Italian cars are like pasta. Everyone knows the popular shapes of spaghetti and fettuccine, yet there are more than 350 varieties that reward the curious looking for less common fare. Similarly, in addition to high-profile sports cars from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, there are many dozens of Italian marques and coachbuilders that arose between the birth of the automobile and today that remain largely unknown. Most are long defunct; like shooting stars, they lit the landscape with a flash and disappeared. Others started off with fanfare and faded away. A few coachbuilders, like Bertone and Pininfarina, have recently been relaunched. All have stamped a legacy into automotive design that we can see now in the current high-profile Italian marques.
For industrious automotive artisans and engineers, no time or place was as ripe with opportunity as Italy in the 1950s. Many cars from the era survived thanks to those who squirrelled them away in barns, or families who passed down a grandfather’s GT to younger generations. Until recently, they were just old cars. Now, whether they have “matching numbers”—their original chassis and engines—or not, they are highly coveted. A Ferrari 250 GTO, made from 1962 to 1964 and today worth between around £30 million and £60 million, was purchased in 1977 by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason for £35,000. Carroll Shelby couldn’t give his race-worn Shelby Daytona coupes away for $7,000 (around £5,350) each when they became uncompetitive by 1967. Today, any of those original six is worth up to $30 million (around £23 million).
Italian automotive history isn’t complete without a look at the carrozzerie, the coachbuilders who designed and built the bodies that breathed soul into every machine. Usually, a carrozzeria would manufacture complete bodies, delivering them to the carmaker for final assembly at the factory. Most of the carrozzerie no longer operate independently or have gone belly-up.
Which currently undervalued Italian car is poised to break into the big leagues is a complicated question. But one thing is certain: The quick, the beautiful and the rare will always have admirers.
208 Corsa Spider by Bertone
Athough Siata (Società Italiana Auto Trasformazioni Accessori) is one of the least-known Italian automakers, its contribution to motorsports during the 1950s was significant.
Amateur race-car driver Giorgio Ambrosini established the Turinese company in 1926 to make performance accessories; Siata didn’t build its first car until 1948. Siata’s most interesting model, the 208S, was made from 1953 to 1955 and used the same engine that powered the Fiat 8V. That 2.0-liter alloy V-8 engine earned a reputation as feisty but fragile: Many failed early on and were swapped out, which explains the number of Siatas powered by American small-block V-8s. The company ran on fumes through the 1960s and was out of business by 1975.
Only 35 of the lightweight 208 Spiders were made, with bodies designed by Giovanni Michelotti and fabricated by Rocco Motto. The unique 208 CS Corsa Spider pictured here is a one-off styled and built by Bertone, whose owner, Nuccio Bertone, raced it in the early 1950s. The muscular shape with outboard fenders recalls a competition car from an earlier era.
202 SC Cabriolet by Vignale
Cisitalia (Compagnia Industriale Sportiva Italia) was a Turinese race-car builder established by the wealthy industrialist Piero Dusio in 1946, but it folded in 1949 trying to put its 202 GT into series production. That diminutive berlinetta (“little saloon” in Italian) could rightfully be regarded as the first modern automotive styling exercise. The coupe was designed by Battista “Pinin” Farina, the most famous of all Italian stylists, whose carrozzeria Pinin Farina began in 1930, when the 37-year-old opened up shop in Turin. Small in stature, his nickname, Pinin, or “little,” led him to change his legal surname to Pininfarina in 1961; the firm has been known as Pininfarina ever since.
The Pinin Farina shape was the first to blend fenders with fuselage, creating a harmonious form that was both aerodynamic and aesthetically pleasing. No one had ever seen such a thing before, and testament to this groundbreaking achievement is the fact that the Museum of Modern Art acquired an example for its permanent collection in 1972—the first automobile to be deified by a fine-art institution. Like most Italian cars of the era, the Cisitalia 202 GT had a svelte aluminium body wrapped around a tubular chassis. It was powered by a 1,089 cc, overhead-valve, inline-4—essentially a hopped-up Fiat engine with twin Weber carburetors, propelling the little Cisitalia with 63 hp, roughly the same oomph as the Mercedes Simplex back in 1903.
A convertible followed the coupe. The one shown here was designed by Vignale. Established in 1946, Carrozzeria Vignale is known for creating not just many significant Ferraris, but bodies of other sporting marques as well, including American sportsman Briggs Cunningham’s eponymous Cunningham C-3, a Chrysler-powered Ferrari-fighter from the mid-1950s. Shortly before Alfredo Vignale’s death in 1969, the firm was taken over by Ghia, which continued the Vignale name until 1974.
Grifo A3/L Prototype by Bertone
Like Germany, Italy after World War II had a decimated economy and a population in need of inexpensive transportation. Refrigerator manufacturer Iso (Isothermos), founded in 1939 and restructured as Iso Autoveicoli in 1953, responded to the opportunity. Under industrialist Renzo Rivolta, Iso produced motorcycles, scooters and a tiny bubble car that was also made under license by BMW as the BMW Isetta. With his fortune made, Rivolta hired Giotto Bizzarrini, the magician behind Ferrari’s 250 GTO; stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro; and coachbuilder Bertone to create a luxury GT with performance to rival Ferrari. The Iso Rivolta IR 300, introduced in 1962, was beautiful and practical, using a powerful Chevrolet 327 cubic-inch V-8 engine that, with 340 hp on tap, could compete with anything made at the time. Iso followed with a racier design called the Grifo, produced from 1965 until 1974, when the company folded.
The car shown here is the original Iso Grifo: a one-off prototype with unique coachwork, first exhibited at the 1963 Turin Auto Show. The shape was created by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose time with Bertone produced memorable 1960s designs like the Alfa Romeo Giulia GT.
Bertone began in 1912 in Grugliasco and was guided by Nuccio Bertone after World War II. The company designed prototypes and built bodies for production cars, closing its doors as a family-owned company in 2014. In its heyday, Bertone was a giant, noted for cutting-edge creations. An affiliation with Lamborghini and Maserati cemented its reputation for the avant garde, thanks to Marcello Gandini’s designs for Lamborghini that included the Marzal show car, Miura and game-changing Countach of the 1970s.
8V Supersonic by Ghia
No discussion of unknown Italian marques would be complete without a deep bow to Fiat, whose engines were the basis for many small manufacturers and carrozzerie, including the long-defunct but influential Ghia. Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) was founded in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli and made a name in early competition with contraptions like the “Beast of Turin,” a 28.5-litre, four-cylinder monster built in 1910 to beat the land speed record held by Germany’s “Blitzen Benz”. Following World War II, Fiat reemerged with the tiny 500 Topolino, or “little mouse”, and gave Italians an option beyond the two-wheeled Vespas and Lambrettas. The founder’s grandson, industrialist Gianni Agnelli, ran Fiat from 1963 until he retired as chairman in 1996.
The most ambitious Fiat was the 8V—shorthand for Otto Vu—and refers to Fiat’s 1,996 cc, overhead-valve, alloy V-8 engine that made a whopping 113 hp. The power plant for the most exclusive Fiat was initially designed for a luxury sedan that never saw production. But a small run of 114 8Vs was made from 1952 to 1954, most of which were designed by Fiat’s own special body department, as well as coachbuilders Vignale and Zagato. One variant—the 8V Supersonic created by Ghia stylist Giovanni Savonuzzi—showcased Jet-Age fantasy and the era’s most aerodynamic styling. Ghia was established by Giacinto Ghia in 1915 and was at the height of its fame during Savonuzzi’s tenure in the mid-1950s working with American manufacturers, especially Chrysler designer Virgil Exner.
Aurelia B24S Spider America by Pinin Farina
While the mid-1950s unleashed great automobiles such as Britain’s Jaguar D-Type and Germany’s Mercedes-Benz 300SL, nowhere was there variety greater than in Italy.
One of the country’s most beloved brands was Lancia, founded in 1906 by Vincenzo Lancia, the inventor of independent front suspension and a host of other important engineering firsts. Lancias have always been special cars, possessing impressive technical advancements, exceptional build quality and, often, unsurpassed beauty. The Aurelia coupes played a major role in motorsports throughout the 1950s, but the Aurelia B24 was the ultimate combination of engineering and design and was the most desirable road-going Lancia sports car of the time. Just 240 Spiders were made from 1954 to 1955, followed by 521 convertibles from 1956 to 1957. The former is the most collectible, with a simple wrap-around windshield and more minimalist appointments.
The B24 used the first-ever series- production V-6 made—Lancia’s 2,451 cc overhead-valve engine, producing 125 hp. What made the B24 so exquisite was its Pinin Farina body, a perfectly proportioned beauty representing the pinnacle of the designer’s aesthetic output. Lancia atrophied and was absorbed into the Fiat organization by 1969, and its last notable cars were the Stratos rally car and 037 racers that carried the Lancia torch into the ’80s. Lancia became a ghost of its former self by the late 2000s and remains a marque in name only.
1600 GT Coupe by Carrozzeria Touring
Osca was a small carmaker in Bologna with a big name (Officine Specializzate Costruzione Automobili— Fratelli Maserati S.p.A.). The company was started in 1947 by the surviving Maserati brothers, who had sold their eponymous company to the Orsi family a decade earlier. Until closing in 1967, Osca made small but mighty race cars that captured wins in the hotly contested 1,100 cc class. In the 1960s, Osca made a limited series of elegant road cars powered by 1,200 cc Fiat engines, as well as by an engine of its own design. That 1,568 cc, DOHC inline-4 developed 123 hp, and made the 1600 GT a delightful grand tourer. Most of the approximately 130 examples wore bodies by Fissore, Boneschi, or Zagato. The most rare were bodied by Carrozzeria Touring and had a futuristic interior with elaborate molding and fittings.
Carrozzeria Touring was the grande dame of coachbuilders, and its excess-free Flying Star designs for Isotta Fraschini and Alfa Romeo in the 1930s were unmatched for elegance and purity of form. Felice Bianchi Anderloni set up shop in Milan in 1926, patenting his superleggera (lightweight) construction method of wrapping aluminium panels around a framework of delicate steel tubes. “Superleggera” is widely used today, but was—until Touring closed in 1966—a proprietary technology licensed to carmakers like Aston Martin for the beautiful DB5. Touring’s design for the tiny Osca 1600 GT reflects a grandeur that is the hallmark of all of Anderloni’s creations.
750 GT by Zagato
In 1949, Carlo Abarth founded Abarth & C. after acquiring the liquidated assets of his former employer, Cisitalia. While Abarth was known at the time for making performance accessories for tiny Italian cars, its highly modified and special-bodied Fiat-based race cars brought luster to the marque, whose logo, in reference to Abarth’s astrological sign, was a scorpion. Fiat bought Abarth in 1971, and the brand lives on only as a badge used to adorn Fiat’s current high-performance models.
The “giant killers” for which Abarth is known were purpose-built racers, like this Fiat-Abarth 750 GT. At less than 1,200 pounds, the car was ably—if modestly—powered by a 43 hp, 747 cc Fiat inline-4 engine. Its featherweight Zagato bodywork is key to a performance-to-weight ratio that made it highly competitive in its class.
Founded by Ugo Zagato in 1919 to build and repair bodies for automobiles and aircraft, the Milanese firm eventually became known for designing and making lightweight bodies for limited-production sports and competition cars. The first to apply sound aerodynamic principles to automobile design, Zagato also expressed the Italian metalworker’s art at its best. Zagato craftsmen hand-formed aluminium panels into discernible shapes by beating them over wooden bucks, with the result that no two cars were exactly alike, and making the job of today’s restorers an exercise in reverse engineering. A notable Zagato design signature is the famous double-bubble roof, a solution to finding headroom for taller drivers while reducing the aero-dynamic drag resulting from a higher roofline.
Upon his father’s death in 1968, Elio Zagato took over the firm, running it until his own passing in 2009. His son Andrea still runs Zagato today, making the carrozzeria the longest-lived independent coachbuilder in the world.