[Editor’s Note: Now that Matteo Giacon has schooled us all on the Fiat 1400 and its factory variants, he’s turned his eye to the various coachbuilt versions that cropped up through the years.]
Following a then all-important tradition, the 1400 was the starting point for a wide array of specially built cars, cars made by the so-called carrozzieri: albeit the latest Fiat adopted a monocoque platform that could be seen as a contradiction in term for the making of fuoriserie, many reasons conjured up to make possible that so many creations were eventually built. Those were times of challenges and troubles for many revered names in the Italian body-building realm, and also some newcomers, despite juvenile enthusiasms, had to cope with formidable problems. But also thanks to the very existence of cars like the Fiat 1400, things started to be better for many of them, so much so that those were the dawning years of the Italian designers’ Golden Years. What is maybe a little ignored is the fact that the 1400s made a sizable amount of the bulk of those spectacular cars, which are the stuff the Italian car-design legends are made of. So, I think that a text about the 1400s and the 1900s built by Italian designers and panelbeaters is a great way to give an encompassing description of the unrepeatable Italian Style’ dawn, in other words it also conveniently describes what happened in the early Fifties’ Italian motordom, with all those magical-sounding names busy at crafting dozens of concept cars, small series autos, one offs, and whatever their fantasy and talents could ever conceive.
But what made the 1400 so successful, so important and so iconic for the Italian Style, and its renowned designers and coachbuilders? Well, a variety of factors and reasons: let’s see some of them together.
First of all, the 1400 was a dependable, relatively affordable, modern and perfectly dimensioned platform: yes, it was a monocoque, but this didn’t deter designers and engineers’ efforts so much like one could initially think. It was a perfect car as far as dimensions count, being not too small and not too big, with quite the right engine displacement and also quite the right output: in case more power was needed, tune up kits were duly available; in following years, whatever performance penalty had been felt, the 1900’s debut brought some built-in stamina and more horses – at least until a change in trends, tastes, and cars’ availability. It was also perfect as far as costs count, with most of the coachbuilt 1400s variants being priced in the 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 lire (using the 1951 price listings of the various 1400’s variants offered for sale in Turin Salon), in this being priced just like standard Aurelias and Alfa 1900s and often less than carrozzate produced on these cars. The 1400’s dependability and the mere fact of being a Fiat, therefore protected by the good reputation Fiat did have back then and by the widespread workshops and assistance network already granted by the giant Turinese company, were often key factors convincing many to buy a coachbuilt 1400 when they desired more than what standard production cars of the day could grant them, while avoiding fuss and troubles then common for those buying foreign or exotica jobs.
Second, those desiring more than what could be found in the regular production range offered by Italian and foreign makers alike were numerous back then: they were still used to old-fashioned prewar traditions, when real connoisseurs had their cars made following their own tastes and advices by outside coachbuilders. Therefore, prestige, distinction, and exclusivity were still key factors leading many prospective buyers happy enough with the stock 1400’s engineering to seek for an alternative to the standard sedan and convertible. In addition, the 1400’s market placement was not only perfect because of the convincing medley it could offer: it was perfect also because it had made the 1400 the direct heir of some of the most prolific chassis and drivetrain combinations ever to be used for coachcrafted variants in Italy: the Fiat 6C 1500. The 1400 was also a good heir to the similarly sized Lancia Aprilia and for the not too smaller old-fashioned Fiat 1100s – before the advent of the 1100/103. Again, this worked fine for the 1400 and the 1900 until prospective public begin to turn to other kind of offers, also those simply unthinkable at the beginning of the decade: after all, those late Forties, early Fifties Ferraris and Masers were a lot more “unrefined” than most of other cars on the road back then, and those desiring for comfort and convenience often took a look also at the humble 1400s and 1900s. More on this later.
Third, with such a limited offer from the factory, those desiring a different concept of 1400, and not only a different styling or design, were forced by default to search for outside coachbuilders’ experiences in order to see their desires coming true. And desires were aplenty: Lancia had wisely seen that also in the relatively meager Italian early Fifties economy there was plenty of room for variants of a given stock original design (in its case, naturally, the various “quasi-standard” Aurelias, and in later years the same thing was again proposed for Appias, Flaminias, Flavias, and Fulvias, all of them with various variants proposed via external sources’ help). In the case of the 1400, while there were no line-up later additions coming from outside, there was still a veritable array of cars expressly built to satisfy niches where the stock 1400s were not present. Did you want a two-door sedan or a two-door coupé ? Three- or six-seaters? In this case, chances are you did risk being a bit confused, so vast was the choice between a veritable plethora of cars and coachbuilders. From Spartan to Sybaritic, from mild to wild, from déjà-vu to never-seen-before, from old fashioned to sci-fi, from tried-and-true to experimental, there was really a 1400 (and later a 1900) for everybody. So convincing was the success of this type of fuoriserie that in 1952, the new 1900 flagship became a hardtop – closely following market diktats and also after seeing a similar overwhelming success in America for identical autos. Did you prefer a ragtop? In case the standard ragtop wasn’t enough, there were lots of convertibles, ranging from roadsters to victorias, from spiders to six places landaulettes. And the standard 1400’s ragtop lukewarm acceptance didn’t mean that the specially bodied open roof 1400s were equally no-way propositions. Did you want a limo? Here again some illuminated coachbuilders found a niche for this, correctly thinking that there was a need for large capacity passenger cars in a country where cars were rare, just like buses, roads were still a serious nuisance and trains were no fit for everybody’s needs: so, when in need of a car good as a hiring vehicle to bring family and friends for a Sunday trip, there were few better choices than a long wheelbase 1400. And, in case you wanted a four-door sedan shaped like cars costing twice or thrice the standard 1400, again some carrozziere had the right solution for this, with fastback sedans, six-window sedan, and whatever could have been designed to improve the appeal of the 1400 as far as prestige was concerned. Last but not least, did you want a wagon? Quite obviously, in the land of giardinettas, this latest American trend couldn’t lack from woodies – true or false – all the way through all-steel wagons, this body style did see a certain success in 1400’s guise; many of them also made ideal basis for ambulances and hearses – on the other hand, this arguably explains why, despite the wagon phenomenon, it was an inviting American trend, it was also not fully exploited for a while: therefore, the 1400 wagons were seen more often than desired as hearses’ basis, for these were the times when most Italians had some superstition and prejudice against metallic wagons. For others, this was yet another way to enjoy the multitask soul of the 1400. After all, it was also used as a starting point for those oh-so-Fifties advertising vehicle and mobile billboards that were all the rage back then.
Last but not least, because of this multitasking ability and the sheer fact it was one of the most modern cars around, it was a formidable business card to show a given coachbuilder’ ability, a given designer’s talent, a given company’ skill, or simply a last gasp to stay afloat. Did you remember ? This was the era when a bucketloads of revered old-school carrozzerie and hopeful newcomers found themselves in troubles, firstly because of a lack of separated frames upon which it was possible to work cheaply and easy, and secondly because with no continued flow of year-long orders (with an upsurge in the warmer weeks, only to be drastically reduced as soon the first colds arrived) there were continuous troubles to keep things afloat so to insure continued working life for a given company. Really ! So, a modern car like the 1400 was a perfect business card: first of all, it could show the coachbuilder’ skill to cope with monocoque-related problems (and some firms like Touring, with its Superleggera, or Bertone, with its quasi-unibodied cars made as early as 1948 over underpinnings as distinct as the Fiat 1100 and the Lancia Aprilia, show that such problems were already an issue and there were already competent effort to solve them by the time the Italian industry was about as a whole to convert to unibody method); second, it was perfectly fit to act like a wheeled bait, in order to attract customers and investors alike: this last role was true also in the case of other cars, but using one of the latest and most advanced of the lot showed that these companies could do one better than the same Fiat. And in effect, using this same method of building “baist” to lure prospect customers, firms like Bertone and Pinin, Ghia and Vignale received impulse – and orders – to continue their activities, just like ill-managed companies like Balbo and, most famously, Stabilimenti Farina, went the way of the dodo. Likely, these firms’ 1400s couldn’t have helped’ em any more better than other distinctive and illustrious creations, just like 1400s were only a part of the success story that led the above mentioned firms to become Italian Style icons. But it is symptomatic that all of them built unforgettable 1400s: surely this car was a star of the Italian automotive firmament, and until younger cars spoiled the scene (namely, cars like the cheaper Fiat 1100/103, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Lancia Appia, all of them able to give the proverbial “more bang for your bucks” competition to the coacbuilt 1400s as well as the standard production model), the specially built 1400s and 1900-derived variants sprouted like violets after a May thunderstorm. In effect, “thunderstorm” is a perfect term to describe the impact done by 1400 and 1900 on the creation of the Italian Style, and I bet you may be surprised to see how varied and how surprising most of them are: after all, that’s a thing which surprised me too. It is now about time to see some of these autos.
In sum, while it lasted, the phenomenon of the Fiat 1400s and 1900s carrozzate – specially built one offs or small series models – was one of the most fascinating and successful of its kind. Sadly, it didn’t last for very long, and quite a few factors sealed the fate of this formidable genealogy of cars: improving economy, changing trends and tastes, and last but not least the availability of real Gran Touring type of cars, cars able to marry the exclusivity, comfort and luxury typical of 1400s and 1900s with Ferrari or Alfa, Maserati or Lancia-like performances and sports appeal were all factors that dictated a nosedive turn in the later’ 1400 and 1900 career as coachbuilt special cars. As we know, as the decade went by, also certain race-bred savage sportscars became more and more refined, and so they also became quite acceptable for a whole new kind of clientele, the same clientele that only a few years before could be content with a fuoriserie 1400; sounds strange, but that’s another factor to be considered while studying the sudden lack of interest in coachbuilt 1400s and 1900s starting in mid 1950’s.
In addition, we can see that some precious sales were robbed also by other cars born out of carrozzieri and designers’ fantasies: cheaper and slightly smaller cars than the midsize Fiats, but every inches as glamorous and exclusive; yes, cars like the one offs or small-series autos based on the Fiat 1100/103 TV, the Lancia Appia and the Alfa Giulietta also made some inroads in what was previously the realm of the 1400 and the 1900. And believe it or not, also genuine American cars in the mid-Fifties lured a certain type of clientele away from the 1400s or the 1900s offered by ateliers like Vignale, PF, Ghia, Castagna, Farina, Bertone, Balbo and the likes. But in its heydays, what a splendid array of cars the 1400s fuoriseries were!
But before going to appreciate the story in its depth, a bit of clarification: most of the following photos have been taken from old Italian publications, namely Auto Italiana and Motor Italia, and some of the most beautiful ones were real masterpieces of their own, thanks to renowned photographers like Bricarelli or Moncalvo taking them – the older-look colour shots were all deft images done by the former one. I do not intend infringing any copyright, I use all of them as Fair Use material in order to provide photographic documentation to the story; in any case, many of them have been used elsewhere in the web or in proper books: no problem, they likely came from the same sources as mine, in this case, simple scans of old, fascinating Italian magazines, rare items everywhere. And the more I browsed through those old images, the more I remained fascinated by them : I hope that readers as well can be positively impressed by them, excusing me for the so-so qualities of some of them; but at least this means that I took the original magazine-born pics and I used them here, also documenting a rare piece of Italian culture and History.
We can start with Battista Pinin Farina, because at the dawn of the Fifties he was already one of most important names in the Italian and international automotive panorama. Just a month after the 1400 debuted, PF was about to begin the famous co-operative effort with Nash, and naturally the atelier was also involved in that sort of match against Ghia to win the Chrysler Corporation execs’ hearths, with the proposition for Plymouth. While this match was won by Ghia, PF learned a whole lotta thing about American tastes, and some of the PF’ later creations would’ve offered something fit for them too. And as per PF tradition, many ideas which would soon be proposed to mass market firms saw the light of the day, or were experimented, on specialty cars, one-offs or small production autos. One example is the following: a certain two door sedan bore an interesting rendition of what would’ve later been adopted on the production ’52 Airflytes; it had a bold and somewhat recessed rectangular grille complete with massive vertical bars, and a neat broad-shouldered body side appearance. Also the windshield and the cowl had some resemblance with the forthcoming Nashes It also sported a vinyl-covered roof (which made it look like a closed top Rambler ragtop…), and the interior compartment dimensions were almost extraordinary when compared to the rest of the body…difficult to think something more American !
In the meanwhile, PF was also involved in building cars which followed the typical Italian fastback ideas of the time: naturally, while this fashion would’ve been immortalized in certain masterpieces like the Aurelia B20 GT, at the time there was a continuous flow of similar cars, and Pinin Farina had no problems in satisfy the public ‘ crave for similar creations; this also resulted in some interesting six seater two and four door sedans atop some of the most desirable platform in Italy, and this 1400 is a nice survivor which helps us in seeing how far this fad went. While the car lacks some of the sleekness usually associated with this kind of lines, it is still elegant and distinctive, and in this specific case the car is also blessed through an Abarth tuning kit, useful considering the car’ increased weight.
PF, on the other hand, also used on 1400 and 1900 certain style themes so dear to him, themes picked from already existing autos, and so it cannot be a surprise for us if we take a look at a ’53 1900 coupé and we find certain ideas which can also be recognized among those used on the Nash-Healey. Yeah, the “kink” atop the rear fenders and the hood-front grille contours are quite like those used for the sporty TriNational sportscar, albeit diluted behind fairly different shapes. But they are there, and this 1900 speaks a lot about the already well known attitude of PF to use whatever good design was at his disposal, an eventually improve it.
Naturally, just like with many other firms, PF gave stylistic advice to would-be production Fiats too back then, and so we cannot forget that the Turinese atelier was involved in the development of various “standard” iterations of the 1400-1900 family members: one of the various prototypes became, with few modifications, the basis upon which the definitive Peugeot 403’ look was designed. Quite a feat ! And speaking of “standard”-look 1400, we must also remember that PF did a nice elaboration on the first series 1400, giving the car a richly furnished interior, complete with metallic sunroof too, predating the same principles used to create Fiat’ own 1900.
Bertone is naturally the second name which comes to mind while talking about the most renowned Italian coachbuilders: in the early Fifties the Giovanni and Nuccio’s firm was busy at staying afloat, and contrary to some beliefs, it wasn’t only a matter of a lack of proper separated frames upon which they could build with relative easiness bodied for special cars; in fact, Bertone’ firm was among the first to exploit the advantages of a sturdy, all-metal and semi monocoque body construction. As stated before, a serious problem was, in any case, the lack of a continuous flow of around-the-year orders. So, the famous Bertone-Arnolt co-operative efforts were not based exclusively on the desire to work on simple, old-school separated frames (like those of the MGs and later of the Bristols, hence the famous Arnolt-MGs and Arnolt-Bristols); there was also the hope, by Bertone, to be blessed with a large amount of continuous orders, orders which could keep the firm busy also during the winter months, those usually less fit for special-bodies creations back then in Italy. As we know, both hopes would’ve been finalized: Bertone’ firm name would’ve been among the most prosperous ones, and this mighty upsurge in the factory’ fortunes did happen just during the 1400’ production life. It is then a natural that some truly nice 1400s saw the light of the day during this era, and while these efforts were usually sweet and nice Italian Style’ examples, they were also pretty traditional. Nothing really out of this world, but they had a purity and simplicity of lines which made them much in tune with the already established Italian design; just like other Italian specials of the era, much of the design charisma was to be found in the roof lines, and Bertone in this creation set the stage for a novel and soon successful interpretation of the quasi futuristic notchback format. In my opinion, in fact, this car (and other made in the same era under Giovanni and Nuccio’s aegis) had a remarkably square-off roof which was from some angles quite close to what UK Ford used for its later Prefect; from some points of view, this 1400 by Bertone also offered glimpses of Rolls Royce Silver Shadow: this was evident especially in the later variants of this car, also enhanced by the flare-less rear fenders and slab sided body…Maybe a bit of exaggeration in comparing the Bertone 1400 with the Rolls Silver Shadow, but it sounds no more surprising than seeing how another Bertone-bodied 1400 looked like an Aurelia B20 GT: this was another fad of the day, and it was surely among the most convincing ones; we must also consider that the development timing of this car, like other done always on the 1400’ structure, occurred just while the same Lancia masterpiece was a work-in-progress, so Italian designers were all aiming toward the same purpose, after having started with the Cisitalia-based main ideas – among others. It is important to remember that the Aurelia B20 was the summa of all of these ideas, rather than being a never-seen-before auto, even if blessed by suave looks. This doesn’t detract any from the Aurelia’ historical relevance, but it surely adds to the fascinating design of many similar cars of the era, just like this fastback 1400.
Among other Bertone’ models, the St. Leger was also proposed as a simple ragtop done using much of the themes so dear to designers of the day – in its early renditions also using the slightly flared rear fenders – which was conservative and somber, but also pretty and sporty. The slightly “lifted” rear axle was a typical but minor problem often seen on Italian cars of the era, and the St. Leger wasn’t immune, but at least it masked this with grace and elegance. Other 1400s done by outside coachbuilders suffered from the same small fault.
On the other hand, speaking of fads, the name chosen for one of this special Bertone-bodied 1400, the Western Arrow shown for the first time at the ’51 Turin Salone Dell’ Automobile, was a homage to the then dominating infatuation for whatever America could make: in this case, just like some noteworthy show cars made in Detroit, the chosen theme was linked with the Far West epopee, hence the name, and if the car didn’t exactly looked like a raucous automobile interpretation of a typical prairie four legged animal, surely the interior was well worth of this name, because it made good use of leather with brass bolsters, in a move to mimic the saddles of the glorious 19th Century America. This car, sublime also because it was one the lowest 1400s ever, and characterized by a deft use of certain hood scoops which delivered a racy look about it, was surely a good hint at how Italian body builders were fascinated with America, and also names were chosen with this in mind. Speaking of the Western Arrow, maybe some famous and contemporary Kaisers made a far greater use (or abuse ?) of far more outlandish design features to obtain essentially the same purpose, but it is important to remember that this was the era when Bertone’ firm was devoted to make its name famous also outside of Italy, and as we know, American clients’ role was becoming more and more important in the business or Italian coachbuilders. And we all know that Bertone became its extraordinary design success after a certain American guy saw a pair of MGs and soon he became enamored of what he saw. His name was Stanley Arnolt, “Wacky” for his friends, and the rest is history. With the Western Arrow, Bertone was both celebrating and luring back America, and as portent of what soon followed it certainly worked. And, in any case, those “portholes” mounted on the fenders, didn’t appear as out of place as one could expect: if they worked for Buick, they can also work for Bertone – and also other Italian maestri were ready to use them elsewhere…
Later on, when the 1900 had already been offered on market, Bertone continued to use the same basic lines, again in coupé and ragtop formats. This type of cars, those shaped in the now-famous Italian GTs format, was one of the most successful among the various 1400s and 1900s created off the shelf. Naturally, with the debut of the larger displacement motor, it became quite natural for coachbuilders in general, and Bertone in particular, adopting it for a renewed batch of 1400-based fuoriserie. As a whole, most of the earlier basic designs were carried over, with few details of distinction and this 1900 GT shows this to good effect. Nothing really adventurous indeed – only nice style. But there is at least yet another Bertone’ creation which must easily be numbered among the most daring, epic and dramatic Italian cars ever, for its lines were a triumph of audacity and good taste. Obviously, I am talking about the impossibly advanced Scaglione-penned, 1952 Fiat-Abarth 1500 which predates many Alfa Romeo BATs ideas and features, and was bought by Packard for study purpose; however, many an idea which had appeared on that car was soon found on certain GM’cars, both on standard and Motorama-only models ! Quite an influential prototype it was ! The brainchild of Franco Scaglione, this iconic concept sported a wide array of design themes soon to be seen aboard many other cars, ranging from some Motorama dream cars all the ways to production Bertone cars, without ignoring some other Italian coachbuilders’ creations, albeit in many cases the most daring design details of the 1500 were diluted, so to appear more palatable to contemporary eyes. In any case, it must be no surprise if such a car became the testimonial for own Abarth’ advertising pages, albeit in an idealized artistic setting!
Touring too was among those who used to great profit the 1400 as a starting point for a great looking fuoriserie. In the case of the Milanese coachbuilder, the nice berlinetta born just a few weeks after the original stock production sedan was not only a nice essay of a svelte and sleek two door which possessed most of the typical design details of the day, slab sided, full enveloping body and a trunkback profile. In early edition, the car sported a divided windshield and a rectangular front grille, but in later variants it became even more elegant, with a single piece window and a neat egg-crate, wide-look grille which was close to the standard sedan, gaining a desirable family feeling in the operation. It was almost obvious that it became a natural for some Italian Concorsi D’Eleganza. Naturally, especially when seen from behind, there was an evident parentage with other Touring Superleggeras of the time, especially those built atop rather famous Alfa Romeo underpinnings, and so this 1400 was also one of the most prestigious of the whole group of 1400s “carrozzate” . If this wasn’t enough, there was also a lower and sleeker version of this car, the Berlinetta Superleggera Speciale, which was offered alongside the “second edition” normal-production 1400 Touring. Built in three examples, the result of a joint work with Abarth, this delighful car soon started to conquer many class wins in a wide plethora of races with a pilot like Ovidio Capelli, the same man behind some of the most important Fiat 8V Zagato’ exploits in following years – and the same man who instigated the production of such a special 1400. Those remaining two Superleggera Speciales were sold to Gianni Agnelli and Leopoldo Pirelli, thus ensuring a really important status to this very special 1400. Needless to say, this is arguably one of the most valuable 1400s ever built, both from a racing and historical point of view and also because of its excellent looks, with many hints at the contemporary Alfa Romeo 1900 coupés built by Touring: the rakish roof design, the lower under belt-line body enhance the already pretty lines of this auto. And naturally, for a car which proudly sported the Superleggera name, its weight was extraordinary low, with no more than 1856 (dry) pounds to carry around! Something like 600 pounds less than the production 4 door sedan !Carrozzeria Touring was more than proud of such a machine too, for it was shown as a showstopper in the atelier’ own stand in ’51 Turin Salone Dell’ Automobile, where its win at the ’51 Giro Di Sicilia was amply celebrated.
Also Alfredo Vignale was more than happy to work using the 1400 as a basis: so much so, in fact, that some of the most iconic 1400s were those created by this expert but relatively young coachbuilders, using Giovanni Michelotti’s formidable creative impulse as a priceless aid. Thus, cars like the 1400 Orchidea or the 1400 Primula soon saw the light of the day, with the former being quite important because it was among the first Vignale’s cars which won prizes or awards, and also because, as we know, it was one of the very first cars to offer wraparound one-piece rear window combined with inversely raked C-pillars – all this in conjunction with fashionable fastback styling. After the Orchidea, the second Vignale 1400 also had a floreal name, Primula: this was a more classical fastback, sans the wraparound back window, but again penned by Michelotti, with exquisite proportions too and a very inspired two tone livery which followed other similar Vignale cars and it became quite popular in years to come; Vignale also produced convertibles using the 1400 as a starting point, and among them the most iconic was in all likelihood a certain ’51 creation, which was also featured on the cover of February 1953 issue of Motor Trend, and it was probably the same car which starred in The Racers movie, driven by Kirk Douglas. This auto interests us not only because of its own life on American soil, but also because it sported arguably one of the most striking shape among the special 1400s as a whole, and it was a neat anticipation of other designs with similar two tone treatments – in this case, what had been proposed with the aforementioned Primula had been taken one step further, and it was no small feat. It is not difficult to see that Bertone’s own Siata 208 CS offered some visual resemblance to this car’ paint scheme; but when we take in consideration the main stylistic details used on most luxurious Dodges starting with the ’55 model year – and anticipated by the Custom Royal 500 for the ’54 spring season – an easy comment could be that Chrysler studios designers were very aware not only of Ghia’ own experiences, but also of those made by other renowned Italian stylists. And this 1400 is one good reason why. But this 1400 was full of striking details: for example, the concave heart-shaped grille was another interpretation of Michelotti’s dear themes. It is therefore no difficult to see some reminiscences of the equally astounding Cunningham, and this must no surprise us, for this 1400 and the Cunningham had the very same origins. And it is no surprise to see that this rakish duotone 1400 could easily be mistaken for something far more prestigious, like certain Aurelias also clothed by the careful Alfredo’s ability together with his bespoke men, first among them Michelotti. In any case, this car wasn’t unique in having all the peculiar specifications of a thoroughbred Vignale-Michelotti dream of a car. In fact, a stupendously sleek Coupé Speciale, sources of mine stating that it was based on the 1400 and made during the cold final months of the same 1950, was arguably one formidable early specimen of those rakish and racy-looking coupés which would soon become the quintessential Italian GT: its steeply raked roof, in effect, was more like the portentous forerunner of a plethora of Sixties driving machines rather than a simple evolution of the shapes introduced by certain other famous Italian cars. This car, in profile especially, makes many of the cars belonging to its same category looking like things of yesterday ! And this while the very same Aurelia B20 GT hadn’t made its debut yet! This car was also pleasantly furnished with those “spear-like” chromed trim running from the upper edges of the wheels’ cutouts, a sort of Vignale realizations trademark. Those bright blades surely enhances its racy appearances, with no risk of seeming too much fussy or overdone. A quick comparison with other Vignale’ cars of the same era makes this clear.
In following years, however, certain Vignale creations would rely more on spectacular high drama rather than sober Italianate good looks; or, to be more precise, there were various cars which appeared totally outlandish, maybe a bit over the top, and others which freely experimented with extravagant details and striking decorations to make cars done starting with basic and simple approaches appearing much more extroverted than the bulk or cars then running on the Italian roads. This phenomenon did hit the 1400 family in 1953, and again the preferred mechanical basis of choice was the novel 1900 : too irresistible was the call of that newly enlarged powerplant and the availability of a 5 speed gearbox married with the fluid coupling to leave serious coachbuilders indifferent to the largest Fiat’ appeal, because those ateliers were continuously aiming at a peculiar type of client, the one always lured by the latest tech innovations, the one also pursued by the same Fiat with the standard 1900. Needless to say, when a car like the various special-production 1400s of previous years had list prices gravitating toward the Alfa 1900/Lancia Aurelia market segment, all strongly placed between the 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 lire price bracket (far more than factory 1400s, as we’ve seen), it was almost obvious that once given a chance, they would’ve promoted themselves to whatever serious upgrade Fiat was willing to give to the original 1400 project. In our case, there was nothing more satisfactory than the motor enlargement to 116.1 cubic inches. And what better way than celebrating it with a new wave of splendid and novel Fiat-badged fuoriserie ? Here’s explained why most of the post 1953 1400s were in reality 1900s, and also why some of them were as outlandish as this Vignale coupé, with a rather radical front fenders’ egdes, where a pair of small lamps (directional and parking units) were curiously placed, all this while the main units were well set between the same protruding grille and fenders. The overall effect was one of a “horned” car, much closer to certain insects rather than to a deer or a bull, for that matter, but nonetheless a “different” and “distinctive” touch, provided one didn’t blame too much Michelotti for this. In effect, the rest of the car was nice and quietly astounding, bringing along new and airy roof lines (similar to those which some years later would be used for those famous Maserati 5000 GT primarily created by Touring and Allemano), and also being blessed by a deft twin colors motif and a rakish and quite simple rear panel line. And the 1900 wasn’t the only Fiat-based small series car to use that radically ancient harp-looking grille: compare it with a car bodied using the mechanicals of the 1100/103 and it is fairly evident that Michelotti and Vignale were pursuing some sort of family feeling… In any case, Vignale’ 1400s and 1900s were perfectly in tune with the extroverted originality which was about to become one of the most renowned trademarks of all the Italian carrozzieri. And while in some of this atelier’ jobs there was still a certain American flavor, these 1400s contributed with impressive formal suggestions to make livelier yet the concept of an individual Italian Style: in effect, despite all the American-born ideas seen on a wide array of 1400s, Vignale’ ones were among the most original and most creative. Italian Style individuality wasn’t only a Pinin Farina matter. Individuality wasn’t necessarily the only leading idea behind certain concepts, just like sheer imitation of fads wasn’t the exclusive theme used on others. Sometimes, a savvy mix of these contrasting worlds made real masterpieces, and so there is no surprise if another big name which created stupendous essays atop the proven 1400’ mechanicals was maybe the symbol of those firms that borrowed themes heavily from Detroit, all this while coupling them with Italian looks and Italian taste, in doing so obtaining an eclectic mix of the best from the two worlds.
Unlike Vignale or others, some of the 1400s and 1900s created by this coachbuilding firm could easily pass for something with a Chrysler badge, but there would never been any kind of scandal if such a thing were to happen: after all, Chrysler-based autos were precisely what was then making Ghia a great name, maybe the greatest in certain carrozzeria circles, thus there is no problem if most of the 1400s created under Luigi Segre’s and Mario Boano’s direction looked exactly like some Exner-led autos: half American, half Italian and entirely beautiful, modern, dynamic and fashionable. So, the Ghia-bodied 1400s looked precisely like a Ghia product of the time, with a savvy use of colors and trim, with shapes sometimes conservative and some others perfectly up-to-date; but the splendid names working in Ghia’ studios sometimes made downright masterpieces, automobiles so spectacular that made everybody else sit and take notice – automobiles with few, if any traces, of America or Detroit above them: the best known example could easily be the 1400 Supergioiello, penned by Giovanni Michelotti, a car which brought to public attention the very same profile and proportions of the upcoming Aurelia B20 GT some months before the Lancia’ own debut…everything in this 1400 shouts proudly GT, and those not used to the main styling details of the B20 GT could easily mistake this 1400 for the immortal Gran Turismo by Borgo San Paolo. As said, the Aurelia B20 GT was the arrival point of a while design school which originated with the Cisitalia 202, a car which used with new proportions many older ideas, including a great deal of those which made so fashionable certain American fastbacks just before and after the war. Cars like some PF-bodied Alfas, Fiats, the Siata Daina (more on it soon), and others, were mostly anticipator of the definitive Aurelia B20 GT. No wonder then, if Ghia worked a deft car out of this magic kind of shapes and lines, and no wonder if such a deft car was made by Michelotti. No wonder then, if the same Mario Boano styled some – if not most of the – concepts used on the same B20 GT… The Fiat 1400 Supergioiello had a really striking similarity with the Lancia, so much so that its later versions had to change somewhat the front end profile, in order to avoid confusion…early Supergioiellos, for that matter, had also something in common with the famous Plymouth XX500, from stem to stern, here and there, albeit the far larger dimensions made it difficult to mistake the Plymouth with a Fiat. In any case, it was also difficult to imagine something more Italianate, uhu ?
But Ghia, as stated above, was in the midst of its co-operative era with Highland Park, so 1400s and 1900s styled after those trans-oceanic monuments were mandatory items for this Turinese coachbuilder. Alongside the 1400s styled in typical Italian GT fashion, there were ragtops with more ponderous volumes and proportions, burly but beautiful, also because of deft application of contrasting colors. One of them looked just like a prototype for the Sportone Plymouths some years in the future. Now the 1400’s by Ghia had a somewhat fussier grille, blending colored inserts with typical chrome bars, also something later seen on some Detroit irons, but the whole effect remained elegant and dignified like few others. Just like many other coachbuilt cars of the era, also this 1400 was the subject of a small redo for following season, but Ghia had more under development during those extremely busy and prosperous times for the Turinese atelier. In fact, when it was about time for the obvious adoption of the larger 1900 engine, the cars had already perfect dimensions and balance: they surely looked like cars twice as large and twice as costly ! No wonder then if the Ghia 1900 convertibles were among the richest-looking of the lot, always being a star whenever one of them appeared, in a Concours D’Elegance or in a Cinecitta’ movie. No wonder if such cars looked like smaller scale Chrysler Specials, especially if seen from the front. The similarity in the front was indeed striking, and much sought after, so much so that only expert connoisseurs could spend only a few seconds to guess this was a Fiat and not a Highland Park flagship. But there were also other similarities in the whole body between these cars, and these were arguably the first Ghias to be classified as “separated-at-birth”, something which would’ve been quite common in following years for some Ghia’-studied, Ghia-developed or Ghia-built cars: think just about the Chrysler d’Elegance-VW Karmann Ghia, or the Fiat 2300 Coupé- Ghia L6,4 Liter. For all the whole world, however, those Ghia-Fiat cars looked just like multimillion dollars’ chariots, as different as anything coming from the Mirafiori plants where humble stock 1400s were being built by the hundreds. On the other hand, a similarly grand-looking concept, but with many hints at something far more rakish and sleek – something indeed with proper wings and a rudder – was pursued in yet another great series of 1400s and 1900s, and this time the results were even more exaggerated in proportions and sheer arrogance. It was maybe a paper tiger, but just the right ticket for the times. In such a car, the larger engine was therefore a necessity, and it is difficult to think that under so gorgeous lines (dare I say ? Junoesque body is the best word here !) lurked the relatively simple mechanicals of a Fiat, and not something with 6 or more cylinders and with no more than 85 or, in the best case, 116 cubes…this unforgettable creation was penned by Mario Boano’s son, Gian Paolo, – a fact which may explain its name, B Junior – and it was maybe the epitome of the 1400s built using gargantuan proportions good enough for Detroit, blending massive under belt line flanks with typical Nash-like cues (the skirted wheels, first of all, in themselves a neat redo of an early postwar Italian fad, where many dream cars had nightmarish spats or wheelcovers…) and with a sleek roof line which was the in-thing on many Chrysler-Ghia creations – actually, if you are thinking at the Chrysler D’Elegance, for example, the 1900 debuted some time before. The heavy-looking front motif would’ve been quite at home on some Highland Park product, and if ’53 Plymouths would’ve been treated to the same explosion of colors and trims seen on this car, surely things for the Low Priced Number Three firm would’ve been a whole lotta better during the storming Sales Blitz months. The whole idea behind this car was arguably one of a bomber for the road, and the shape was also adopted elsewhere. And how can we remain indifferent while looking at that color strip, so close to what we are used to see when approaching a ’56-’58 Fury…I bet that this striking color combo was one of the various sources used while the would-be Flight Sweeps were under development. Shades of production Fury here. This spectacular Fiat was also proposed as the B Junior II in 1953 on prestigious Aurelia mechanicals, albeit it is quite difficult to tell it at a glance as a proper Lancia. In effect, this evolution of the theme originally seen for those special 1400s and 1900s was also full of design details which were used to good profit for the Dodge Firearrow in its first edition. No missing links here: what was good for Fiat was also good (at least partially…) for Dodge too ! And the main design themes which were good for Ghia were also good for Mario Boano, after he had started to offer autos designed under his own name: his 1400, physically realized by Viotti, one of the very first cars indeed to be designed by Boano after his untimely ousting from Ghia, was arguably a recipient of many Ghia-like ideas; the “frenched” headlights, for istance, looked like the same units applied on some contemporary Chrysler Specials; the body of this neat coupé was sleek, with an innovative long hood-short deck proportion, and the roof was equally distinct, because in lieu of the now almost mandatory fully wraparound window it had three well separated panes, with small pillars between them. The overall effect was more Shelby Mustang GT 350 in ’66 edition rather than ’57 B-Body Buicks and ’57 Olds, but undoubtedly, it was distinctive enough. Equally distinctive, and far more outlandish, was the rear end motif, with a spare metal positioned almost like the one used for the Motorama’ Pontiac Bonneville Special: this very same design was somewhat popular within certain designers’ circles: we must remember the famous Chrysler #613 prototype, the “Hashtag” car which predated most of the styling choices soon to be offered to Plymouth hardtops and Chrysler 300 C buyers. Like many 1400s built by specialists, designers and the like, this one was a great-looking car, ably hiding beneath a sporty and luxury appearance the simple and not exceedingly thriving 1400 drivetrain.
But certain 1400-based automobiles were more than simple fuoriserie done mainly to please customers’ desires for false but appealing great looks, and consequently with few concessions made to provide them with solid built-in sporty substance. Most of the 1400s and 1900s had this kind of “problem”, but some spiders and coupés made by Siata were arguably more than gorgeous looks alone. The Dainas, in fact, were 1400s mainly because of their engine, and even the same powerplant didn’t remain immune to some deft tune-up operation: what resulted was out of question the sportiest autos with 1400 roots until the famous Fiat/Abarth 1500 made by Bertone with Scaglione’s input, and this speaks loud about Siata’ sporty qualities. Often found in competitions, the Dainas were sober and good looking cars which could easily pass for cars with far larger and more prestigious engines lurking under its long hood, while the rest of its shapely line was akin to what an Italian Barchetta had to look like. It was initially available in grand touring format rather than all-out racing vests, however, because a civilized convertible and a fascinating fastback coupé were all part of the initial family. Later on, proper and seductive roadsters and an even sportier berlinetta type of closed car debuted, bringing with them also a new and lower grille, making’ em looking even more like a really Italianate sports auto. In effect, for someone not trained with Italian cars’ spotting ability, the early closed Daina seems every bit like an Aurelia B20 GT with a squared up grille, or alternatively like a Cisitalia 202 with slightly more formal shapes, while the later roadsters and certain berlinettas could easily be mistaken for something with the Prancing Horse on the hood. Knowing what kind of evolution waited some British sports cars in the immediate future, I’d say that the squared-off grill alone gave an interesting English flavor to this otherwise 100% Italianate creation. And, ironically enough, a ’51 edition of the Siata 1400-based model , the one dubbed Rally, looked every inch as a disguised MG, complete with traditional separated fenders and open body done in the purest British tradition, all this evidently to please the still huge old school sportsmen. What an unexpected move, a Fiat looking like a MG! The Daina’ upright grille, so similar not only to certain UK-born or Lancia cars but also to what Mercedeses would look like in following years, wasn’t an exclusive to the Siata creation. In fact, because most of the early Dainas were built by Stabilimenti Farina and up until this revered firm shut down its premises in ’53, there is no marvel if also Farina’ own one offs and small series 1400s offered a similar theme. But this was no problem, because among the earliest special 1400s, those built by Giovanni Farina’s firm were arguably among the most balanced and elegant of the lot.
This alone says a lot about the exquisite lines of the equally outstanding Daina, launched simultaneously with the standard 1400. Unlike the latter, the Daina ( Italian term for “doe”) was built using a modified 1400 platform, with box sections, and the wheelbase was cut to 94,5 inches. Overall length and width were quite naturally less than the original car ( respectively, 159’’ and 62.2’’ versus 166,9’’ and 65.2’’ for the “donor” standard car), height was noticeably low, front threads remained unchanged at 51.5’’, while the rear track was less than 1 inches narrower (51.2’’ vs. 52’’). Mechanically, the Daina used an improved version of the 1400’ motor, cranking out 65 bhp via a 7.2:1 compression ratio and the adoption of twin cars setup. Noticeably improved performances resulted from this, what with a 93 mph top speed (an increase of almost 25 %) and nimbler all-around zest. Most of the remaining underpinnings were pure 1400 items, but there was a noteworthy novel: the adoption of a 5 speed gearbox, in this anticipating Fiat ‘own 1900 by a pair of years. As the time went by, the Daina was also offered in the Gran Sport full roadster edition, particularly devoted to racings: this car was born in 1952 and soon revered competitions and courses like Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Monza, and most important of them all, Sebring, were among the places where this classic Italian barchetta. In particular, one of the Gran Sport won its class and was 3rd overall in the ’52 12 hours held in the Florida location with the Irish-Fergus team. The Gran Sport was available in a slightly enlarged 1,5 liter powerplant too, good for at least 76 rorty horses, increasing top speed to the enviable 110 mph mark, likely the best in its class. No wonder then if the car could be a right weapon in the right hands. Sadly, the $ 4,995 required for one of them in that same year wasn’t exactly a cut rate approach to the sports cars world: for exactly 3000 bucks less you could purchase an MG, and a far more potent XK 120 could be yours for 3595 well spent bucks… In any case, these cars, mainly bodied by Stabilimenti Farina and Bertone and with at least one extroverted Carrozzeria Boano example built in ‘54, were iconic examples of the Italian way to a sports car – and with circa 200 examples built until 1958, despite the price, they were also acceptably successful. And looks alone had a lot to do with this success: among the various Italian cars of the era, few could brag so fascinating and seductive bodied wrapped around so simple and “popular” drivetrains.
Strange, then, to see that the Siata Rally, loosely based on the Daina, was an MG TD-lookalike which was offered in a year, 1951, when this kind of design was increasingly becoming old-fashioned…but this car was evidently built to please more traditional-minded sportsmen, those who considered separated fenders and old school roadster body a mandatory requirement.
Siata (an acronym for Societa’ Italiana Applicazioni Tecniche Auto-Aviatorie) own 1400s-related experiences weren’t confined to the Daina only. The Fiat-Siata 1500 Speciale was arguably one helluva of sexy car, even more seductive than the Daina indeed. This special car, apparently built one more time on Ovidio Capelli’s instigation, was based on an earlier ’51 1400 (likely used as a donor car) but under the spectacular body lies a GilCo spaceframe. The engine was tuned (by Siata itself or by Abarth) and the body, despite hints of Vignale, was the product of Zagato – at least according to sources gained during the latest Mille Miglia, where the car was proudly raced. It deserved its place in the Mille Miglia, because this car actually entered the original no-holds-barred competition in ’54 and ’55 with its then-current owner, Roberto Montali, being then sold to an American, Al Maggiacomo, who brought it across the Ocean, where it stayed. After the typically tumultuous events for such an exotica (engine-swap and a lengthy junkyard staying), the car was brought back to its early days splendor, ready to show everywhere what a 1400 could be. Quite a distant car from the typical American-like special 1400s so common in that era, and quite another exquisite auto molded in the most typical Italian GT specs !
On the other hand, Siata also contributed to a far different kind of 1400, this time far more robust-looking, quite the right kind of shape for a car purportedly born out of an Americanized sedan of sort: I am talking about a huge limousine, a type which would’ve become quite common in the relatively simple Francis Lombardi or Carrozzeria Colonna transformations, where standard sedans were cut and lengthened. On the other hand, this Siata-tuned car was made by Stabilimenti Farina, thus explaining why the front end looked so similar to other 1400s made by the glorious Turin firm, Siata Dainas included, but it was evidently too ponderous to have any kind of passable success. Also the proportions didn’t help this car too much, while the overall design was contemporary and Italianate, but without exceedingly bright doses of personality or originality.
These two features, by the way, weren’t things lacking in yet another Siata creation, this time a nice wagon. While Francis Lombardi, Fissore, Monterosa, Coriasco and Viotti too proposed nice 1400 wagons (including genuine woodies), also the firm known for the Daina and other serious racing machines offered a people carrier, and with a now familiar family feeling, at least for the front end. This nice wagon was surely an unexpected car, but the wide experience matured by Siata surely afforded this firm also to approach this rather distinctive market segment.
Interesting, Siata was one of the few companies to still use Fiat 1400s as starting point for a special edition car – indeed, a real concept – in the last years of the model, when there were around the B versions, all glitz and glamour, apparently adequate in themselves to satisfy would-be buyers’ crave for extravagance and exuberance – or, inversely, showing how the 1400 and the 1900 suffered from heavy competition in the realm of the coachbuilt cars, a realm where cheaper and more spirited cars, or younger and more prestigious ones, had stolen the show to the once ubiquitous 1400 fuoriserie. This late 1400 concept, christened Caracas, was the result of a good Michelotti’s effort in order to design an airy, modern and tasteful edition of a two door hardtop, an ideal heir to the standard 1900 B Granluce but arguably less gaudy and sleeker, despite athe almost mandatory two toning. This car had a very sleek roof line, also blessed by slim pillars and low profile, and there were no exaggerated wraparounds of sort. The bodyside was as simple as it gets, and the front and rear end had modest fins and hooded headlights. The grille was a low-set simple rectangular affair, markedly forward raked. In sum, an ideal redo of all the basic design details that had made so iconic the same 1900 B Granluce in production format. Sadly, this seductive proposal had no future, for the same 1400 and 1900’ heirs, the 1800 and 2100, were to be fairly different animals. In any case, a great effort.
Before leaving Siata, let’s not forget that this renowned Turinese firm also made some deft tune up exercises of sort using the 1400s as basis, leaving almost intact the exterior and giving a robust workout to the mechanicals: such exercises were done to a 1400 convertible, one of the first built, which was sold new in USA (one rare car indeed), with an enlarged 1,8 liter engine, larger carb atop a modified manifold, extra structural reinforcements, 15’’ wheels and trafficators delete option. As per practice of the era, the car was labeled Siata Derivata Fiat: as we’ve seen, Siata wasn’t alone in doing similar exercises using the 1400 (or other Fiats, for that matter) as a starting point, and this renowned enterprise was among various other Italian ventures eager to offer effective aftermarket ways to improve upon the already good 1400’ basis. Sometime, as it is the case here, similar ventures also performed more in-depth operations, even if from a quick exterior exam, cars of this kind didn’t look as radically transformed as their underpinnings.
Speaking again about “proper” fuoriserie, and not simple “elaborate” (the term “elaborate” in Italian means “tuned up ones”, and it defines all those cars which, like the aforementioned 1400 convertible which looked nearly stock on the outside but a bit different in the inside), we must now come back to the fact that most stylistic design theme used by Siata for its Dainas were also put to good use for Stabilimenti Farina’ own 1400s. This glorious firm, which was fast approaching the end of its run, was among the various carrozzeria able to produce nice and elegant 1400s in the now typical Italian Style variety; classy, relatively modern and truly balanced, the 1400s by Farina were relatively devoid of frills or thrills, somewhat distant from the Vignale or Ghia most sensational proposals, but nonetheless pleasant; in any case, problems loomed ahead in those late Forties, early Fifties years: typical woes of early postwar years linked to a lack of wisdom in the management, caused by Giovanni Farina’s retirements from businesses and not-so-effective heirs’ attitude to keep the company at the forefront of style and proposals caused a constant hemorrhage of talents, among them great designers too. In fact, Giovanni’s sons, Attilio and Nino, the latter one also more devoted to racing rather than really interested in the Stabilimenti’ management, lacked the needed skills to anticipate long lasting fashions, and while many late Farina cars were nonetheless authentic masterpieces, as a whole nobody seemed willing to stay for long there, whether they were key figures in the workshop or on the drawing board. Figures like Pietro Frua, who had left Farina as early as 1937, Alfredo Vignale (who founded his own firm in the early postwar years), Giovanni Michelotti, who left Farina after his revolutionary early postwar creations didn’t find favor with his bosses, Mario Revelli De Beaumont, and Franco Martinengo were all champions of style, and with a bit more indulgence in their innovative designs, likely Stabilimenti would’ve last for more long.
This didn’t happen, and as we know, this caused many outside firms which had chosen to delegate bodies production of their own cars to Farina to look for other suppliers: Siata is a good example of this problems, solved also through Bertone’ intervention.
In any case, taking a look at the various special bodied 1400s, usually available in coupé or convertible formats, and with the former ones being perfect example of the then current Italian GT school of design, few could expect that Stabilimenti was going the way of the dodo. They also had a certain family feeling of their own, usually offering gently raked front ends, in a sort of mild aerodynamic way, which was all the more grateful also in those years of somewhat excessive American tastes mocking. It also had gently sloping rear end, slab sided, but in a swoopy manner, flanks; in effect, one of the few concessions to the then dominant Transatlantic design details was the teardrop-shaped chrome ventiport on the front fenders: needless to say, Buick’ most famous touch was always good, even if the car adopting it was genuinely Italianate. Whether they were called Partenope (a ragtop, successor to the early Farina convertibles), Brasile (a notchback coupé) or Gentleman ( a rakish 3+2 seater fastback, offering a nice blend of Italian and British character), the cars were unassumingly nice, albeit, as said, without too far forward thinking about their shapes. In any case, they are a nice testimony of an era when similar cars were all the rage in Italy, before the American fads and tastes started to make deep inroads into the designers’ mind. At least, one can always say that Stabilimenti Farina, thanks to (or because of) its sheer conservative nature, didn’t suffer from any possible charge of flattery.
One firm with a similarly none-too-happy position, but able to blend together some of the best American and Italian designs while working on the 1400-1900 theme, was the glorious Cisitalia. There is one simple word to describe what Cisitalia was enduring back there: Troubles. Lots of them.
In fact, the glorious days of the 202, by the time the 505, the Fiat 1900-based model debuted, were all but a distant past. If you think that the 505 was first shown in Geneva in 1953, it is easy to see that the Dusio’s firm had passed through a tempestuous life in a few short years. In fact, the glorious Piero Dusio’ firm had already been subject to receivership, after which it was renamed Societa’ D’Esercizio Cisitalia, where creditors had the reins, but with Dusio still present in the management. Dusio also tried to establish his firm in Argentina, founding the interesting Autoar venture – a firm which developed interesting cars using Willys mechanicals: quite a fascinating story, I hope to gather more about this.
In any case, most of the financial troubles endured by the Cisi likely derived from the ill-fated attempt at building a Gran Prix car born out of the Ferdinand Porsche’s projects, the mythical 360. Despite it looked like a really promising car, money wasn’t simply enough to grant a future for this car – and the company. And so 1949 was a watershed year for the company, with its receivership.
Despite further efforts to keep things afloat, including continued production of the very symbol of all Cisitalias, the now floundering 202, and the debut of the Botta Puricelli Milano-powered version of the iconic berlinetta (the potent 202D, a car which didn’t enjoy success, and it was a pity considering how promising it was with its sturdy 2,8 liter marine-derived BPM), things got even worse.
In the meanwhile, Piero Dusio had left Italy, also for reasons linked to the bankruptcy and, thanks to his closeness to the political and financial Argentinian world of the era, had founded a new enterprise in the South American country, named Autoar, which started to build interesting and modern cars using the Willys drivetrains – albeit later on many of the Dusio-related creations would’ve been mere imports from Italy, done using some escamotage of sort . Back then, Willys meant Jeep, so this South American Dusio’s adventure was (and still is) a rather fascinating automotive history’ chapter. I hope to write something about it later on. In any case, in Italy things got worse still, and Piero’s son, Carlo, was now in full control of a newly named Cisitalia Autocostruzioni, now aimed more at restyling existing cars rather than trying to develop new ones from the ground up, including mechanicals. By the way, Carlo had sensed an interesting way to keep business afloat: just like others before and since, what about a GT type of car with bespoke Italian lines and affordable Detroit underpinnings ? So, the 808 project was born.
These cars were born out of the consideration that Henry Ford loved Cisitalias, he owned one of them and he was interested in offering Ford dealers with an Italian type GT , built in Italy but without exotica-led mechanicals troubles and dependability issues. Carlo Dusio then approached Ford, Henry II was intrigued and gave green light to produce some variants based on Dearborn motors and the like, and the results were then clothed by Vignale and Ghia. While the iconic Vignale-Michelotti open car often seen today is the best remembered member of this lot, arguably the best looking ought to be the ’51 coupé penned by Giovanni Savonuzzi, and based for the design on the then modern and classy Supergioiello’ family of Ghia cars, cars drawn also by Michelotti himself. The result was astounding, and while the 808 XF didn’t have a long lasting life, the styling of this coupé was all but forgotten. Again, a matter of money – or , to be more precise, a lack of it – prevented Cisitalia from beginning the production of what could have resulted in one of the first Italian-American GT type hybrids, a full decade before Iso Rivolta. But the design was destined to survive the concept itself. This car, in fact, looked perfect for what the new Cisi could build. And the final result, the 505, albeit it was based on an Italian car with a displacement far below the huge numbers involved with the Ford project, was more or less a slightly reworked copy of the previous 808 concept: apparently, it also shared some of the outer panels –albeit underskin it used the 1900’ platform, complete with the same wheelbase and tracks, at least considering the factory data.
This Cisitalia-Fiat was also one of the very early examples of pure personal luxury cars in the whole world, thanks to the formal yet sleek, squared up yet sporty, elegant yet sober notchback design, this at a time when words like those six written above weren’t usually associated together under a single (car’) roof. In the era of curves, decorations, fastbacks, creases and the likes, the uncluttered and smooth surfaces of this masterpiece still stun unsuspecting onlookers, maybe leaving them speechless: the 505 is as clean as any in those days, all this while it still makes good use of a plethora of Ghia-born, Ghia-built or Ghia-designed ideas; whether these ideas were authored by Michelotti, Boano father and Boano son, Savonuzzi and the Exner’s Gang, there is no doubt that for a while, a car which can be considered as the compendium of most of those ideas, looked better than some of the single-minded renditions made in the same period by Ghia itself. Also a famous early example of special-bodied Fiat 8V – not the later Supersonic ones – wasn’t as perfect as this car.
Maybe Savonuzzi’s merits are above those of everybody else as far as who really deserves credits for designing this icon, yet I still feel that this car is one of the very best example born out of something akin to a design committee: nothing really official in this declaration, sure, but the almost forgotten 505 is one of the best crosses between the various ideas, designs and worlds then colliding over Turin’ Ghia studio. And being based on Fiat underpinnings, it looked also less arduous to build and market, while still being firmly placed in the personal luxury segment of the Italian automobile market, in a position where the 2,900,000 lire initially asked for the 505 looked acceptable. At least, that’s the price at the debut, soon after the ’53 Geneva Salon, and they were a huge sum for the day. But for me, this auto did worth every penny.
Personal Luxury, I said: Thunderbird, Riviera, Hawk, Gran Prix, Charger, Montecarlo, you name all of them, they are present in the 505’ spirit. All of the basic dogmas we can consider as part of a proper personal luxury car were already offered by this nice and very elegant coupé. A perfect car for the then-current Concours D’Elegance show circuit, classy and sleek, roomy enough for 3 in front and 2 more people behind, this car was based on the same wheelbase and tracks of the 1900, and also the basic platform was 1900’. The engine, on the other hand, was the 1,9 liter long stroke motor, mated to the 5 speed ‘box and, obviously, to the fluid coupling – including the tranny lock; the suspensions were 1900’s, while finned aluminum drum brakes were present. The engine was subjected to a proper tune-up, adopting a special manifold with twin Solexes, aluminum head and 8,1:1 compression ratio. Horses jumped to 80-85 @ 5500 rpms, and top speed became a more gratifying 93 mph, with at least one source of mine attesting a full ton. Indeed, a perfect match for other contemporary Cisitalia’ cars, like the equally interesting Volo Radente, also based on modest Fiat origins again make glamorous enough to look like a champ.
But what also contributed a lot to the personality and luxury of this car? Wasn’t it a sleek and modern coupé design by Ghia, in itself good enough to keep it apart from other cars done in similar ways and destined to similar clientele? Well, usually we take for granted that the most distinctive part of any automobile is its front end, and in truth never such a thoughts came closer to the inner truth than on the 505. Its front end was a homage to all those “toothy” American cars of the era: Buicks, DeSotos, just to name the most imposing of the lot. It may sound a bit strange that this look was also seen since the beginning on the 808 by Ghia, but surely it worked: a distinctive fascia with a row of horizontally-mounted shallow and high rectangular air intakes, divided by small strips of chrome, and in order to avoid an excessive heaviness’ sensation, also bisected by a simple but robust-looking horizontal bumper bar. Two sturdy vertical “guards”, neatly separating the air intake “nacelles” from the round headlight (for a while mounted atop the fenders’ egdes, unlike certain famous Ghia-Chrysler cars), completed a very predictive ensemble. Predictive because whatever Jeep product of the last 30 years you might have seen on the road, chances are that after a quick look at the 505 you can mistake it for a 4×4 car, or for a sensational new kind of super SUV by FCA. Very intriguing, and very long lasting look. One can also see hints of Fifties Gaz-Volga, for that matter, not to mention the mere fact that if you ever wanted to know where the infamous under bumper “pan” seen on ’57 Plymouths came from, now you can have an answer…
In any case, a stupendous car, and a real shame that it didn’t enjoy more than a mere 10 examples built – including at least one that diverged from this iconic design , at least in the details, giving up the grille ensemble and some of the low-slung slab sided look for something equally nice but more conventional. I still prefer the original, so close to the initial idea of selling a hybrid GT of sort via Hank The Deuce’s infatuation with Cisitalia. The story of the Cisi-Ford (or Cisi-Mercury, for the Ghia car apparently used the Big M flathead) connection is a distinct one, by the way, but what finally resulted from this was the Fiat 1900-based 505. Not bad at all either.
And speaking about another renowned Italian coachbuilder expert in masterfully blending elegance with sheer dynamism, what about Zagato ? I already wrote about the Siata special 1400 which was crafted by the Milanese carrozzeria, but there is more about the latter firm and its involvement in the Fiat 1400 career. In fact, just like an ample variety of other Italian cars marketed in the rarified 1950 automotive panorama – and at least one foreign job – also the latest Fiat creation was the subject of a deft creation by Zagato which transformed it in a distinctive member of the Panoramica family. Thanks also to a longer wheelbase (longer than most of other Panoramicas, indeed), the 1400 Zagato had better proportions, while still offering the extroverted egg-like appearance, so full of glass, which had made this kind of cars famous for. Yes, pundits can claim they looked more like rolling fishbowls on wheels, and the mesmerizing effect of all those acres of glass over heads and shoulders of passengers likely were more a nuisance than a benefit for safety and visibility, at least during hot Italian summer days. But this family of cars, a Luigi Fabio Rapi’s invention, was one of the most original and extroverted design theme ever to come from Italy back then, when American-born ideas weren’t still seen as the uppermost design winners in most circles, an era when prewar Italian involvement with aeronautical industry meant that what had been adopted for something with wings could equally be used for something with wheels, and with equal advantages. So, albeit the early “fishbowls on wheels” idea one can initially have after a quick look at a Panoramica is totally justified, let’s not forget that the main aim here was to provide motorists with most of the advantages granted to airplanes’ pilots, starting with very similar concepts and similar shapes. So, this explains the huge amount of transparent surfaces to be found around passengers’ heads, courtesy also of futuristic curved side panes, with a truly smooth overall look. Smooth, indeed, is the keyword here, for the roof design was well integrated with the rest of the body, with no risk to look incongruous or foreign to the rest of the body.
In fact, in a proper early-era Zagato Panoramica of any kind, also the rest of the body was smooth, with most contours adopting also a rather curvy shape. The front end was as simple and practical as it gets, while the rear was a triumph of curves. Some examples had integral curved side windows, while others had more practical bisected side panes, so to permit their lower portions’ proper winding down operation. These ones also offered, as per factory advertising, “5-6 Seats, Bar, Necessaire”. Quite the perfect Grand Touring car indeed! On the other hand, Zagato also proposed the 1400 in a slightly toned-down proposition, labeled “Z”, whereas the egg-shaped roof and obsessive edges’ roundness gave way to a more formal and more traditionally-proportioned shape. However, in doing so, while Zagato followed the same philosophy which ferried its production from the extremes of the early Panoramica types to the more traditional – and better looking – shapes which would soon become the key design in the Milanese builders’ following years, it also gave up some of the most distinctive touches that had made this car so personal. The second series Zagato 1400 looked like some other coachbuilders’ editions, namely the Touring and Canta’ ones, but at least it was an acceptably nice car by any standard. All in all, the Panoramica 1400 was one of the most distinctive variants made on the original Fiat model, being a sporty and very modern, albeit a bit extroverted – ok, maybe more than a bit – car, arguably not in the same league as other 1400s inspired by typical Italian (or American) school of thoughts. Let’s say that the Zagato Panoramica would’ve been quite at home within showrooms where a certain American concept car shown in 1946, the Beechcraft Plainsman, could possibly be offered for sale: there are so many details in common between the Panoramicas and this incredible dream car coming, for once, not from Detroit, that I bet Luigi Fabio Rapi was well aware of the style conceived by the Bonanza’ creators. This is quite another intriguing story, indeed. 1400 and something born in America, again: wherever we put our attention, seems like the themes “1400” and “U.S.A” are always connected in an interchangeable way. And this can be close to the truth also with the unsuspecting Zagato cars…albeit I can only assume that there is a certain similarity between the Italian Panoramicas and the Plainsman. But still, it is difficult to ignore this similarity. And it is difficult to think that the 1400 Panoramica came from the same firm later involved in so many daringly sporty projects made for Alfa, Lancia and Abarth – and let’s not forget Maser and Ferrari.
Esthetically speaking, in effect, the 1400 Panoramica was a bit distant from such masterpieces like the Appias or the Flaminias bodied by the Terrazzano Di Rho factory, and those not aware of the Zagato’ production in those years can be puzzled a bit, because this 1400 fell a bit short in the grace and balance category, but in the rarified 1950 automotive world, as said, they were surely interesting – and unique. And equally important, the continuous evolution and refinement of the original Panoramica concept led, as a whole, to iconic cars like the TZs and the Flavia Zagato. Unlike those other aforementioned Lancias, here we have cars which can be considered not only as spiritual heirs of the original Rapi’s design, but also as true-life descendants of the very features made in so remarkable mode on the Panoramicas, the 1400s especially.
With the Zagato Panoramicas, the first part of the story regarding the coachbuilt 1400s and 1900s ends here. But as every true Italian cars connoisseurs knows, there were far more craftsmen and specialists who gave exceptionally styled cars and prototypes to the automotive history, and some of them were able to do the same also while using the 1400s and the 1900s as basis. Not convinced ? Well, wait until the second part of this narration !