Featured: Celebrate 100 Years Of Zagato's Daring, Family-Owned Innovation

Celebrate 100 Years Of Zagato’s Daring, Family-Owned Innovation

By Alex Sobran
April 19, 2019

It’s difficult for a company to stay relevant for a century—harder still if it’s in the business of low-volume, highly-custom industrial design—and yet today the family-run Zagato coachworks is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding. Zagato was a witness to and influencer of the toddling years of the horseless carriage, later aided the rise of Alfa Romeo and Ferrari’s competitive prominence, and despite the entire operation becoming literal rubble during the second world war, the brand managed to become a definitive source of post-war automotive design while earning motorsport clout to the tune of Grand Prix world championships. The designs are heart-attack arresting, but there is more behind the jagged Z than a pretty aluminum curve.

Rooted in tradition but not too stubborn to lag behind the relentless pace of time and mass production, Zagato has always found a way to make its line of work, well, work. The business of building cars naturally tacks toward increased efficiency, and as we’ve progressed on this front over the course of the 20th century Zagato’s peers died off in droves. But Ugo Zagato’s company was all but founded on the idea of adaptation, and the two generations of sons that have helmed the famous Z share in the good genes.

The story begins in 1919, when Ugo decided to pivot from the aeronautics work he’d been doing during the first world war, left his job at the Office of Aeronautics in Pomilio, and set up his own operation in Milan in 1919 with the intent to build and repair airplanes and automobiles—he’d learned some of the latter trade a decade earlier during a short stint at Carrozzeria Varesina, and also had a little metallurgy experience in his pocket.

The 1920s brought about plenty of change (as post-war decades are wont to do), and Ugo Zagato contributed his fair share to the evolution of the automobile during this time. By constructing his bodies using the techniques he’d learned from aircraft design, and subsequently beginning to shape them to resemble something a bit more aerodynamic than a wheeled rectangle, Ugo employed a function-focused type of coachbuilding that quickly got the attention of the burgeoning motorsports groups of the era.

Alfa Romeo would prove to be a particularly important partner for the Zagato brand over the decades to come, and the two achieved success early on in the collaboration. Most notable are the Alfa Romeo 6C competition cars that were engineered in-house by Vittorio Jano. The first Mille Miglia was won by a car built by the Officine Meccaniche, but from 1928 to 1930 the honors went to Zagato-bodied 6Cs.

Enzo Ferrari commissioned Ugo’s company to body his Alfa Romeo racing cars, and later a few of the ones that bore the Ferrari name proper. Zagato was getting more projects in the 1930s following the success of its endeavors with Alfa Romeo racing cars, and Ugo was bringing his aeronautical designs to new extremes. That was never the goal though, an extreme look, just a byproduct of a philosophy heavily weighted by functionalism and rationalism. The Lancia Aprilia Sport Zagato pictured below represents the ideals of the time in the Zagato studio: slippery, tapered, uninterrupted,but all in the pursuit of becoming better friends with the wind. This car, though a recreation of the nonexistent original, was also a Mille Miglia success and not just a pretty jelly bean, finishing first in its class in the 1937 edition of the race and fourth overall.

World War II started bringing the international mood down right around that time, and though Ugo left Milan early into it, the Zagato operations were still located in the city, and were eventually hit by RAF bombs in 1943. There was nothing to do but start from scratch, and after a brief stint in Saronna Zagato’s headquarters were brought back to the capital city a few years later, when the war was over. While the limited number of automotive projects at the time in Europe were typically aimed at smaller and cheaper machines rwith little use for optimized bodywork, Zagato still found a purpose. The idea of grand touring sports cars as we know them today was still a decade or so into the horizon, but hindsight allows us to see their progenitors were influenced by Zagato.

Drawing once more from his experience with airplane design, Ugo defined the Zagato of the 1940s with his novel coupes. By focusing on light, airy canopies that granted visibility and comfort (though perhaps not on particularly sunny days) to their occupants, the panoramic designs foreshadowed the lightweight coupes that would come to the motorsport forefront in the 1950s and ‘60s. To construct cars like the Ferrari 166 MM Panoramica (pictured below), Ugo took advantage of proven lightweight materials as always, and benefited greatly from the recent invention called plexiglass which made the big greenhouses viable options for motorsport.

By the end of the 1940s the GT category had already been officially conceived, and one of Ugo’s sons, Elio, proved himself a competent amateur racing driver in addition to a prolific one. An early participant in GT racing, Elio worked with his father to bring Zagato’s name into the constructor conversation. And so began the decades-long relationship with Aston Martin.

Ferrari was doing a handy job of winning races and hearts and minds with its various 250 as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, and Aston Martin wanted in on it. The DB4 on its own was a triumphantly pretty car, and the brand already had a lighter, meaner spec in the DB4 GT, but Zagato’s interpretation arguably pushes the car even further along the axes of performance and style. During the 1950s, Zagato designed many a GT, for Fiat, Maserati, Lancia, Ferrari, just name it.

Elio continued to play a major role in the company in the 1960s (and took over officially in 1968 with Ugo’s passing), and helped instigate the company’s shift toward higher volume production to keep up with the pace of production required in the market. Zagato’s production was moved to a larger space near Arese (all but adjacent to Alfa’s own new factory), and began to produce bodies that could be married to pre-packaged mechanicals as opposed to a more one-off approach. It was not to become large-scale assembler or a factory run by conveyer belts and wall clocks, but Elio ensured the brand’s survival when so many others that were resistant to change faced the consequences.

The 1960s saw Zagato and Lancia forming a strong relationship (Zagato built the Sport models of Lancia’s range for almost a decade), and Alfa Romeo also became a strong partner once more following the success of the Giulietta SZ and its Kamm-tailed Coda Tronca version (pictured above). With the tube-framed Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ and TZ2 building on the latter design, Zagato had once again managed its trick of creating something very purposeful (in this case, a super light alloy body wrapped over a tub frame holding an Alfa Romeo and Autodelta-developed mechanical package) that somehow looked like it existed for no other reason than to weaken knees.

The 1970s were a less prolific time for Zagato, but they were still part of the zeitgeist that was intent on turning every curve on a car into a measurable angle. The Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato (pictured above) was one of the defter interpretations of the new wedge and composite material movement, and the radically weird Cadillac N.A.R.T. project represented some of the one-offs that Zagato was building at the time. At one point the big red doorstop that was apparently styled by Luigi Chinetti’s son was a hopeful candidate for limited factory production with GM, but the modified Cadillac Eldorado (mid-engined and rear-wheel drive rather than its stock front-front setup) ended up being a solitary creation. With visions of Alpine A310s and a little VW SP2, the stately mid-engine alloy-bodied Cadillac could even be called influential.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Elio was joined by his own son, Andrea, in running Zagato. Andrea helped bring about another new era for the company, keeping up with the processes and techniques of the greater car manufacturing world while keeping the identity of the brand as a bespoke and special one. The use of computer software to design and produce cars was still quite nascent when Zagato adopted them, and though they worked with manufacturers directly in the 1990s on cars like the Alfa Romeo S.Z. and R.Z., and the Aston Martin Vantage and Volante Zagato editions, production numbers were still low despite the process itself being streamlined thanks to computer applications. Zagato did boxy as well as anyone, and the snapshot of the Lancia Beta Coupe HFZ’s shows wide bodywork that was very ahead of its time for 1981.

Andrea Zagato and his wife Marella Rivolta (yes, that Rivolta), expanded the scope of Zagato in the 1990s to turn it into a 21st century design studio that would take on projects beyond the personal automobile. They consulted on transportation and industrial design projects under this new approach, but the core business of Zagato-bodied specialty cars wasn’t displaced by the trains and trollies. During the 2000s, Zagato’s automotive output harkened back to the early GT days that brought about the iconic double-bubble roof designs and kamm tails that would become definitive elements of Zagato design. Rather than attempt a full retrofication, the designs draw on the forms of the 1950s and ‘60s but give them contemporary proportions.

In the last decade, Andrea and Marella have approached Zagato’s history more directly;  in between collaborations with Aston Martin and other limited-series batches for major automakers, Zagato has also been recreating lost or otherwise definitive cars from its timeline, including the aforementioned Ferrari 166 MM Panoramica and our recently-featured 356 Speedster. Along with the accurate recreations, they are also creating new evolutionary steps, like the Alfa Romeo TZ3 Stradale (pictured above), which updates the original cars’ look and abilities for the new century.

We’ll be taking a closer look at a few Zagato models next week, but for now we’d simply like to wish our friends in Milan a very happy hundredth.

Photos courtesy of: Aston Martin, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Zagato, Will Mederski, and Armando Musotto

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5 years ago

Well done, Petrolicious. I really enjoy these types of articles about the designs and designers that shaped the most fascinating cars.

5 years ago

This reminds me…I don’t actually know how many Alfa Romeo TZ2s are made, but there was at least one registered in Massachusetts back in the early 2000s. I was on a leisurely afternoon drive on a way to meet up with a friend in somewhere around Duxbury area when I got blasted passed by TZ2 on one of the narrow winding roads. I tried my best to keep up with it in my Mk4 GTI, but he was on it like he meant it, I couldn’t keep up, and I lost the site of it. That was amazing.

Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer
5 years ago

“Somehow looked like it existed for no other reason than to weaken knees.”……
Alex, in one sentence you summed up Zagato. Nicely done.

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