Visiting The Bottini Family, Vintage Porsche And Restoration Specialists In San Giorgio su Legnano
Photography by Marco Annunziata
As in so many of Europe’s old, big cities, if you know where you’re headed you can drive just a few kilometers away from the central hustle and bustle to find yourself in places where time has not passed at such a rapid clip. One such place, and story, is the Bottini body shop in San Giorgio su Legnano near Milan. Specialized in Porsche and Alfa Romeo, the family’s history with the workshop began with Arturo Bottini, as his granddaughter, Himara, tells me.
“My grandfather started working at Zagato before the Second World War, specializing in aluminum processing. His skill earned him the nickname Mangialamiera, roughly translated to English as, ‘sheet metal-eater.’ As the stories go, he was so good that he could reproduce a fender of any car in no time at all, and without relying on a model for reference, although he would sometimes build them.”
Besides his restorative work, Arturo also made beautiful aluminum models that he built from scratch, birthed by his own imagination that was inspired by the sports cars of the period. Thanks to his experience at Zagato and his personal drive, in 1946 Arturo founded his own company in San Giorgio su Legnano, a small village in Milan’s metropolitan area. In his new workshop, Arturo immediately got to work on making transformations of the Fiat 508 Balilla sedan and Fiat 1100 A into small and lightweight pickup trucks, which were not produced by major manufacturers but were in great demand after the war.
“This job was quite simple, the bodywork was cut and a carpenter built the wooden sections, but this was more out of practicality than passion. My grandfather truly loved racing cars, and so he also started to build a prototype sports racer starting from the chassis of a humble Fiat 500 Topolino,” Himara adds.
Over the many years since then, the scale and scope of work increased and the clientele became increasingly differentiated. As the country rebuilt its economy and industry following the war, higher-end cars like the Alfa Romeo 1900s that belonged to the wealthier Legnano residents entered the equation and mingled with the Topolinos of the working class. There was a bit of everything, and thus in 1958, Carrozzeria Bottini moved to a larger spot, to its still current headquarters at 1 via Vittorio Veneto, San Giorgio su Legnano.
Pierluigi Bottini, Himara’s father, was already the official the owner of a Fiat 514 sedan at the ripe age of twelve—his first car, and the start of a lifelong obsession with them. He also began helping his dad at the body shop from a young age, as Himara recounts. “In those early days of the postwar period, there were no apprentices at the shop. My grandfather made my father prepare the estimates, do the accounts, and manage the office. But just by being there, moving around the cars and taking in pieces of information, he started following along with the automotive side of the shop, watching what his father and his workers were doing very closely. Initially attracted by the colors, he prepared the paint mixes and helped the painters when he could.
“I believe that the number of young artisanal enthusiasts is proportional to the handicraft activities present in Italy,” Himara continues, on the subject of the youth in the trades today. “I know many young women and men, who do crafts in the family business, doing the most diverse jobs, from chrome plating to upholstery, or simply managing the entire accounting part of the company which today is increasingly complex and demanding. There are just fewer opportunities available for those who might want to try it but have no connections. However we ‘young people,’ always try to learn something new, even if the subject matter is something old. I would be lying if I said that am beating the sheet metal or painting the bodies, but I help the fitters when I can, even just by handing him the tools or holding the bumper while he fixes it to the bodywork. I prepare the colors for the painters, but mainly I help by managing all the accounting pieces with my father, as well as taking care of all the communication and marketing elements. Whatever it is, it’s in service of the same ideals.
“Our work is a work of passion and heart. And of time, of course. A point certainly in our favor is that the same passion and attention to detail that we employ in restorations, being part of our DNA and the training of our employees and collaborators, we also transfer it to modern cars. Because now it belongs to us.”
In addition to Himara and Pierluigi, there is also the family’s longtime friend and business partner, Carlo Giudice, who participated with Pierluigi in races such as the Mille Miglia and Winter Marathon when he was a young man, up to competing in the 1990s in the Porsche Italia amateur championships. About fifteen years ago, driven by his interest in historic cars and his passion for racing, he chose to join Carrozzeria Bottini to support Himara in managing the business and to definitively replace Pierluigi as a restorer when he decides to retire. Filippo, Claudio, Raffaele, and Ali are also in the workshop every day.
From the 1970s to the ’90s the body shop worked on Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo products, but since the early ’90s, Pierluigi has been most passionate about working on Porsches, getting so good with their cars that the Porsche dealerships in Milan employed his services for the repairs and bodywork of their customers’ cars.
“In our workshop, cars have been restored to their original splendor from such a state of decay that even the junkyards would have refused them! I am referring in particular to early Porsche 911s, from the ‘0 series’ to the 2.7 RS, before they were valued the same way they are today.
“As for stereotypes, I do think Italians are very creative and passionate. For us, we know how to bring out the original poetry of a car, and we don’t do over-restorations, but we are creative in the way we do our work. We always know how to find a solution, and even the most remote corners of our country there are many small-time artisans who have been practicing their skills for a lifetime. In most cases, they are family activities that are transmitted from father to son, and often also from father to daughter. The chromers, the galvanizers, the upholsterers, those who restore the wooden steering wheels, those who restore badges, and so for all the various craft skills required during restoration. Together we are reproducing the past in a sense, but also creating something new, a new life that’s in keeping with the car’s original one.”
Among the many awards that Carrozzeria Bottini has collected in its many years of activity, the recognition at the 1992 Genoa Fair is among the most fondly remembered by the team, where their efforts won the first prize for best restoration, a 1970 Lamborghini Miura S.
By virtue of the high-quality level achieved, over the years Bottini has been entrusted with cars of a certain historical importance, such as the 1955 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Prototype and the 1963 Lancia Flaminia Speciale Pininfarina, the latter winner of numerous awards, both by the well-known collector Corrado Lopresto.
In our photos, some of you might have recognized a Porsche 597 at the beginning of its restoration process. “This Porsche 597 fits exactly into those very demanding challenges in terms of time and money, which however derive from a conscious choice of the owner and are absolutely shared by us. This project will take a long time given the particularity and rarity of the car, but it will be done right.”
The 597 was an off-road vehicle project born from a prototype presented by Porsche to respond to a tender held by the German army in the 1950s. Equipped with switchable four-wheel drive, the 597 was equipped in the rear with a modified four-cylinder engine from a Porsche 356 with 50hp, a four-speed synchromesh gearbox and a top speed of 100km/h. It could withstand almost all types of terrain, both on land and through water. With a weight of around 870kg (~1918lbs), it was extremely agile for a military vehicle, and thanks to the compact monocoque it could even float. The lack of doors made it uncomfortable for many passengers, but helped greatly with its amphibious performance.
In its day the Porsche 597 aroused a lot of interest, and in the following months it was also presented to the British and French military bases in Germany, as well as the Geneva Motor Show in March of 1955, Porsche worked to start series production soon after, with the version produced from the end of 1957 including a more inclined front-end and the addition of four steel doors. Despite the success of the tests, only 50 more units were produced, then for financial reasons and labor market policy. The government contract was awarded to Auto Union in Ingolstadt instead, and so Porsche stopped work on developing the 957. In total, 71 units were built, and only about fifty of these vehicles still exist, making it a particularly rare Porsche in more ways than one.
It will be a while before the 957 is correctly restored, and the workshop has plenty of other cars to work on. This year the Bottinis and their partners will celebrate 75 years of operation, and Himara is looking forward to the future.
“It is not easy to predict what will happen in the next 25 years, and with hybrid and electric cars taking more of a slice of the driving population each year, we do not know exactly how it will end up influencing the classic car sector. I can say that some objectives are very clear. The first and for me most important and valuable is to reach 100 years of business. Secondly, we would like to combine our restoration activity with the repair and restoration of more recent models, what we call youngtimers in Europe, as well as ‘Instant Classics,’ and of course the eventual classics of the future still to come.
‘I think that to move forward we always need new ideas and new challenges; we cannot remain anchored to the past even if we might want to be. The past was very important and necessary to get to today, but we will become part of it if we don’t keep up with the changes and demands of the sector. It will be a challenge, but it’s one that we accept, and that gives us a great amount of energy, every day.”