Journal: Ercole Spada Became a Legend at 23

Ercole Spada Became a Legend at 23

Avatar By Benjamin Shahrabani
November 23, 2014

Photography by Afshin Behnia and Amy Shore

Ercole Spada (1937-) is yet another automobile designer to come out of Italy, a country known for its great love of the arts and style. Still working today, Spada was born in Busto Arsizio, near Milano, the son of a textile factory engineer. The younger Spada grew up particularly enamored by cars, and spent much of his youth drawing them. After graduating high school, Spada enrolled at Milano’s Instituto Technica Feltrinelli to study industrial engineering, and it was during this time that he realized that he might be able to combine his dual love of cars and engineering through a career at one of Italy’s carrozzerias. After fulfilling his mandatory two-year military service obligation, Spada wrote three letters of application–to Abarth, Alfa, and another to Zagato–seeking employment. Zagato was intrigued, and Elio Zagato, the son of the firm’s founder, Ugo, answered Spada’s letter, hiring him after a short interview. Thus commenced Spada’s design career, and not coincidentally a very fertile, and productive period in the Zagato firm’s history.

Spada’s first work for the company was on a variant of the Bristol 406S. A scant six were built, but Spada’s contribution and work on the project gave his bosses at Zagato the confidence to turn him loose on his next assignment, the Aston Martin DB4 GTZ, also known as the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, which was the next design by the still-young Spada. David Brown, Aston Martin’s owner, wanted to have a top-flight contender in the GT category. Where possible, Spada removed non-essential elements, such as the bumpers. Steel components were switched out for even lighter ones made from aluminum. The wheelbase and body were also shortened. The net effect was that the then-twenty-three-year-old Spada took the DB4, already a good looking car, and transformed it into what many consider one of the marque’s most beautiful and desirable examples. The DB4 GT Zagato debuted at the 1960 London Motor Show to an adoring reception.

The DB4 GT Zagato was only one of three Spada designs destined to captivate audiences that year. His OSCA 1600 GTZ concept car was displayed at the Torino Auto Show, while his Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ debuted at the Geneva Motors Show that March. The SZ project would become an important one for Spada as it was his first design for Alfa Romeo, and would evntually lead to the Alfa 2600 SZ, the first car to feature the cut or “Kamm” tail as named after Swiss aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm. Remembering the Kamm streamlining experiments of the 1930s, Spada realized that the tail was “…always smooth in one way or another” so the craftsmen at Zagato cut the tail as if they had a gigantic knife. The result was increased stability, and an increased top speed, and one that would become a calling card for many subsequent Spada designs.

For almost a decade, Spada developed designs for Zagato, including the Lancia Flavia and Fulvia Zagato, as well as the Lamborghini 3500 GTZ. In 1969 he built his own version of a Fiat 500 beach car (sometimes called a “Jolly”) called the Zanzara. It didn’t go into production, but did allow Spada to think of life outside Zagato. The Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato would be the last Spada-designed Zagato to see production before he left the firm. Spada would join Ford in 1970 to become chief designer at their Italian design house, Ghia. This led to the creation of the Ford GT70, which did not go into production, and a Ford Mustang concept, which did in 1980, although five years after Spada left the firm. From there, Spada had a short stint at Audi. It would be a very brief and a fairly unfruitful one as by 1976 he had moved on after being hired on by BMW as their chief stylist. During his tenure with BMW, Spada would create two important, and classic designs for the company, the BMW E32 7-series (1986–1994), and the BMW E34 5-series (1988–1996). Both designs are still remembered very fondly today, and contributed to BMW’s success at the time.

In 1983 Spada left BMW, landing at the I.D.E.A Institute (standing for Institute of Development in Automotive Engineering) where he was responsible for a series of compact and luxury cars for Fiat–the Tipo (1988) which would be very important to the company’s fortunes. It featured ingenious packaging that allowed an uncommonly cavernous cabin inside a very compact form, and one that would win the 1989 European Car of the Year award given out by prominent auto journalists. Other projects included work amongst the brands that comprise the Fiat conglomerate, such as the Fiat Tempra (1990), Alfa Romeo 155 (1992), and Lancia Delta (1993). Other non-Italian work included the Nissan Terrano SUV (1993) and Daihatsu Move subcompact (1995).

Spada returned to Zagato in 1992 and would create the Ferrari FZ93 (1993), based on Ferrari Testarossa 512 TR mechanicals, and the Osca Dromos (1998), a car Spada stated “most reflects his personality”. Internal politics and bureaucracy, however, caused Spada’s departure, this time to work with his designer son, Paulo. Together they created a new design house, Spadaconcept, and one where the elder Spada continues keeping busy at the ripe age of 77.

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I driving a Spada designed car too 🙂

Frank Goedhart
Frank Goedhart

There is a beautiful book on Spada by a Belgian journalist: see

Yoav Gilad
Yoav Gilad

Check back on Friday…

Steffen Fischer
Steffen Fischer

Yes! Spada is the best! I was waiting for this.