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The lesser industry of automobiles

In recent years many small-sized sports car manufacturers have started to operate in Italy. Behind each of these new brands – very often corresponding to artisanal workshops – there are just as many stories: long-nurtured passions, recent ambitions, or even fabulous hobbies or personal vocations

 

In times in which the international “colossi” of car manufacturing affiliate, merge and sometimes phagocytise each other, the future appears to belong to them; they print car bodies like postage stamps and churn out vehicles that can be bought with spare change and discarded like a paper cup after use. In this era of car-manufacturing dinosaurs, another form of industry is prospering, as though by one of those apparent anomalies often found in nature: a new form of craftsmanship, dedicated to making cars as if they were handcrafted shoes or pasta made by hand, as in a bygone era, the vehicles modelled, honed, and polished one by one.

Many social or cultural interpretations can be attributed to this phenomenon, a trend that perhaps heralds a “return to custom-built manufacturing to counteract mass motorisation” and raises interesting perspectives on alienation, psychoanalysis and other pressing issues of today’s society. Perhaps the best way to comprehend this phenomenon is by analysing it: to discuss these small workshops that curiously still survive amongst the supermarkets of four-wheel vehicles.

Behind many of these small companies – specialised in small production volumes like small cases of prized champagnethere are just as many stories of deep-rooted passions, recent ambitions and sometimes fabulous hobbies. Some (a dedicated few) construct engines and car bodies by hand, engrossed in a sort of mystical transport. In Emilia, the cult of the engine not as a means but as an end embodies something of a patriarchal craftsmanship, similar to the deep attachment that country people once had with their land. […]

Conversely, there are others new to the automobile sector, but who have money to spend. When writing of Italy in the Sixties, social historians will not only talk of economically successful industrial magnates who sought fame by financing or managing football teams, but also other individuals who dedicated their resources to financing “fine car-making”. Luxurious yachts, villas with swimming pools, executive twin-engine aircraft for a weekend in the Balearic Isles pale before this new social conquest of having a coat of arms in the form of a car, or an automobile bearing one’s very own name on the radiator.

There are also those whose name has been used for decades to add a certain noble air to superb, high-speed cars constructed by… others. In this category, we shall start with the Maserati brothers. After creating their “Casa del Tridente” out of nothing, they then ceded the company in 1937 to Adolfo and Omer Orsi, although their presence remained through an agreement for technical collaboration which was revoked about 10 years later. The Maserati brothers started over from scratch with a small factory for the new OSCA company, which still has premises and workshops just beyond the outskirts of Bologna in San Lazzaro di Savena where the via Emilia is finally liberated from the city, to head straight as an arrow towards the horizons of Romagna.

The Orsi family are still at the helm of the ancient company (glorious name of which they never sought to change) that they took over from its founders just after the war. These metallurgical industrialists set a trend that was emulated in the minor key by many over the years. Maserati is now an organisation that has grown beyond its artisanal format, and at the time of our analysis, is considered a very important point of reference […].

The story of the Maserati brothers is very significant.

Alfieri, Carlo, Ettore, Bindo, Ernesto Maserati: a family of mechanics-drivers who became constructors of legendary automobiles, leaving their mark as protagonists in the annals of motorsports in the two decades between the World Wars. They were on the crest of the wave, as the saying has it; but either not knowing how to, or more precisely not wanting to, industrialise, the three (Alfieri and Carlo were long ago deceased) continued the ancient tradition with a sort of proud, pathetic acquiescence: “We are not, nor have we ever been, industrialists”.

From here to the concept of construction technique as a kind of poetry (the art of mechanics) is a very small step indeed. But sadly, the market is governed by harsh laws from which not even poets can subtract themselves. The Maserati brothers resisted for many years at the head of their small yet great osca, creating some sensational models which are still alive today in the memory of the sporting world (e.g., the famous 1100 that Stirling Moss took on to win the Sebring “12 Ore” race); but only a few months ago they had to find some support. They found it in the “mv”, the famous motorcycle industry of the noble Agusta family, another company worthy of a deeper study similar to the present one: there has already been talk of creating an osca-mv.

The topic of carmakers by vocation undoubtedly leads us to Alejandro de Tomaso, an Argentinian who came to Europe about 10 years ago to settle in the true Italian (and worldwide) capital of high-end automobiles (grand tourers, sport cars, racing) that is Modena. De Tomaso was the rather bohemian offspring of one of the most important families of Buenos Aires, the “Mecca” of Juan Perón’s empire. His father was an eminent politician who died at the early age of 38, and for some time, de Tomaso played the gaucho, raising cattle on the pampas, branding them with the letter “T” (the same used today on his sports cars). The passage from the pampas to the workshop was less difficult than one might imagine, and even easier was that from the workshop to the racetrack. Through racing, he accumulated great mechanical experience which in turn led him to the laboratory, his mind full of ideas.

He was one of the first to foresee the revolutionary possibilities of the chassis, he studied in detail the aerodynamic effects of profiles, and he assimilated the fundamental advances of the British metallurgical industry in the field of light alloys. Alejandro de Tomaso filtered this incredible technical experience through his ingenious sensitivity and designed a whole series of prototypes with various characteristics […]. Dozens of “innovations” have been created from de Tomaso’s frenetic activity, many of which were destined to enter into the annals of car racing history […]. Some months after its creation, the “Vallelunga” spider (a 1500 cc sporting car) still lives on in a sort of state of incubation, but the chassis of this vehicle is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in Turin […].

The short and musical acronyms “ISO” and “ASA” veil two singular events of the lesser automobile industry. ISO is a factory owned by the Milan-based textile industrialist (Rivolta) who, after investing considerable sums for the construction of scooters and motor vehicles, has recently extended its activity to the construction of automobiles.

This is how the grand tourer ISO-Rivolta was born; a powerful engine (Chevrolet of over 5,000 cc) with an “American” proportioned chassis and a harmonious Italian-styled bodywork designed by Bertone.

The same designer recently created the “Grifo” model, a stupendously aggressive convertible sports car. The ISO-Rivolta has already made its debut in the world of racing, with a prototype designed by the engineer Giotto Bizzarrini (a specialist in competition cars) and entrusted to client-drivers who will surely demonstrate what it is capable of.

For ASA, the story is a little more complex. Towards the end of the Fifties there was much talk about a vehicle that Enzo Ferrari had in mind – a vehicle that would stand out from his previous production and would represent the prototype of the “utility grand tourism vehicle”. Ferrari designed, built and presented to the press an 854 cc engine, an authentic jewel that was admired and received with great acclaim. Rivers of ink were spent in writing about what would become the “Ferrarina”, but the vehicle was never produced. Two years ago, news was given that the patents for this engine had been ceded to a recently founded company from Milan, ASA Automobili di Oronzo De Nora, one of the “kings” of Italy’s metallurgical industry, who put his son Nicola at the helm of the new company. The engine was enhanced to 1000 cc. and mounted on an experimental chassis and body. At the same time as ASA was born, the Scuderia “Elmo d’Argento” – which had nurtured great competitive ambitions for some years – now sadly found itself in financial straits. In any case, a competition prototype of an ASA model was built, and recently, production of the body of this grand tourer was finally started in Turin. The “clothes” of this vehicle were designed by Ellena and the entire vehicle will probably be assembled in Modena.

It is no coincidence that we have discussed the “ISO” and “ASA” vehicles together, as I wanted to highlight the analogous origins of these two companies, both direct offshoots of other Italian industrial groups and born from the desire of their respective owners. Similar also was their choice of this particular type of investment, made in disregard of the economic climate, given that there are no great economic advantages in producing these vehicles in small numbers. We have to remember that at the root of such initiatives is most likely some psychological motive that is not easily identifiable nor attributed to a single paradigm: ambition, emulation, hobby, fashion, curiosity and – why not? – a vague and perhaps unconscious desire for elevation, perhaps not even only social.

Ferruccio Lamborghini, the latest arrival to high-end vehicle production, was very aware of this social factor. Awarded the title of Cavaliere del Lavoro [a civilian award for merit for labour, normally awarded to successful entrepreneurs] and self-made man of down-to-earth Padania stock, he had amassed a great fortune by his decisive role in the mechanisation of our agricultural industry: tractors for La Sila and Brianza, for the Tavoliere and Le Lange, for Irpinia and for the Valle del Tagliamento [agricultural areas of Italy]; solid, light, agile tractors for everyone.
But one day the idea of grand tourers also entered the mind of Cavaliere Ferruccio, a little like what happened in Great Britain for Ferguson, a company often compared to Lamborghini.
“I’ll show you what you need to make a car!” No sooner said than done. The workshops of Sant’Agata Bolognese were expanded and a small team of technicians headed by the Dall’Ara (a gifted young engineer trained under Ferrari) started to study the task at hand. In little over a year the “Lamborghini 3500 GTV” was created.

Its general line and dimensions were decidedly Yankee, with an engine in proportion. The 12-cylinder off-the-scale engine received almost epidemic acclaim at the Turin auto show last autumn when it was exhibited, and it is said that many other orders have been received from clients in the United States for this up-and-coming Italian car factory. It’s a pity to keep a motor like this in mothballs, they said to Cavalier Ferruccio. Why not try it out on the racetrack? But Lamborghini was adamant. “First one hundred vehicles (the number to be produced in a year to receive homologation in the GT category, otherwise the vehicle is considered a ‘prototype’), and then we’ll see”. Admirable wisdom and a true litmus test probably focused on achieving the first and primary objective.

ATS, the last (but not the least of the young car-building companies) has adopted a completely opposite strategy that we will now analyse. We could say that ATS, was born in a hurry and to run a race. The starting point was La Scuderia “sss Repubblica di Venezia” of the Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata, a sporting institution as young as its financier. In the space of a few competitive seasons, ATS was able to offer to the finest aspiring Italian drivers the possibility of testing out and perfecting their racing skills behind the wheels of vehicles they would otherwise not have been able to drive.

This young Venetian aristocrat was fascinated by much greater ideas that had been matured in the noise of the racing tracks that he followed so assiduously, and through his contacts with famous drivers, mechanics, and organisers of the thrilling universe of international Grand Prix racing. Needless to say, his idea was to build racing cars instead of bothering with buying them. La Scuderia “sss Repubblica di Venezia” was intended to be completely autonomous. First drafted in 1961, this ambitious project took off definitively the following year. At the helm of the company, Count Volpi was accompanied by Giorgio Billi (a Tuscan native who accumulated considerable sums in the post-war period by patenting a series of ingenious pieces of machinery for weaving socks), and by Jaime Ortiz-Patiño (nephew of Antenor Patiño, the “king of tin”). Billi was appointed president of the “Serenissima Automobili” and the staff included some of the finest mechanics and managers of Ferrari. Indeed, the departure of employees in mass to the new company created a certain commotion in the sector. […]

The summer of 1962 marked the laying of the cornerstone of the workshop (in Pontecchio Marconi, between Bologna and Florence in a valley traversed by the most beautiful motorway in the world), but the first vehicles were constructed in other workshops. That autumn saw the tragic death of Ricardo Rodríguez, the young Mexican Ferrari driver and friend of Count Volpi. Deeply troubled by this tragic news, Volpi released a sombre declaration to the press (“It is we that send them to their death…”, and similar announcements) and later closed the activities of the Scuderia “sss Repubblica di Venezia”, retiring from Serenissima Automobili, where Billi (given that Patiño was also about to resign from his position) became the sole owner.

The company changed its name into “Automobili Turismo Sport” (ATS) and just before Christmas it presented its first products: a single-seater Formula 1 with avant-garde design, constructed within a few months in a factory that still did not exist. […]. In the early months of 1963, ATS also created a prototype of the 2500 cc GT that was presented with success at the Geneva Auto Show. After having contracted the drivers Phil Hill and Giancarlo Bachetti (again, both ex-Ferrari) ATS started to compete in the Formula 1 World Championships. The car – two examples but with many modifications on the “Christmas” model – created much curiosity when it entered the track (Chiti had already designed and constructed many vehicles for Ferrari that had won world titles) but were less rewarding when competing: Phil Hill was able to reach the finishing line only once (Monza, 11th), and Baghetti never.

As we said previously, this was a car born in haste, paying the price on the world’s racetracks for its abstract fine-tuning, which had been carried out in the workshop; thrown into competitive racing, it was inevitable that it should fail, suffering moreover from a series of incredibly unfortunate circumstances (e.g. the cars were returning on a lorry from the Nürburgring track; the driver, overcome by fatigue, drove off the road, wrecking the entire cargo). In any case, at the end of 1963, Billi decided to change direction, in the first place abandoning Formula 1. (Recently these cars have been ceded to Alf Francis, the famous “magician” of Walker Racing Team, the stable that Stirling Moss once drove with.) In the Pontecchio Marconi workshops – now nearing completion – production of the GT has finally started, but in the form of a pleasing coupé with bodywork by Allemano. After putting the cart about a mile in front of the horse, everything was started again from scratch, but this time heading in the right direction.

Of all the stories of small car-building industries, that of ATS is most complex for the various vicissitudes that gave rise to those many psychological, technical and economic issues which have been discussed briefly at the beginning of this text. This analysis does not pretend to have offered a complete panorama of the automobile “workshops” of our country; but I think that the cases that have been examined give sufficient information to evaluate and understand the phenomenon […].

But there is a moral to be learnt from this merging of various ideas in one and the same direction. Automobiles cannot be constructed like fridges, kitchens, or shoes. Those who start constructing GT vehicles do not trouble themselves overly with market research or financial matters, but foray into an adventure in which emotion has the upper hand over economic valuations. Let’s say that among the many offspring of this (now finished) “miracle”, we can list the hobby of taking uncalculated risks, or better to say, risks calculated on a scale of passion and ambition. And the fact that some of our activities don’t coldly obey the customary profit and loss model, but rather follow impulse and enthusiasm, is something which comforts and cheers us. These are the amiable follies of these individual rebellions which have rendered the era of the “super colossi” and behemoths of the automobile industry less unbearable.

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