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A P with a 50-year-long history

The idea of a capital P extended horizontally to cover the rest of the letters in the word Pirelli was born long ago, in New York, in 1908. This was a fortuitous find, due to a request from a local agent engaged by Pirelli. The commercial and advertising sectors were becoming ever fiercer in North America, and although the brand was not entirely unknown, it was still young and needed to stand out in the competition.

“And would this work?”, asked a visitor freshly arrived from Italy. He traced a rough sketch on a piece of paper, a capital P with a very unusual shape.
“Yes, this could work well”, replied the other man after a quick glance. “Yes, that would do very well”. He examined that P again, imagining how it would stand out on a billboard or against the blue sky as a backdrop.

And so, this was where it was first seen; first in the States and later in Italy, as soon as its creator returned from his business trip.

The Peking to Paris race had taken place the previous year, and thanks to Pirelli tyres, 17,000 kilometres of bumps, stones, dust and mud had been smoothly devoured between June and August by the Itala pilots Barzini and Borghese.

Already well-known for its cables and other rubber-based articles, Pirelli was now carving out its own space in the tyre sector, also known as pneus sector by cultured people, who would happily use Gallic words on billboards and headed notepaper (French was first to lead the sector, with words such as semelle, noir ferré, etc.; only later did English catch up).

Despite its cables and plastic materials, Pirelli is still renowned especially for rubber. The reason is obvious, and has to do with commercial and mass consumption issues, but perhaps there is also some other subtler motive. Perhaps the true reason stems partly from early sporting successes, when all car racing events were called Grands Prix, and partly from the idea of elasticity that our graphic symbol appears to convey. Look at the elongated eyelet of the P and tell me that it does not evoke some of those physics text books describing how bodies regain their original form after being deformed.

And now a dilemma, a sort of chicken and egg conundrum: is our elongated P the product of elasticity theories, or is it the P that suggests the idea of elasticity? Whatever the answer may be, it is a sign that the choice was effective, and fifty years of continual success in the advertising sector is surely sufficient proof of its popularity.

Indeed, over the past fifty years our P was slightly modified just once and has never regressed to its original form. Its deformed shape embodies an initial restlessness and has its own little story, starting as something calligraphic before becoming decidedly graphic.
It paid due tribute to the ornate manner, exerting its influence over the other letters as the only and eye-catching capital one; its stem was once extended, to the detriment of the eyelet; then it was combined with the word pneu embodying a radiator, a car boot, or the red profile of a racing car; finally its presence on the final “s” of pneus created a pack of multicoloured motorcyclists that today’s observer could compare to the thundering mob seen in the opening frames of the film “The Wild One”.

A curious fact is the positive contagion that our long P had on other words that appeared alongside it in advertisements. Perfect examples are the felicitous couples “PNEUS PIRELLI” and “PIRELLI CORD”, always accompanied with our elongated P, until today’s “PIRELLI LASTEX”, memory of that age-old phenomenon of reciprocal attraction or graphic complementarity.

That stretched elastic eyelet, thickened at its farthest point and seemingly blocked by an invisible finger preventing it from snapping back to regain its initial form, is a sort of Disney-like intuition before Disney. It races ahead like a runaway character to create its own personages, giving its name to the rich and inspired billboard advertising tradition of the first two decades of the century. While the invisible finger still holds onto the elastic P, the character Pierino created by Codognato comes into the world riding his speedy bike; then a flying child pedalling through a cloud of coloured balls; the fleeing fox curled up on the tyre (hounds and riders will never catch him…); a man wrapped in a raincoat under the pouring rain, happily treading on two useless umbrellas; another Pierino, clumsily holding his umbrella while unsheltered from the rain, but satisfied by the excellent results of the GOMME PIRELLI da CANCELLARE [Pirelli rubber erasers] on the pages of his workbook stained by the rain (once again, the long P drags out the letters G and C). Then our imaginary finger stops pulling; we have reached the limit of elasticity, and our story quietens down at the end of the Twenties, while in the Thirties more realistic and stuffy characters come to the foreground, with a more robust and uniform eyelet under the cold light of STELLA BIANCA tyre. We are witnessing an ongoing revolution in taste and graphic design; although not entirely eliminated, inspiration now seems softened. More variations are made to the other letters or words paired with the word Pirelli. Calligraphic diversions are over, as well as embellishments or embroidery; a new termination is given to the shaft of the P and regrettably, every so often a certain bluntness in the typeface of the text can be seen. Thus, in 1945 the traditional graphic version of the name had suffered many and contradicting variations and some type of regulation was required. As graphic design was evolving towards greater simplicity and unity in visual language, also the definitive characteristics in the long P were defined and no more changes were made. The degree of its deformation remained unchanged and permanent; the width of the other letters was also fixed, with no other variations of typeface was made; the Cairoli font was chosen for all additional slogans, illustrations and supplementary texts. Today, any other changes or innovations to the graphic format of the word seem almost impossible. In fact, last year, the eyelet of the P showed some signs of restlessness. Persuaded to be the only element of the logo, it claimed by a friend’s hand that indeed it was the only element to stand out, trying to absorb the entire stem of the P and allowing the other letters to stay under its area of influence. We do not know if this request will be met. Anyway, it is not something that regards the immediate future.

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