Photos by Jim Fets, courtesy Mark Sassak, except where noted.
Several years ago, Mark Sassak came a hair’s breadth away from owning all three of the 5300 Spyders that Stile Italia built for Bizzarrini. With one in his family since the 1960s and the second hunted down in Italy, the third literally came knocking on his door.
“I was in the middle of building a house, so while I had the money, I would’ve been stretched thin if I bought it,” the Michigan-based car collector said. “You make mistakes in life, and not buying (the third car) was one of them.”
Instead, he called up Don Meluzio, a fellow Bizzarrini enthusiast in Pennsylvania, and passed the opportunity on to him. Don jumped on it and hasn’t let go since. Fortunately, Mark said, he and Don remain good friends, and the two have decided to reunite all three of the Bizzarrini Spyders—the only three built—later this summer at the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s.
Mark’s interest in the Bizzarrini Spyders began with his father, John Sassak, whose business partner, Harold Sarko, in 1967 bought the first production Spyder, serial number BA4 108, and had it tailored to fit him. Giotto Bizzarrini, a former Alfa Romeo and Ferrari engineer and the man who designed the Lamborghini V-12, had decided to build his own cars in 1965; though he built stunningly gorgeous and wonderfully performing cars, he had a hard time finding customers, so he did what he could to make every sale. That meant enlarging the cockpit of BA4 108 for Sarko, adding a center console and glovebox, and painting it red.
Even with all the personalization, Sarko soon lost interest in the car and sold it to John Sassak six months after he bought it. “Dad was looking for a Ferrari, but Sarko told him to buy this instead,” Mark said. “It looked like something out of the future, and he’d take us kids out for rides in it, doing donuts all the way.”
John Sassak eventually sold the Spyder to Mark’s brother, who promptly trashed it and left it for dead on a suburban Detroit road. Mark then bought the car in 1971, fixed it, and spent the next decade or so putting about 20,000 miles on it as a more-or-less everyday car.
At the time, he had only a vague notion of the car’s importance. One of just two Spyders built in addition to the prototype, the car was more than just a 5300 Strada with the roof cut off. Rather, Bizzarrini had Stile Italia and Sibona e Basano handbuild the bodies from aluminum with sharper noses, bigger trunks and a multi-piece top that allowed the cars to adopt a number of shapes: entirely topless, targa-style with rollbar, T-top, or completely enclosed. Like the Strada, the cars came with Chevrolet small-block V-8s under the hood, but positioned back enough to offer close to 50/50 weight distribution.
“Bizzarrini was trying to build his own California Spyders,” Mark explained. “He said they were the most beautiful cars he ever built.”
Photo by Mark Sassak.
A planned production run of 100 fizzled out, though. Bizzarrini sold just two Spyders, the second in 1969, the same year he closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy. He even attempted to convert the prototype (chassis IA3 0245) to production form and sell it, but his efforts went for naught; his lawyer ended up buying the prototype off Bizzarrini during the bankruptcy.
Mark, while restoring his Spyder during the Eighties, grew curious about his car’s pedigree and began to research the other Spyders. That led him to the greater Bizzarrini enthusiast crowd and eventually, in about 2000, to Bizzarrini’s lawyer in Livorno, Italy, who still had the prototype.
“Everybody was tight-lipped about it and some said it didn’t even exist, but I had a friend who could speak Italian call up Bizzarrini directly, and he told us his attorney had it,” Mark said. “So I jumped on the next plane to meet him and explained that I was the best guy to buy the car. I was there for seven days, and I didn’t leave until I had it in a shipping container.”
Even after restoring it to the configuration in which it appeared at the 1966 Geneva and Torino auto shows, he’s rarely shown it alongside his production Spyder. All three Spyders have only appeared together twice so far—once in 2004 at Concorso Italiano, and then in 2011 at a small show in the Poconos in Pennsylvania.
The three Spyders will form a special display at this year’s Concours d’Elegance of America, which will feature 1980s poster cars, early Japanese sports cars, hearses, Bentleys, Pierce-Arrows and Bonneville Streamliners, among other cars.
The 37th annual Concours d’Elegance of America will take place July 24-26 at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth, Michigan. For more information, visit ConcoursUSA.org.