There is a certain type of car buyer for whom the very best, most expensive thing in the showroom just isn’t enough. That’s why car makers from Jaguar to Ferrari, Bentley to McLaren are creating secretive engineering divisions to make the most exclusive of models you won’t find on any price list.
But there is another type of car buyer, a group that contains fewer people that you can count on your hands and feet, who might turn their noses up at even these creations – it’s only a Ferrari still – and want something even more exclusive, something lovingly hand-crafted, and something where money really is no object.
That’s where coachbuilding comes in, and this small corner of the automotive industry, which includes companies such as Bertone, Pininfarina and Touring Superleggera, is witnessing a rise in demand.
“More and more people are getting bored with mass production cars,” says Piero Mancardi, chief executive of Milanese coachbuilder Touring Superleggera, “so the wealthy are ready to do something different. We are almost unique in being able to respond to this.”
If your wallet is big enough, Touring Superleggera can build you a super high-end, bespoke luxury car with beautiful design, engineering and build quality. Its latest creation is called Disco Volante, a striking new supercar based on the Alfa Romeo 8C. Only eight will be made. The price? Sorry, you find that out strictly on application.
The 8C’s structural hardpoints remain intact inside and out, as does its 444bhp 4.7-litre V8 engine, but the body has been replaced with a Touring-designed one that mixes hand-beaten aluminium and carbonfibre-reinforced plastic panels.
The result is a car with all the bits you can’t see being properly engineered Alfa Romeo jobs, and everything you touch, feel, see and admire being the lovingly hand-crafted work of Touring Superleggera.
It’s a very special car indeed, as we’ll discover, but that’s not a surprise when you consider Touring’s history. Founded as a coachbuilder in 1926, the company carved its niche by patenting Superleggera body construction – small tubes to form the body shape with alloy panels attached to strengthen and sculpt – that was lightweight and flexible, creating some of the most evocative car designs in history.
Take the Aston Martin DB5. That most iconic of British cars has a Touring body that was licensed back to Newport Pagnell for manufacture. Look closely on the DB5’s bonnet – and the DB4 before it and the DB6 after – and you’ll see the Touring logo.
The first Lamborghini, the 350GT in 1963, was a Touring car, too. Enzo Ferrari commissioned Touring to design many of the early Ferrari road cars, such as the 166, 195 and 212 GTs. Many legendary Maseratis, Lancias, and most notably Alfa Romeos of the 1950s and 1960s also wear the Touring logo, as does the Jensen Interceptor.
Despite an untouchable back catalogue, Touring disbanded in 1966 following an industry shift away from outsourced low-volume coachbuilt products to mass-built models designed in-house. The famous name lay dormant until it was quietly reborn 40 years later.
Since then the firm has made small waves by turning the Maserati Quattrporte into a fastback called Bellagio and larger ones by making a Flying Star estate out of a Bentley Continental GT. Its comeback as a creator of the finest hand-crafted coachbuilt cars has been fully announced with the Disco Volante.
It’s this car for which I’ve come to Touring’s unassuming headquarters on the outskirts of Milan to find out more about and, providing I promise not to tell the chap who’s bought it, maybe even have a little drive in.
The production Disco Volante here closely follows a concept of the same name from the Geneva motor show in 2012. Two of the eight have been built, another is under construction and the sale of a fourth is close to being finalised.
The Disco Volante is Touring’s way of using its history to promote its future. “Many people don’t know what Touring is,” Mancardi says, “but when they find out what we’ve done they’re amazed.”
Touring chose to pay homage to Alfa by reimaging the C52 Disco Volante of 1952. “If you go to the Alfa Romeo museum, half the cars are done by Touring,” says the firm’s incumbent chief designer and 2013 Disco Volante creator, Louis de Fabribeckers. “The Disco Volante is such a fascinating beautiful car, with proportions that inspired a generation of sports cars [think Jaguar E-type], so it was a natural car to reference.”
A production run of eight was chosen as “a car built in eight units can be as rare as a one-off, but the passion is shared between people, adds value, and confirms you made a good choice,” according to Mancardi, but he isn’t fussed if all are sold. “We’ll only build what we sell, and can be well off from one unit,” he adds.
Approach the car for the first time and the timeless proportions of the 8C underneath remain obvious, but the body is as much a nod to the future as it is the past. Disco Volante translates as ‘Flying Saucer’ so it’s no surprise to lean de Fabribeckers and his team drew inspiration from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey for some of the design flourishes.
For example, the illuminated Disco Volante logo in the back rests of the seats that greet you when you open the door, the airy spaceship feeling in get in the cabin you get from the glass roof, and the gorgeous paint finish that’s achieved by painting red on top of a gold base coat. Then there’s the sound it makes you when start it up; like the 8C, the Disco Volante’s high-revving V8 sounds like nothing from this world.
It’s not me starting the car, it’s my Italian chaperone who’s in the driving seat. He’s a friendly chap who’s English is as bad as my Italian so we never quite fully establish one another’s names.
Whereas the standard 8C has been tuned to be 90 per cent sporty and 10 per cent comfortable, the Disco Volante has been tuned the other way. So it’s surprisingly comfortable, with a ride more pliant at higher speeds than I remember from the 8C.
All a bit civilised, really. Until we reach a tunnel, when a smile appears on the face of my driver as he backs off, hit the Sport button on the transmission tunnel, and floors the throttle in a wholly uncivilised way. The engine screams above 4000rpm; it is epic. And my word it shifts.
Then it’s my turn. I’m handed the keys by my nervous chaperone. No-one outside of Touring has driven the car, not even its owner from Singapore. It’s probably worth seven figures before the taxman gets involved, so forgive me if I hold back a bit.
I don’t get a chance to get it much above 60mph on the roads of the Milanese suburb we’re in, but I feel enough to know this is a car that’s very much alive, fidgeting around corners and spinning its wheels at every opportunity. Give it your upmost respect and attention at all times and it will go in a delightful way that’s every bit as entertaining as it looks.
After I slide around another corner, it’s time to give the keys back before I get too carried away and have to make an awkward call to a gentleman in Singapore.
One thing that is noticeable is the lack of final polish the Disco Volante has next to a Ferrari 458 Italia, but then that’s exactly the point of this creation; it’s for the super-wealthy who want anything but a mainstream supercar. In a rarefied world when a Ferrari is as common as a Ford Fiesta, only a car as wonderfully distinctive as this will do.