Zagato Design Blends the Divine and the Absurd
The book of famous Italian coachbuilders brims with names synonymous with beautiful cars, among them the houses of Frua, Ghia, Touring, Vignale, Scaglietti, Bertone, and of course, Pininfarina. Though generally remembered for their most gorgeous contributions to automotive design, each is also responsible for a fair share of more polarizing work as well, Bertone’s Volvo 262C and Pininfarina’s Mondial merely a few that readily spring to mind. None, however, come close to matching Carrozzeria Zagato’s record for controversy. Perhaps Italy’s most adventurous, and therefore most vulnerable to fail auto design studio, Zagato’s bold, envelope-pushing approach has resulted in stunning, breakthrough concepts and shockingly grotesque failures in equal measure.
Founded by Ugo Zagato in Milan, 1919, he brought with him advanced lightweight construction techniques learned in his previous employ under the Officine Aeronautiche Pomilio and set about applying these ideas in automotive body design. Zagato’s first big hit came in the form of a Mille Miglia winning Alfa 6C 1500, an identical car which scored second overall the previous year in 1927 an early indication of their emerging greatness. Zagato would go on to be one of the preferred coachbuilders for sporting versions of the 6C in all its many iterations, a collaboration responsible for countless important motorsport victories during the glorious, hectic dawn of European Gran Prix racing. Other great names associated with Ugo’s eponymous design house during the era included Rolls Royce, Bugatti, and Maserati.
Throughout the ’30s, Zagato continued to clothe his radical, aircraft-inspired engineering principles underneath rather more conventionally beautiful bodywork. The decade also saw the firm becoming much more involved with aerodynamic experimentation, making Zagato one of the world’s pioneers of streamlined automobile design. Heavily inclined windshields, convex bootlids, body-incorporated headlights, and disc-shaped wheel covers where among their most visible concessions to air flow management.
In 1943 Zagato’s Milanese factory was leveled in an RAF bomb raid, forcing the company to relocate to Saronno, adjacent to Isotta Fraschini. As signaled by the stunningly futuristic, Tatra-like 8C Monterossa built for their new neighbors, Zagato was about to distance itself even further from convention. After war’s end, Ugo once again relocated, this time for good in their Milanese homeland. Expressing a keen interest in improving in-car comfort, space, and outward visibility, they began work on what would become known as the “Panoramica” style greenhouse. Comprised of huge, organically-shaped, and somewhat bulbous passenger compartments featuring curved windows which often flowed into the roof, it was the cutting-edge use of Plexiglas that allowed these new ideas. A 166 Panoramica went on to become the first-ever Ferarri Coupe in 1949.
By the 1950s Zagato was firmly established as one of the great carrozzeria, thanks in large part to their work with Aston Martin (DB4 GT), Fiat (8V), and Maserati (A6G 2000)—all knockout beauties, with trademark quirky yet elegant detailing. It was around this time the Zagato “double bubble” roof lines and traditional rear window/C-pillar treatment emerged, both elements which remain prominent in their designs more than half a century later.
So I’ve mentioned a few of the hits, the cars that no one with working eyes can argue aren’t some of the prettiest coachbuilt machines ever made—what about the opinion dividers, the disputable, the purposely controversial? Where to start? How about 1969’s Alfa Zagato Junior? I personally love these cars, finding their strange mix of straight and curved lines, recessed, glass-covered headlights/radiator grille, Kamm tail, narrow, tall, airy greenhouse and super-low beltine endlessly fascinating, while many feel they’re merely hacked-up and uglified 105-series coupes. Same can be said for the Lancia Fulvia Zagato, a fat little dinner roll of a coupe with some seriously intriguing detailing like a double inverted trapezoidal grille and side-opening hood—again, I love ‘em, but I’m a bit strange.
Perhaps the most contentious Zagato of all-time, however, is the infamous SZ coupe/RZ roadster of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Built in extremely limited numbers as a sort of road-going concept car, “Il Mostro” as it was nicknamed was essentially a very high performance version of the existing Alfa 75, meaning front-mounted quad cam V6 power and rear-transaxle chassis, superb-handling, and a amazing soundtrack. Style-wise it was a wild blend of long-nose, Schumacher-chinned, slab-sided, cab-back, bob-tailed, baroquely-trimmed yet simply-formed insanity. It looked like a hapless cartoon supervillain’s deep-sea escape capsule, and that’s exactly what makes it so special. You already know I love them.
Today, where even most of the once-great coachbuilders have failed to innovate around the plethora of government mandates shackling auto design, it’s a relief to see Zagato still stirring the pot. With recent stunners including the AM V12 Z and Alfa TZ3, as well as the oddball Spyker C12 Z, Zagato’s clearly still not afraid of pushing the boundaries of style. Let’s all hope they stay brave and financially healthy for another 100 years—god knows electric cars will need all the fashion help they can get.