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Tjaarda-designed GT, Le Mans-raced spyder among trio of Serenissimas from Volpi collection

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Christian Martin, courtesy Artcurial.

Long considered one of the last great secrets of Italian sports car culture, the trio of uncirculated Serenissima sports cars still in the collection of the man who founded and funded the short-lived Italian mid-engine automaker–Count Giovanni Volpi–will for the first time in decades see the sun again next month when Volpi offers them at auction.

Volpi, the son of Venetian politician and financier Guiseppe Volpi, developed a taste for racing early on and, not long after inheriting his father’s vast fortune in 1958 at the age of 20, had become one of Ferrari’s best customers. Primarily, he bought the cars to field in racing efforts under the name Scuderia Serenissima, taken from the historical sobriquet for Venice.

That relationship, however, came to an end when Volpi decided to put his fortune to use backing the former Ferrari employees who went on to start Automobili Turismo Sport. While the founders of ATS–that also went by the name Automobili Turismo Sport Serenissima to ensure Volpi’s 20-percent stake in the company–had grand plans and went on to build one of the first mid-engine road cars, by the mid-Sixties their company’s future started to fall apart when Volpi, who butted heads with fellow backer Giorgio Billi, demanded the company buy out his stake and allow him to take the Serenissima name with him to use in founding a new automotive company.

Volpi didn’t go far to establish Serenissima. According to Wolfgang Blaube’s story on Volpi for the German magazine Oldtimer Markt, Volpi took over the Modena firm Sasamotors, where he reunited with former Ferrari sales chief and ATS co-founder Girolamo Gardini and where he recruited Alberto Massimino, the former Alfa Romeo and Maserati engineer, to design a new tube-frame mid-engine chassis–designated the 308–a new 3.0-liter dual overhead-camshaft dry-sump Weber-carbureted V-8 and a new five-speed mid-engine gearbox.

Volpi then had Fantuzzi envelop two chassis in lightweight aluminum spyder bodies for endurance racing. At testing in April 1966, the first of the two performed admirably: According to Blaube, it matched the lap times of the Ferrari 250 LM and caught the eye of Bruce McLaren, who ultimately convinced Volpi to sell him the car’s engine for McLaren’s Formula 1 effort. Volpi thus fielded the second of the two, chassis number 005, in that year’s race and exhibited his planned street car–the Massimino-chassis Jungla–at Le Mans sans engine.

The whole effort was apparently rushed: Not only did Scuderia Serenissima miss its initial time for weigh-in, but the factory racing team also neglected to outfit the spyder with a fire extinguisher or the appropriate oil tank and breathers.

The team managed to rectify those issues, and drivers Jean-Claude Sauer and Jean de Mortemart took to the track in the spyder, entered under number 24 in the Prototype class. They lasted just 40 laps, or about five hours, before the transmission broke. Without a backup, the race was over for Serenissima.

At roughly the same time, Volpi’s relationship with Sasamotors and Massimino dissolved. Determined to make it as a builder of road-going grand touring cars, however, Volpi turned to Stirling Moss’ former lead mechanic, Alf Francis, to establish another, smaller shop in Modena, where Francis and his team set to work building a new box frame with tubular front and rear subframes and modifying the Massimino V-8 with three-valve heads.

The first prototype, initially called the GT Strada (chassis number EX001), used an aluminum body that went through a number of changes, mostly in front-end design, and mostly conducted by the project’s engineers. The completed car, later renamed the Agena, went largely unused.

(At roughly the same time, Francis built up a monoposto from a BRP monococque chassis, a Lola, and a Can Am-like Spider Avionale, all of which used either 3.0- or 3.5-liter versions of the Massimino/Francis V-8 and thus went under the name Serenissima.)

What the Agena had apparently lacked was a designer. So for his next attempt at a road car, Volpi turned to his friend Alejandro de Tomaso, who had just bought Ghia. De Tomaso in turn tasked his newly installed head of design, Tom Tjaarda, with the Serenissima GT.

According to Tjaarda, he based the GT on a De Tomaso Mangusta chassis (stamped as chassis number GT EX001) fitted with the 3.5-liter version of the Massinimo engine. The pop-up headlamps, along with the power windows and air conditioning, point to a more refined design, one that de Tomaso reportedly needled Volpi to put into mass production.

Volpi, apparently more pleased with the GT than he was with the Agena, put the former on the show circuit. It debuted in the fall of 1968 at the Turin Motor Show, painted a light green metallic, then made its way to Geneva and New York in the spring of 1969, by then fitted with the Alf Francis-modified version of the Massinimo engine and painted red. Whatever plans Volpi might have had to enter production with the GT, however, fizzled the following year along with the entire Serenissima concern. According to Tjaarda, Volpi apparently sold the GT to Swiss businessman Charles Graemiger in 1977, but a faulty clutch prevented Graemiger from registering it in Switzerland, so Volpi bought it back.

All three of the Serenissima cars in Volpi’s hands remain essentially untouched, according to the descriptions from Artcurial, which plans to offer the trio at its Retromobile auction. The spyder carries the highest pre-auction estimate of the three, at €1.3 million to €1.8 million (U.S. $1.5 million to U.S. $2 million), while the other two carry pre-auction estimates of €400,000 to €600,000 (U.S. $450,000 to U.S. $685,000).

Artcurial’s Retromobile auction will take place February 8 in Paris. For more information, visit Artcurial.com.