Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945‒1975

Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945‒1975

Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945‒1975


50 years ago, in Y 1966, Lamborghini introduced a low, sleek, mid-engine  supercar called the Miura. Considered groundbreaking when it was introduced because of its transversely-mounted mid-engine (sidewinder) layout, the vehicle garnered a lots of orders despite being shown only as a rolling chassis a year earlier at the Turin Auto Show.

Designed by Marcello Gandini at the famed coachbuilder Bertone, the 2-seater redefined the concept of a sports car, and was at its debut the fastest production car in the world.

Form and function came together perfectly and was emblematic of a period of design in Italian automotive history that, spanning the post-war years through the 1970’s, signaled “not only are we back, but we’re leading the way,” says Ken Gross, automotive historian and author, and guest curator of “Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945‒1975,” an exhibition opening at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts this month. “It made the world’s car makers sit up and take notice.”

Mr. Gross describes the period as an “Italian industrial Renaissance and economic miracle.” Mention “Alfa Romeo” and “the 1950’s” or “Ferrari” and “the Sixties” in the same breath, and you’re likely to make any vintage car enthusiast swoon.

“The Italian persona is reflected in the cars they produce, from a styling and fashion point of view, and the ability of Italian coachbuilders to produce extraordinary cars from both a performance and design perspective is unparalleled,” Mr. Gross explains.

Sleek and sexy, Italian flair was in demand from Europe to America as automakers sought the design expertise of coachbuilders such as Bertone, Ghia, and Pininfarina. But these designers, with the advancement of technology and a growing mystification toward the 21st century, also made concept cars that were wildly futuristic, evoking rockets, jets, or even birds in their design.

Alfa Romeo, for instance, made three BAT (“Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica”) cars in the mid-1950’s with aerodynamic design details like curvaceous wing-like spoilers at the rear. Designed by Franco Scaglione at Bertone, the vehicles were created to achieve the lowest possible drag, a technical concept that continues to drive modern design at automakers today.

During that time American companies Chrysler and Lincoln were hiring Italian coachbuilders to make vehicles inspired by the advent of space travel and technology.

The tail end of the 1955 Lincoln Indianapolis for instance evoked a jet’s afterburner, which was a favorite design element of 1950’s car designers. Gian Carlo Boano’s Futurist design was based on the idea of an aircraft, and the vehicle featured a rounded center section that tapered at each end between pontoon-like outer wings.

Chrysler’s Turbine cars, made between 1962 and 1964 with Turin-based Ghia, similarly featured two large horizontal tail lights and nozzles mounted inside a very heavy chrome sculptured bumper.

“The Italian attention to detail is terrific. Looking at the tail lights, this car whispers jet plane,” notes Mr. Gross.

For the exhibition, Mr. Gross has put together 19 coachbuilt and concept cars, as well as 3 motorcycles, culled from museums and private collections.

Apart from the ultra-rare Alfa Romeo BAT models 5, 7, and 9, other fine examples of Italian models include wedge-shaped automobiles like the UFO-looking 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero and the iconic 1962 Ferrari GTO.

The Ferrari 250GTO, low and curvy, is considered by many of us to the #1 sports racing car of all time and in May 2012 a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO made for Stirling Moss sold for a record-breaking $35-M in a private treaty transaction.

Ferraris from the 1960’s continue to make high marks amongst collectors and as recently as the Amelia Island auctions in March Gooding & Co. sold a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider, with coachwork by Scaglietti, for $17.2-M, and RM Sotheby’s (NYSE:BID) sold a 1962 Ferrari 400 Superamerica LWB Coupe Aerodinamico for $4.4-M.

“We’ve covered the 1930’s and ‘40’s, so the next natural thing to explore was ‘50’s to ‘70’s,” explained Mr. Gross, referring to the “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles” exhibition he had also curated at the Frist in 2013. “What I want is for people to see that cars will never be built this beautifully and elegantly again. Back then, you had a chassis and a train, and you built a body for it. You can’t do that anymore. Today’s design guidelines are about reducing drag or maximizing fuel mileage, not about taking your breath away.”

Including 2-wheeled examples in the show was also important to Mr. Gross, who is the proud owner of 3 Ducati bikes. He included the 1957 Moto Guzzi V-8 because of its aerodynamic “dustbin” fairing, which covered the front wheel and wraps around the engine;,the 1973 MV Agusta 750 Sport because the brand, often known as the Ferrari of motorcycles, was “very expensive, looked great, and sounded better,” and the 1974 Ducati 750 Super Sport, which is widely considered to be 1 of the most beautiful sport motor bikes ever made.

“People are intrigued by automobiles being sculpture and kinetic art,” observes Mr. Gross, pointing out that the notion of exhibiting cars in fine arts museums goes back to 1951, when the Museum of Modern Art staged “8 Automobiles,” the 1st car exhibition to be held in a museum at the time. “It proves that cars are rolling sculptures.”

“Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945‒1975” runs at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN, from 27 May through 9 October 2016.

For highlights on view, click on the slideshow:
56-Ferrari-410-SA_DV-14-AI_07Here is a picture one of the Ferrari SuperAmericas, by pininfarina from the late 50’s, it was owned by Bill Doheny and then by actor Jackie Coogan. I owned one in black livery, wonder where it is today.

Exhibition Line Up

Bella Berlinettas
1950 Cisitalia 202 SC
1953 Fiat 8V Supersonic
1955 Maserati A6G 2000 Zagato

Berlinettas: The BATs
1953 Alfa Romeo BAT 5
1954 Alfa Romeo BAT 7
1955 Alfa Romeo BAT 9

Styling Gems
1946 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Speciale
1952 Lancia B52 Aurelia PF200 Spider
1961 Ferrari 400 Superamerica

Il Ultimo
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO

Wedge-Shaped Cars
1955 Chrysler Ghia Gilda
1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero
1966 Ferrari 365 P Tre Posti

Italian and American Excitement
1952 Cunningham C3 Continental
1955 Lincoln Indianapolis
1963 Chrysler Turbine Car

Mid-Engine Marvels
1963 ATS 2500 GT
1968 Bizzarrini 5300 Strada
1970 Lamborghini Miura S

On Two Wheels
1957 Moto Guzzi V-8
1973 MV Agusta 750 Sport
1974 Ducati 750 Super Sport

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Stay tuned…

Paul Ebeling

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