Bertone: Art of the Carrozziere
It’s hard to believe now, but there existed a simpler time when people smoked in restaurants and weren’t immune to knocking back a cocktail in the office before lunch. People were left to fend for themselves, think outside of the box, to dream big, and to create from those dreams. The coachbuilder was a saint amongst bishops in the automotive industry.
But along the way, something happened. To some it’s known as the evolution of the automotive industry, which in essence is an extension of society’s changing need for transportation. The dreamers became unfortunate pariahs whose work was to be curbed, and this heresy is no more obvious than in the current state of car design. For many today, the term “coachbuilt vehicle” likely does not exist. Economies of scale, mass-market sales and performance requirements, and the government bureaucracy designed to keep everyone and everything in some sort of order has dulled a previously vibrant industry. Automobile manufacturing has replaced the injection of love in art and design on wheels with a strange blend of corporate product marketing and government regulations.
At the dawn of the 20th century in Torino, Italy, there were hardly any cars. Men who took pride in the craft of designing, fabricating and building horse-drawn carriages from the ground up were known simply as Carrozzieri, the maker of the coaches. Their creations came out of small, loud, hot workshops in the industrial center of Torino. After a hard days work, they probably wolfed down a steak dinner every night with a bottle of wine before sinking into that dreamy state where great ideas encounter their first dose of reality. One of these dreamers was Giovanni Bertone, and after an apprenticeship at another coachbuilder, he set up his own shop in 1912.
Giovanni was exacting in his detailing work. He selected his own batches of wood at the lumber yards by pounding them with an iron stencil bearing his initials. He handcrafted every component to fit as harmonically as possible in the days before a computer-guided lathe could knock out an axle or spring with the effortless nature of a microwave perfectly heating last night’s spaghetti and meatballs. As Giovanni passionately created, his name became synonymous with unmatched quality in the craft of coachbuilding. But times were changing, and horse-less carriages were beginning to line the streets of Torino. The automobile was clearly shaping up to be the future of transportation.
World War I devastated practically every industry in Europe, but once it was over, Torino soon became an epicenter for start-up automobile companies. Following in the footsteps of the horse-drawn carriage coachbuilder, automobile manufacturing companies started popping up. Many made a big initial splash on the scene, but soon went bust. Two pioneers weathered this whirlwind of new industry and would forever change the future for Bertone’s Carrozzeria, they were Giovanni Agnelli and Vicenzo Lancia. Agnelli and his group of investors had established the Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or FIAT, in 1899 and grew to become the largest automobile manufacturer in Italy by 1910. Vicenzo Lancia was a successful racing driver and worked for FIAT. He was well-known in the coachbuilding industry and took a liking to Bertone and his work. As wood-working gave way to metal fabrication and integration of engines and their ancillaries like fuel tanks, lighting and gauges came to play a central-role in the new age of automobile manufacturing, Bertone’s keen business sense lead him to expand his Carrozzeria to accommodate the large-scale manufacturing needs necessary to produce cars on a mass-market scale. FIAT and Lancia (under his own name) both contracted Bertone to build bodies for their cars, and by 1940, the Carrozzeria had moved to a larger facility, and expanded to building commercial vehicles. There was also a new kid on the block.
Giuseppe “Nuccio” Bertone was 19 years old when he first began working for his father Giovanni in 1933. The outbreak of World War II had again devastated all the major industries in Europe and automobile manufacturing was no exception. The Bertone Carrozzeria had stayed alive by filling orders for the military and some wealthy aristocrats also had Nuccio, now designing cars, custom-built bodies for their personal vehicles as well. After the war however, Bertone came back stronger than ever.
In 1953, Alfa Romeo contracted Bertone for the body on the Giulietta Sprint. This relationship with Alfa Romeo lead to the tantalizing, erotic, sexual, experimental BAT-5, BAT-7 and BAT-9. BAT stood for Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica, roughly translated, it means Aerodynamic Technical Sedan. These 3-cars were built to explore the effects of aerodynamics and to learn how to best integrate them efficiently into modern cars. The aim was to cut the drag coefficient of the vehicles to as little as possible, but a byproduct of this goal was the styling. The psychology of the human brain associates beauty with something that looks as if it moves quickly. An eagle or barracuda is considered a beautiful creature because, for lack of better understanding, it “looks faster” than a seagull or hippopotamus. The BATs became the eagles and barracudas of the automotive world. With only the type of inspiration that a coachbuilder can summon from his dreams, Nuccio Bertone had three consecutive automotive orgasms in the BAT cars. Hot off the success of the BAT cars, Bertone closed out the ’50s with the Alfa Romeo Sprint Speciale, Aston Martin DBT2/4 and the Maserati 3500GT.
The swinging ’60s ushered in more gound-breaking design at Bertone. Notable milestones were the relationship with Alfa growing stronger, the Maserati 5000GT, and a precarious relationship with Enzo Ferrari. While all of these were significant projects, perhaps the single largest accomplishment of the ’60s was the bond Bertone forged with Ferruccio Lamborghini. In the Lamborghini Miura, Nuccio Bertone created what we now know as the world’s first supercar. Further orders from Lamborghini trickled in and before the decade was out, the Espada had also become another Bertone hit for Lamborghini.
With momentum from the ’60s behind them, Lamborghini and Bertone opened up the ’70s with the somewhat down-market Jarama and Urraco. 1972 was a busy year, the Lancia Stratos, revolutionary in the world of rallying, helped boost Bertone’s unique styling and manufacturing prowess into the world of racing. In that same year, Giovanni Bertone, the Carrozziere who founded the company, passed away at the age of 88. Although he had taken a more passive role in his later years, his inspiration and passion were still alive in the studio up to his final days. The Fiat X1/9 was also introduced. It was to be one of Bertone’s most successful vehicles, and by the time production wrapped in 1988, 160,000 units had been built. In 1973, with big shoes to fill from the Miura, the Lamborghini Countach was introduced. Bertone had taken on the monumental task of following up the first supercar with yet another hit. The Countach is perhaps the single most recognizable Bertone creation ever and lives on in the hearts and minds of car enthusiasts as the benchmark for stunning supercar design. The ’70s closed out with a unique, if not bizarre, relationship with Volvo. The rather conservative Swedish company, known mostly for practical and safe vehicles, contracted Bertone to restyle its 262 coupe. The Volvo 262C, and its successor the 780, boosted the car manufacturer’s image worldwide by introducing an alternative to its bland, stick-of-butter-looking cars.
The ’80s saw the X1/9 come under the Bertone umbrella completely. Fiat had dropped the car from their lineup and Bertone was now responsible for complete manufacturing and sale of the vehicles. Although it was growing old, Bertone continued improving the car until its final demise in 1988. Additionally, a relationship with Citroen was forged, which resulted in the BX family sedan. Although the early years of the company saw it making limousine bodies for the wealthy, in the past 40 years it gravitated more toward sensual coupe body styles. The BX was a refreshing return to 4-door saloon cars, but this time, it was designed for the masses and went on to be a great seller for Citroen. The BX, and its successor the XM, proved once again that the ability to style a car to meet the demands of the customer was not lost on Bertone, and that their Carrozzieri roots were still firmly in place. Another notable partnership was forged with General Motors of Europe and resulted in the Opel Kadett Cabrio. GM was pleased with Bertone and the two continued their partnership with various models in their Opel Astra small car lineup.
Being at the forefront of styling was a Bertone staple, but experimenting with new technologies was becoming increasingly important. In the 1990s, the dream was still alive and Bertone introduced the Blitz Barchetta, an electric concept car shown at the Torino Motor Show in 1992. The Blitz featured high-tech composite construction that both reduced weight and increased rigidity to go along with its electric powertrain. 1994, hot on the heels of the Blitz, the ZER or Zero Emissions Record broke the top-speed and 1-hour distance record at 304 km/h and nearly 200km respectively. In the Blitz and ZER, Bertone jumped out ahead of the rest by proving that it was at the forefront of not only groundbreaking styling, but also technology that would power vehicles into the future. But not all resources were dedicated solely to this feat, Bertone also took over complete manufacturing of the Opel Astra Cabriolet and Fiat Punto Cabriolet at their plant. The cars were now completely designed, built, quality-control tested and delivered to their clients’ dealerships from the factory in Torino.
On February 26, 1997, Nuccio Bertone passed away. The company was taken over and run by his widow Lilli, continuing in the tradition of Nuccio’s vision by providing clients with unmatched design and quality in coachbuilt vehicles. In 2009, FIAT took over Bertone’s Grugliasco plant and diversified their services. Today, Bertone offers their services to not only the automotive sector, but in industrial design as well.
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Photos courtesy of Bertone archives