Bertone And Alfa Romeo Already Made The Best BATmobiles Back In The 1950s
Photography by Ingo Schmoldt
What began as a relaxed conversation with the Blackhawk Museum’s Executive Director Timothy McGrane about photographing a certain trio in the museum’s car collection hit a critical juncture one Wednesday evening; he’d called to say that all three of Alfa Romeo’s BAT (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) cars were being moved into storage indefinitely, and if I could come the following morning, they’d put BAT 7 on the forecourt of their museum and give me the morning to photograph it. Either way, they would be put in storage to make room for a new exhibit.
For those unfamiliar, the BAT cars were a series of designs penned by Franco Scaglione, who also designed the Giulietta Sprint and Sprint Special while working with Nuccio Bertone’s company. Scaglione would also go on to create cars with Carlo Abarth, including the Porsche 356 B Abarth Carrera GT, before what was perhaps his master stroke, the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale. Fiat, Maserati, NSU, Aston Martin, Stanguellini and others would also benefit from his work. The BAT cars however, were specifically created to test aerodynamics in the pursuit of lower drag coefficients, and Bertone put out a car per year for from 1953 to 1955—the BAT 5 in ’53, the BAT 7 in ’54, and the BAT 9 is ’55. And the museum where these extremely rarities live was going to let me have unprecedented and unfettered access to the bright blue BAT 7, so what’s a person to do? You move some appointments around and say “Yes sir, I’ll be there!” That’s what I did anyway, and I immediately called my friend Harry Somerfield, who as a retired journalist and consummate car guy, was the perfect person to do the interview while I focused on shooting the car.
Harry Somerfield: You’re the director currently, but can you tell us the about your history with the Blackhawk Museum briefly before we get into the cars?
Timothy McGrane: Sure. I joined officially back in January of 2013, but I was also associated with the museum from 1993-2000, when I worked directly for Don Williams, one of the two founders.
HS: Can you tell us about the genesis of the BAT cars?
TM: They were styling exercises, only three were built. I suppose it’s worth mentioning that there is one other out there that goes by the name BAT 11 built back in 2008, but we’re talking about the original three. It all started in 1953 and Alfa’s plans for the Turin Auto Show. Following WWII, most European car manufacturers needed to get back into producing in larger numbers than they had been before the war, so as you can imagine, the whole world of coach building was not in much demand, especially in the austere post-war economy in Europe.
Whereas car manufacturers were looking to increase production by getting into mass production, coachbuilders were relegated more or less to saying “We’re still here.” They had to find a way stand out to get the work that was still out there, and one of the ways they did that meant creating concept cars that would wow the public. So this was originally a Bertone project and had nothing officially to do with Alfa Romeo. They used the Alfa 1900 chassis for the base of the build, and Bertone’s designers came up with four early ideas, none of which were approved. That’s why the first actual concept car was called BAT 5. Bertone built that one for their booth at the Turin show in 1953.
If you look at that car for just an instant it’s already abundantly clear that it could have only come out of Italy. There is either something in the air or in the water from that part of the world, and among the other cars, wines, cheeses, and fashions this applies to, this concept was something quintessentially Italian.
HS: What’s the story with the successor to the BAT 5? You mentioned Alfa not being involved in the car they built in ‘53, is it the same story with this one?
TM: So the second car, BAT 7, was created the following year, again for the Turin show. Because of the response the first car had, we’re lead to believe from certain history books, although there is nothing definitive, that Alfa Romeo became involved at this point.
In the absence of concrete proof you must take all the different stories and weigh them collectively to come up with best guess, but it is pretty commonly believed that Alfa became involved in the BAT 7 with some financial resources. As striking as the design is now, at the time it was thought to be too over the top, and there are accounts that the people at Alfa Romeo were not pleased with the outcome. It’s easy to look back and say it’s one of the all-time greats, but the two companies were searching for different things; Alfa Romeo was ultimately looking to make mass-produced cars, and with Bertone more concerned with recognition, they came up with this very eccentric design that didn’t exactly look cheap to build. However because of the awareness they received from this car, a German engineer, I forget his name, working for Alfa Romeo at the time went back to Bertone and told them that they were looking to mass produce cars, and perhaps Bertone might be the company to help them. This would turn out to be the Giulietta Sprint. And this leads us to the third car, the BAT 9.
HS: Keep going, please.
TM: First, if you look at its front end you’ll notice it’s the only one with the traditional Alfa Romeo badge and grille on it, and of the three this looks most like a road car. As famous and striking as BAT 7 is, 9 is the one that actually changed a lot of car design in its wake. Peter Brock, the man who initially penned the shape that eventually became the 1963 Corvette, took styling cues from 9 in that design. There are a few elements that are very similar between the two cars, the BAT 9 and Corvette; the waistline, the split window rear. Peter has been here a couple of times to do some talks in fact, and he’s mentioned that Bill Mitchell (Vice President of Styling at General Motors) would regularly go to Italy for inspiration. Which isn’t surprising, and so it’s also not surprising that these cars had a huge influence on people from other companies.
HS: With such notable cars being one-offs, how did they all come together so many years later to be here? Were the cars owned by private individuals?
TM: Yes, they were owned individually for a number of years prior. BAT 7 was painted red for a period of time, and it actually raced! There are some great color photos of the car racing down in Palm Springs. Not exactly the sort of car that would do well—a lot of body roll—it being based on the 1900 Sprint chassis, so an odd choice to compete with. Anyway, at this time they were just used cars, not yet burned into history like their status today. In fact, I saw a picture once of Ernie McAfee’s car showroom down on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and there was BAT 7 in the forecourt for sale as a used car!
So yes, they were individually owned, and in the ‘80s Said Marouf in Southern California actually owned two of them, and he was the gentleman to actually get all three back together. But it took him a long time to get the third one. The people that owned it didn’t want to sell it, and I don’t know when he finally got them all together but they appeared, I believe, in 1989 at the Pebble Beach Concours as a tribute to Bertone, and that was the first time all three were shown together and they have stayed together since, here in the US during the ‘90s, in Japan, England, and of course back here again now.
HS: They’re fascinating cars for a few reasons, but what is it about the BATs that you think defines them?
TM: I think that as a trio of road-going cars, they are the ultimate radical styling exercise. A friend of mine, Frank Stephenson, is the Design Director at McLaren. You know they have the McLaren Tech Center that is that spaceship-esque building right? In the design studio they have inspirational material up on the walls, which by the way, during the Ron Dennis regime, was not permitted. In fact, Frank would say that Ron very rarely came by, but if he did come down there, Frank’s office would call and say “He’s on his way, take the stuff down from the walls.” But he had the classic picture of the three BAT cars together, and he said they were a design inspiration for him.
It’s really amazing, take a look at when they were designed; in the 1950s the general public didn’t have access to things like nature TV shows. I mean how many people actually knew what a manta ray looked like back in those pre-Jacques Cousteau days? We take it for granted today, we can see all these things and say “Oh, that looks like a this,” but back in those days they didn’t have that point of reference so easily accessible, so these designs were really evolutionary.
The purpose of building them was to prove that they could provide aerodynamic efficiency through design rather than relying on power alone for speed. A little 1900cc engine was propelling these remember, so you weren’t pushing that car through air with excessive horsepower. The drag CO is significantly low even compared to today’s cars. For example, I believe the BAT 7 has a drag coefficient of just 0.19. In addition to these cars’ indelible marks on design, they were also quite the achievement of engineering, which of course was always the point.
For those interested in seeing rest of the collection at the Blackhawk Museum, they host a post-Pebble Beach open house on Monday, August 21st, from 10am-5pm with free admission and light hors d’oeuvres and beverages for the general public. On Tuesday, August 22, from 10am – 5pm there is free admission to anyone with a valid ticket from a Monterey Car Week event. They also host a large cars and coffee-style event on the first Sunday of every month from 8-10am. More information can be found here.