PAOLO GARELLA IS like a cat. Throughout his 35-year career as an engineer he has lived many lives, any one of which would be the highlight of most people’s resume, working with not only automotive royalty but actual royalty. Despite his success, his story is still being written, but the 61-year-old generously donated his time during a long drive from his Italian home to talk MOTOR through his journey thus far. And what a journey.
Born in 1959, Garella grew up in a small town south of Turin in an automotive family. His father introduced him to the wonder of cars and his uncle was the general manager at Ducati, but it was an annual local event that would light the path ahead. “One thing that very strongly inspired my career was every year there was the Turin Motor Show. It was always a dream to go and see those fantastic cars and one year Pininfarina [showed] the Ferrari Pinin. For me that was a shock, I thought ‘this is what I want to do’. The car is important in my memory.”
Having graduated from the Politecnico di Torino as a mechanical engineer, Garella began working for Goodyear at its Mireval proving ground in the south of France as a test engineer. “I really learned what the car should do. It was really very, very important for what I’ve done since, to be able to judge a car, to drive everything that was on the market for four or five years. There were people from France, from Belgium, from Germany, it was an incredible mixing pot of competence and ideas of the handling of a car, the comfort.” The work was varied, Garella’s image archives showing everything from a Peugeot 309 GTi to a Ferrari F40 to a giant mining truck. His main project during this time was the creation of a new wet handling circuit at Mireval, a crucial component in tyre development. “If I had to pick a memory from Goodyear I will pick the work we did on the wet handling track. That was an incredibly advanced project that involved tens of people from the two sides of the ocean so it was a little bit of the true starting point of my career as a manager, to be able to put together a group of incredible people to reach an extraordinary achievement.”
From there Garella joined Albatech, where he worked on unusual concept projects like the electric Bertone Blitz and two-stroke Pininfarina Ethos – “I went to drive that car on the circuit I developed in Goodyear and that is a great memory” – before becoming technical director for Alba’s Group C sports car team. In 1992 Garella made his biggest move, to Pininfarina, where he would spend nearly the next two decades working on some of the world’s most exotic machinery. Usually by tearing it apart. Garella’s primary role was to head Pininfarina’s special projects division, which was kept extraordinarily busy by its main client, the Royal Family of Brunei. The Sultan of Brunei’s car collection is the stuff of legend. Said to contain anywhere between 5000-10,000 cars, over the next five or six years Garella and his team would create some of the more interesting additions. “When I joined Pininfarina already the work was around the Brunei cars and a few months after I joined they contacted us to have a direct deal. Before, all the cars were sold through this guy in Singapore. After I joined we started to sell the cars directly to them and we develop very strong links, developing the cars and discussing with them what kind of car they would have liked. From then it was a crazy five years, six years [during] which we’re building more than 60 cars every year.”
The combination of Pininfarina’s engineering skill and the Royal Family’s almost infinite resources made virtually anything possible. For instance, a lack of righthand drive availability wasn’t going to stop them having their favourite cars with the steering wheel on the ‘correct’ side. “The first project we did directly for them were [Ferrari] 288 GTOs that were made right-hand drive, we increase the power; it was fun because two cars were sent from Brunei to be transformed but two other cars I went to buy them. Honestly, the 288 was an easy one, very easy. The F40 was easy because it was a 308 [base], so therefore we could buy the steering rack. The only thing was that because of the width of the tyre we had to re-design the pedals because the space on the right side was not as wide [as] on the left side. The toughest one we did was the Porsche 959. Really, really tough. That was completely re-engineered on the front, we had to re-do the fuel tank, that was a really big pain, I think we did four of those. All the projects had their difficulties. One of the big things was air-conditioning, because all those cars were not really thought of to have strong air-conditioning and for them in Brunei one of the key things was the airconditioning, so every time we had to spend a lot of time and tuning,” he explains.
As you might have surmised, these transformations were not quick backyard jobs. Many of the cars were repainted (hence the existence of blue and black 288 GTOs and yellow, grey and green F40s) and then subjected to OEM-style quality tests, including hot weather and water durability. “It was a full OEM development process and, frankly, some of the projects like the [Ferrari] 456 fourdoor and estate, that was a true development in which we did benchmarking activities, we reengineered completely the door system of the cars, the chassis was completely modified, the gearbox.” The 456s were particularly popular with the Royal Family, Pininfarina delivering 42 (!) examples in various guises, all with a bespoke automatic transmission. “When we started to deliver the Ferrari 456 didn’t have an automatic transmission yet, so we adapted the Porsche 928 transmission and made some improvements. When Ferrari came out with their transmission the Royal Family didn’t like it and continued to ask us to modify 456 with our automatic.” Brunei 456s came in many shapes – two-door coupes and convertibles, four-door sedans and five-door wagons – but it wasn’t the only car to be re-’boxed.
“We did the same thing on the 550 [Maranello]. That was a great development. We used the Mercedes transmission, I think was six-speed, and the drivability of that transmission was fantastic. Unfortunately that was towards the end of the relationship with them but we did a lot of work in transmissions. We did 355 with semi-automatic transmission, we did Testarossa with semi-auto, we did the XJ220 with semi-auto and these were developed together with Prodrive in England. They were hybrid systems that were using pneumatic and hydraulic actuation, pneumatic for the gear engagements and hydraulic for the clutch control. Because the level of the electronics was not as refined as today, it was really a lot of tuning to make it work. Very frankly, some of the applications, for example the one on the XJ220, was never fully reliable [and] need continual adjustment. There were different levels of refinement depending on the donor car.”
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