're (Bertone) working on a lot of things now for the Chinese market, which is a lot of the reason why we're here now. We really wanted to point out and really celebrate our relationship with China, just as Porsche did with the Panamera and BMW with the CS. Everybody knows that this market is very important, so we're doing a lot of work with emerging car companies, but it's all very top secret because they like to be very top secret about who they work with. We're definitely looking forward to Europe and America ramping backing up so that we can start working more heavily with our more traditional clients because, of course, we'd like to keep our roots. But as far as special projects, show cars and one-offs — We have some ideas that we'll hash out very, very soon. Though, I want to take a week off first (laughs). But we would love to do something, maybe Italian, above all. But there are definitely some interesting things on the table.
TAI: Can you tell our readers where they might have a chance to see the 'real' Mantide in the near future?
JC: The 'real' car is going to be presented first at a private event in Italy on Thursday, the 23rd, then on Friday I'll present the car at Villa d'Este, Concours d'Elegance at Lake Como. The car has been invited to Goodwood, so we'll do some runs in the super car class, so we're super excited about that, and then after that, the car will go to Pebble Beach. So the car is definitely going to make the rounds.
TAI: So, sounds like some of our readers will be able to see the car in person very soon.
JC: Absolutely. And I look forward to them seeing it in person because I think the disbelievers will change their opinion, but maybe they'll never love it, but I definitely think they'll change their opinion.
TAI: Thank so much for taking the time to sit down with me Jason. We're all very excited to see what you've got in store for us next and l look forward to seeing the beautiful Mantide in action in the next coming months.
Check out our exclusive live coverage of the Stile Bertone Mantide HERE
[Birdcage via Flickr]