Bertone Faces Bankruptcy
The Italian design firm Bertone has been a part of car culture nearly as long as the car itself has existed.
Their styling is distinctive, with most cars sharing a common design language, noticeable even when badged by different manufacturers. Typically working with European marques, Bertone has an impressive client list, having worked with Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, BMW, Citroën, Ferrari, Fiat, Lancia, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Škoda, and Volvo amongst others.
Having recently celebrated its centenary, the car community is now troubled by the potential loss of the company, as Bertone enters bankruptcy proceedings. Since 2007 the firm has repeatedly been in financial turmoil, leading it to sell off its manufacturing plant to Fiat in 2009, and parts of its treasured concept car collection in 2011.
On March 18th 2014, after ceasing trading because of financial difficulties, Bertone confirmed that it will be declared bankrupt if a suitable buyer isn’t found by the end of April.
When looking at the company history, it’s important to know that since the beginning, Bertone has been a family company, always headed by a someone bearing the Bertone family name; Giovanni Bertone (Founder), Giuseppe ‘Nuccio’ Bertone (Giovanni’s Son) and Lilli Bertone (Nuccio’s Wife) taking over after Nuccio’s death.
In 1912, Giovanni started the company in Turin, Italy at the age of twenty-eight, building horse-drawn vehicles and in 1914, two years after the formation of Bertone, his Son Giuseppe ‘Nuccio’ Bertone was born, who would eventually lead the company.
The outbreak of World War I triggered a major crisis in the Italian industrial sector and heavily affected Giovanni, forced to close his shop until the end of the war; when Bertone’s business restarted focus was moved chiefly towards the automotive sector. In 1920, a new plant was opened near Monginevro in Turin with twenty people on the payroll.
During the Twenties, Turin was represented as one of the worldwide centers of the car industry and Bertone was sitting on the hub of it, forming partnerships with almost all the manufacturers of the day and most importantly, a relationship with the two biggest Turin manufacturers, Fiat and Lancia.
At the start of the Thirties, despite the great depression having a devastating effect on most Turin carmakers, Giovanni’s good management allowed the company to carry on and in 1933, Nuccio (who was nineteen at the time) officially began working in his father’s company. In the same period, Bertone began working on commercial vehicles, and as the business grew, new premises were needed that led the company to move to Corso Peschiera with fifty staff members.
Leading to the outbreak of the Second World War, the car market experienced a sudden, drastic downturn and almost all the bodywork manufacturers, including Bertone, reacted to the crisis by creating military vehicles for the war effort. Some luxury vehicle production remained at the Corso Peschiera plant however, albeit very limited.
After the War, the arduous process of reconstruction began in Europe, with Industry scaling up production and the bodyworks going back to work. During these difficult years Nuccio created cars including the Lancia Aprilia Cabriolet and the Fiat 1100 Stanguellini racing car, becoming precursors to some of the design trends in the following decade.
At the end of the Forties, Nuccio turned to racing, at the wheel of a number of different cars, including a Fiat 500 Barchetta, which Nuccio built for himself.
The Fifties brought in the first orders from countries other than Italy, in particular from MG and Bristol Cars in 1952. The following year, Nuccio designed the prototype for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, which was presented at the 1954 Turin Motor Show. A production of 1000 was originally planned, but in the end nearly 40,000 vehicles were made between 1954 and 1965. The relationship between Bertone and Alfa Romeo reached a creative peak with the Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica (BAT) concept cars, pushing the boundaries of aerodynamics and design.
In 1957, the company expansion meant that the factory in Corso Peschiera couldn’t cope with the forecasted production volumes. Construction began in Grugliasco (just outside Turin) for a new plant, which opened in 1959 employing a workforce of 550.
At the end of the Fifties, Bertone penned various Berlinetta, including the Giulietta Sprint Special, the Aston Martin DB2/4 and the Maserati 3500 GT.
In 1965, Bertone experienced a major turning point, with the launch of the Fiat 850 Spider. The commercial success of this model led Nuccio to increase Bertone’s production capacity to 120 units per day (between 1965 & 1972 nearly 140,000 were produced). With the Fiat 850, the company took a giant leap forward in terms of production volumes, from the 13,000 bodies produced in 1966, to nearly 30,000 in 1968; an increase of 40 percent.
The end of the Sixties saw the beginning of the partnership with Ferruccio Lamborghini that was destined to immortalize the brand. The first vehicle to come out of this was the Lamborghini Miura, which was presented at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, virtually reinventing the high performance coupé design concept. The Miura was then followed by the Marzal in 1967 and the Espada in 1968. In the same period, two other coupés appeared, the Alfa Romeo Montreal and the Fiat Dino Coupé, both released in 1967.
By 1970, Bertone had a workforce of 1,500 staff at the Grugliasco factory and the partnership with Lamborghini led to the development of the Espada, followed by the Jarama and Urraco.
At the 1970 Turin Motor Show, the Stratos Zero prototype built on a Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF base was presented and the following year, with the Zero’s styling cues as a starting point, Bertone created the Lancia Stratos Stradale; a compact coupè destined mainly for the racing circuit, which won numerous events in various world rally competitions.
In 1972, at the age of 88, Giovanni Bertone died, around the same time as the development of the Ferrari 308 GT4 and Lamborghini Countach started.
In the early Eighties Nuccio turned out another important design, the Citroën BX and later the Volvo 780. It was also at the same time Bertone also established a relationship with Opel/Vauxhall and towards the end of the decade, developed the Citroën XM.
The nineties saw Bertone focus more on technological innovations, but still producing design & consultancy for various carmakers. On 26th February 1997, on the evening of the Geneva Motor Show, Nuccio Bertone died, leaving the world to grieve “one of the greatest coachbuilders of the century, and international Maestro of Italian style” in the touching words of Fulvio Cinti, motoring journalist and car historian.
In 2009, the Grugliasco plant, along with its manufacturing activities, was taken over by Fiat. Bertone underwent a major restructuring and became a fully integrated service company in the automotive, transportation and industrial design sectors. In line with its heritage however, Bertone’s ‘Atelier’ continued its traditional work by designing and manufacturing one of a kind cars, based on customers’ specific requests.
Today, with an unpredictable future ahead, Bertone is now at the mercy of a buyer, who can hopefully make sure the company is revived as an important piece of living motoring history, only time will tell.
For more on Bertone’s illustrious history, check out our series on Bertone’s centenary, here.
Photo sources: Bertone archives