Once upon a time many car makers didn’t have an inhouse design function.
Instead, they would consult with an outside design agency, particularly for its more outlandish concepts. For many, that meant a trip to Italy, home to the world’s greatest car stylists and coachbuilders. And among them, one name stood out: Bertone. Founded in 1912, the company survived for 102 years before it went into bankruptcy in 2014.
Along the way, it’s designed cars for Lamborghini, Ferrari and a stable of mainstream brands. Some have been more successful than others. These are Bertone’s greatest hits - and a few that some people would rather forget:
Alfa Romeo Montreal
Bertone’s Marcello Gandini (born 1938), the man who designed the Alfa Romeo Montreal – so-called as it was launched as a concept at Expo ’67 in the Canadian city – was born into art. The son of a Turinese orchestral conductor, he’s now considered a prince among automotive designers.
From the slatted headlamp covers to the louvred B-pillars to the Kamm tail, the Montreal is one of Bertone’s most recognisable – and best-loved – designs.
Iso Grifo (coupe)
It’s scarcely believable that Giorgietto Giugiaro (born 1938) was just 25 years old when he designed the Iso Grifo in 1963. A two-seater coupe based on Iso’s earlier GT, the Rivolta, it was one of the earliest examples of Italian sports car design nous matched with US power – in this case the revered Chevrolet small block V8.
It remains one of Bertone’s most alluring designs – an enchanting combination of sharp edges, flowing lines and muscular proportions.
Lamborghini’s beginnings may have been prosaic – its founder, Ferruccio Lamborghini (1916-1993) began his business reconditioning tractors left behind by Allied forces after World War Two – but in 1971 they unleashed a concept for a vehicle that would come to define the term ‘sports car’ to many.
The scissor doors may be the showboat of Gandini’s design, but his ‘cab forward’ concept to accomodate a rear mid-engine would have a pervasive influence on high-end car design in ensuing years.
It’s tempting to describe this car as Volvo’s loss and Citroën’s gain. The BX is a not-too-distant sibling of the Tundra concept, designed by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini, which the Swedish manufacturer knocked back in 1979. Three years later it was revived by Bertone for Citroën and soon became an arresting addition to Europe’s roads.
Its angular, sharp-edged design, incorporating plastic body panels, made the BX stand out amid a phalanx of bland peers. A production run of 12 years is testimony to the enduring nature of this particular piece of Bertone design.
Bertone SPA 23S
The design where it all began. Giovanni Bertone (1884-1972) founded the company in 1912, but it was to be a full nine years later that it received its first design commission when the Turin-based coachbuilder SPA (Società Piemontese Automobili) approached Bertone for a new body for its sporty two-seater tourer, the SPA 23S.
Its V-shaped windshields and a beautifully-flowing, single-piece, front and rear mudguard provide a stark contrast with the functional approach of the original.
Aston Martin Rapide Bertone Jet 2+2
A design that’s tinged with a sadness to counteract its rare beauty. This shooting brake version of the Rapide, with a design developed by Bertone from a sketch by British collector Barry Weir, benefitted from added trunk space and a glass roof in comparison to the sedan version. It was such a hit when shown as a prototype at Geneva in 2013 that Aston Martin greenlighted a production run.
Unfortunately, Bertone went bust before it could spring into action. Weir himself owns the working prototype, full-scale clay model and mould, which are now all up for sale.
Bertone Nuccio concept
In 2012, Bertone’s American design director, Michael Robinson (born 1956), penned the Nuccio concept to celebrate the company’s 100th birthday. It was named after Bertone founder Giovanni’s son Nuccio – the man who helped steer the company’s rise to automotive design’s top table.
Redolent of great Bertone design of earlier vintages, it was a highlight of the Geneva show that year. Sadly it proved to be something of an epitaph. Bertone closed its doors for a final time just two years later.
Autobianchi A112 Bertone Runabout
Perhaps the oddest, most esoteric design ever presented by Bertone, the Runabout concept it created for Autobianchi in 1969 looks like the offspring of a beach buggy mated with a wedge of cheddar. Shown at the Turin Motor Show, it used Autobianchi’s dinky A112 supermini as a platform, and was inspired by powerboat design (note a lack of doors).
While only ever intended to be a quirky one-off, it nevertheless gave us strong hints of Marcello Gandini’s future designs for both the FIat X1/9 and Lancia Stratos.
Maserati 3500 GT Coupe
In 1957, Maserati was at its peak as a racing marque – a year when Juan Manuel Fangio grabbed his final world drivers’ title for the Italians. Away from the track, things weren’t so rosy. But, with the arrival of the 3500 GT – its first foray into manufacturing a Grand Tourer – Maserati’s fortunes began to change. As was common in those days, Maserati commissioned variants by a range of coachbuilders.
Versions by Touring and Vignale were in their majority, but in 1959 Bertone joined the likes of Frua and Allemano in providing an alternate take. Its designer, Franco Scaglione (1916-1993), was also Bertone’s man behind their earlier futuristic Alfa Romeo B.A.T. cars and Giulietta Sprint.
Arnolt-Aston Martin DB 2/4 Spider
In the 1950s, Chicago businessman Stanley ‘Wacky’ Arnholt made a name for himself by importing European cars into the US. Having struck up a relationship with Gruppo Bertone, he arranged for them to design new bodywork for a clutch of Aston Martin DB2/4s that he had purchased.
Designed by Bertone’s man of the moment at the time, Franco Scaglione, four were made – one a road car, the other three with a race chassis but each subtly different. Three still exist and frequently turn up at Concours d'Elégance around the world to this day.
Arguably the greatest homologated rally car of all time, the Stratos started life as a stunning Gandini-penned concept – the Stratos Zero – first shown at the Turin Motor Show in 1970.
With its squat, brawny proportions, the Stratos muscled its way to three consecutive World Rally Championships between 1974 and 1976. It turned around not only the fortunes of Lancia’s motorsports division but the 492 road-legal versions helped breathe new life into its rather staid reputation as a manufacturer. Powered by a Ferrari Dino V6, it remains one of the most thrilling, purest driving experiences you’ll ever encounter.
Fiat Dino Coupé
Bertone shared credit for the design of the Fiat Dino with Pininfarina. While Bertone designed the Coupé, its old rival took on duties for the Spider. Giugiaro’s genius produced one of the most handsome cars in the litany of great Bertone design.
And it all came about because Ferrari needed to satisfy Formula 2 homologation requirements for their V6 Dino engine. Lacking the capacity to make the 500 engines required, they granted Fiat a licence to create a 2.0-liter version for which the Turin firm commissioned the twin designs for their Dino.
Simca 1000 Coupé
The original Simca 1000 was a boxy design that was as utilitarian as they come. In 1961, in an attempt to attract a new kind of customer, the French manufacturer turned to Bertone to create something much sportier. Giugiaro’s subsequent design – whose body would be manufactured by Bertone itself – helped turn Simca’s ugly duckling into the prettiest of swans.
BMW 3200 CS
Giorgetto Giugiario was 22 years old, and had been in his role of head of Bertone’s Styling Center for only a year, when he designed the 3200 CS. Launched at the 1961 Frankfurt motor show, it proved to be a watershed moment for BMW, marking its transition from purveyor of large, bulky sedans to the stylish coupés it would later become known for.
Wide windows – note the lack of a B-pillar – gave the interior a roomy feel, while it was the first BMW to incorporate the Hofmeister kink on the C-pillar, a design trait that continues on its cars today. It also saw the debut of the rounded rear lights – later made famous on the 2002 – that would feature on BMWs for many years after.
Bertone Stratos Zero concept
In October this year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first public outing – at the 1970 Turin motor show – of one of the most extraordinary and memorable concept cars of all time. Marcello Gandini’s design for Bertone is a fully-functioning one-off that still has the power to take your breath away today.
Just 840mm (33 inches) tall, entry to the Stratos Zero is gained through the hinged front windshield with its steering wheel folding forward and out of the way for easy access. That black rubber surface on its nose? In effect a foot mat to help you gain entry to the vehicle. It would be another three years until the Lancia Stratos HF loosely based on the concept would finally enter production.
Bertone Barchetta concept
Two years after the much-lamented Fiat Barchetta ceased production in 2005 after a 10-year run, Bertone’s Barchetta concept was a one-off roadster created for the 2007 Geneva motor show.
Underneath all that shiny aluminum and glass is a Fiat Panda 100 HP. Inside, it had more in common with the minimalist approach of the original post-war Barchetta stylistically, although its patent rear-hinged scissor doors were very much unique.
Can there be a holier automotive trinity than a Japanese manufacturer, an Italian design house and coachbuilder and a German engine? Bertone’s Freeclimber is based on the Daihatsu Rugger/Rocky – or Fourtrak, as it was known in the UK– and feels very much ahead of its time as a luxury SUV.
Just 2800 models were manufactured between 1989 and 1992. Bertone gave the Freeclimber a boxier profile than the original donor vehicle, a two-tone paint scheme and, inside, swathes of leather. To top it off, it was made available with a choice of three BMW powertrains.
Aston Martin Bertone Jet DB4 GT
Back in 2013, this one-off Giugiaro restyling of the DB4 fetched just shy of £3.25m (around $5 million at the time) at Bonhams Aston Martin sale. When shown at the 1961 Geneva motor show, Bertone had shaved 5in off the donor DB4 GT’s wheelbase as well as knocking 91kg (200 lb) off its overall weight.
The Jet would become the first road car to do 0-100mph and back to standstill again in under 20 seconds, in no small part courtesy of its Girling four-wheel disc brakes.
Looking not unlike a streamlined computer mouse, with a drag co-efficiency of just 0.11 Cd, the all-electric Z.E.R. was certainly the most aerodynamic vehicle that Bertone ever designed.
It set a swathe of records in 1994. They included distance travelled in an hour (124.164 miles) and, by hitting 303.977 km/h (188.88 mph), it also set a then world record top speed for electric cars.
Fiat 850 Spider
In 1961 Bertone – and, more specifically Giugiaro – had already pulled off a trick in turning the Simca 1000 into a hugely handsome coupé. Four years later it both designed and built this compact but fun two-seater version of the Fiat 850 that took on the British-built Sprites, Midgets and Spitfires.
The 850 Spider was a particular hit in America. Remarkably, by the end of its production run in 1974, over 124,000 had been made.
Vauxhall Astra Coupe
Given its association with some of the great marques of the automotive world over the years, Bertone’s hook-up with General Motors to restyle and manufacture the Astra as a coupe and convertible seemed somewhat prosaic in comparison. But Bertone's fresh take on the family hatchback breathed new life into the sector.
Designed by Daniel Abramson, the Xantia ended up as one of Bertone’s most successful designs if you take sales into account. It chalked up a production run of 1.2 million cars during its nine-year run. The Xantia replaced another Bertone-designed car in the Citroën line-up, the BX, whose angular shape was a triumph of simplicity.
Alfa Romeo BAT cars
Designed by Franco Scaglione less than a decade after the end of World War Two, the three BAT concept cars that Bertone designed for Alfa Romeo still have the power to make hearts skip a beat. The three cars – BAT 5 (pictured), 7 and 9 – are a meeting of art and engineering, more automotive sculpture than a mode of transport. And they were actually working models, and remain so to this day.
Commissioned by Alfa Romeo as studies on how design can counteract the effects of drag on vehicles, they were built on Alfa’s 1900S chassis and revealed, one per year at the Turin Motor Show, between 1953 and 1955. The 0.19 Cd drag coefficient achieved by the BAT 7 is still better than virtually any car in production today.
Volvo 780 Coupé
Bertone had form with Volvo, having worked on the designs for the 262C and 264TE in the past. But something special happened when they took on the Swedes’ 700 series. On the face of it, Bertone’s touch looks relatively light – but only the chassis and engines were kept from the original and shipped over from Gothenburg to Italy, where the car was built.
As understated and elegant as it was from the outside, its interior proved a difference-maker, with hand-stitched Italian leather seats, real wood inlays and more fancy tech than the Space Shuttle.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT
Launched in 1963, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design for the Giulia Sprint GT produced a two-door coupe that was fearsome on the roads and near unbeatable on the track, winning a brace of European Touring Car Championships in the late 1960s (as the GTA). Light in weight and with a lively 1.6-liter engine, it helped cement Alfa’s reputation as the manufacturer of the driver’s cars.