The Story of Bertone and His Outrageous Italian Cars
The history of automotive development is often focused on the individuals that developed the vehicles (Karl Benz, Henry Ford) or the engines (Rudolf Diesel, Felix Wankel). Rarely, if ever, is consideration given to the people who inspire the emotion behind some of the most iconic cars: the designers and stylist. While we can like a car for how it drives, we can easily fall in love with how it looks. Sweeping curves, aggressive angles, and fabulous fins. These are just a few of the design elements that have been used to evoke a reaction in the consumers. When it comes to high-end cars, owners are looking to make a statement. And one of the best in the history of the automotive world for making a statement in steel was Giuseppe Bertone, better known as Nuccio.
Nuccio was born in Turin, Italy, in 1912. He grew up in a family of transportation as his father, Giovanni, started the carriage-building shop Carrozeria Bertone in 1914. This life-long exposure seems to have influenced Nuccio, and he entered the family business at 20 with a burning passion for cars. Upon entering the business, however, Nuccio recognized that his father, who had spent time as a carriage wheel-maker, was not capitalizing on the new technology and youthful talent that was available. He make investments in both and brought the company into the modern age.
Beyond his own abilities as a designer, Nuccio was very well known for identifying and developing the talents of others. The success and output of Carrozeria Bertone can be viewed through the work of these men, though Nuccio’s fingerprints run throughout.
Before the Turin Auto Show of 1952, Nuccio obtained two MG TDs and he turned to his designer, Franco Scaglione to make them into something eye catching. Scaglione didn’t disappoint, producing both a convertible and a long-nose coupe. These cars were so unique that they caught the attention of American businessman S.H. “Wacky” Arnolt. As his moniker suggests, he was a bit of an eccentric, and he placed an order for 200 of the cars on the spot. The logistics of it were challenging and were bound to be expensive, but Wacky shrugged off the concerns and proceeded with the order. Roughly 100 were produced under the deal before Nuccio was forced to back out.
A few years later, Alfa Romeo found themselves in the unfortunate position of needing a car… fast. They turned to Bertone and he was able to produce one of the all-time greats: the Giulietta Sprint prototype that was unveiled at the 1954 Turin Auto Show. A factory was built to fulfill the several hundred orders that were received at the unveiling. During the first 11 years, this factory produced a staggering 11,000 Giulietta Sprints. The factory swelled to 3.3 million square feet, more than 2,000 employees, and the output continued to grow. Through a combination of production models, prototypes, and one-offs, the factory produced 31,o00 cars in 1960.
Scaglione continued to work with Arnolt on the success of the MGs. Arnolt, who was on the board of Bertone, sourced a car from Bristol and gave it to Scaglione. Under his skilled pencil, the 1954 Arnolt-Bristol — a flowing, aerodynamic car featuring a 130 horsepower triple-carbureted six cylinder — was born. Scaglione went on to lead the development of the Alfa B.A.T. (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) series. Alfa had approached Bertone to develop vehicles that were extremely aerodynamic: Three different models were produced– the first, the B.A.T. 5, was unveiled at the 1953 Turin Auto Show. The cars accomplished their goal with an extremely low drag coefficient of 0.19, lower than a 2016 Prius and the VW XL hyper-milage concept.
The full list of Scaglione’s contributions to the Bertone shop are too extensive to list here, but I want to mention one final project of his from 1963: The Lamborghini 350 GTV Prototype. This car is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) It was the first Lamborghini ever built, and 2) It established a relationship between Bertone and Lamborghini, a combination that would produce some of the most ground-breaking cars of all-time.
While he went on to become one of the most iconic automotive designers in history, Giorgetto Giugiaro was instrumental in turning Bertone into an international design powerhouse. He joined the firm in 1960, and it didn’t take him long to leave his mark. In his first year, he worked with Nuccio to produce the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone. Only two 250s received the Bertone body treatment and one of them became Nuccio’s personal car.
Cues from the Ferrari ended up in the Iso Grifo, which was first released in 1965, and mated Italian supercar looks with American powertrains. The Grifo was a legitimate Ferrari-fighter in the ’60s, and had some success in both the U.S. and Europe. The Grifo Series II, which came along in 1970, was even hotter, with a Chevy 454 V8 under the hood. Iso went bankrupt in the early 70s, but by then, Giugiaro was already an internationally-known designer.
One of Giugiaro’s most popular designs while at Bertone was the Fiat 850 Spyder. The compact sports car was incredibly bare-bones, featuring a folding cloth roof, good looks, and not much else. But despite earning the nickname “Sport Spider,” its 49-horsepower engine was cribbed from an economy car, and it could only muster a top speed of 87 miles per hour. After his stint at Bertone, Giugiaro went on to design the Volkswagen Golf, BMW M1, DeLorean DMC-12, and Lotus Esprit.
As I mentioned earlier, Bertone and Lamborghini have a long history together. One of the key players in that relationship was Gandini: He was responsible for some of the Lamborghini’s greatest, including this car, which needs no introduction – or at least nothing more than this Top Gear segment. The Miura was the fastest production car in the world when it was released in 1966. Built against the wishes of Ferruccio Lamborghini, it went on to serve as the foundation for all modern super/hypercars. It was produced until 1973 when it was replaced by the Countach – which was also designed by Gandini.
With a body that is made almost entirely out of trapezoidal panels, the Countach is one of the most striking and outlandish car designs to ever hit the showroom floor. It was wide, low, and aggressive. Scissor doors made a statement (and helped to offset the vehicles width in parking spaces). Interestingly, the engine was mounted backwards with the transmission right behind the driver.
Another Top Gear favorite and iconic product of Nuccio and Gandini, the Stratos was Lancia’s successor to the Fulvia and one of the most legendary rally champions of all-time. The car was eccentric in many ways, featuring a better power-to-weight ratio than a modern 911 Turbo, yet with windows that didn’t roll down and pockets for racing helmets in the doors
Amazingly, the list of all of the superstars that were produced by Bertone and his designers could keep going for a volume roughly the size of War and Peace. Unfortunately, the company closed its doors for good in 2014, making its beautiful designs a thing of the past.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.