Part 10: Bertone
By David Cavaliere
This week we look at the story of one of the great design houses of Italy – Bertone. During its 100-year history, some of the world’s most beautiful cars were designed in their studios. It also had production facilities and built hundreds of thousands of cars. Gruppo Bertone, or more simply Bertone, was an Italian automobile company which specialized in car styling, coach building and manufacturing. Bertone styling is distinctive and many of the cars bear a strong “family resemblance,” even if they are badged by different manufacturers. Bertone has styled cars for Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Citroën, Ferrari, Fiat, Iso, Lancia, Lamborghini, Mercedes Benz, Opel and Volvo (among others). In addition, the Bertone studio was responsible for two of the later designs of the Lambretta motorscooter.
In August 1996, 82-year-old Nuccio Bertone returned from a vacation in southern Italy feeling poorly. He told his wife Lilli that no matter what, he wanted the company formed by his father, Giovanni, to remain in business until 2012 – to keep the name Bertone intact, at least until the company celebrates its 100th anniversary. Of course Lilli agreed. That was the beginning of the end. Within six months, the man who had built his father’s coach building shop into one of the world’s most respected and recognized automotive design studios was gone and by the time the company reached its 100th year, its business had unraveled and fallen apart.
Giovanni Bertone was born in 1884, and went to work when he was 12 making wooden wheels, then wagons and finally, car bodies. He opened a coachbuilding shop when he was 28 and kept the shop operating through the two world wars and the Depression. But it was his son, Giuseppe, nicknamed Nuccio, who really grew the business. He took charge of the company after World War II and divided the company into two units: Carrozzeria for manufacturing and Stile Bertone for styling.
At the end of the First World War, Bertone expanded its activities focusing on the automotive sector. It opened a new plant in Turin in 1920, with 20 employees. Its first significant contract came a year later, designing and building the body for the FIAT 501 Sport Siluro Corsa, and in one fell swoop, the high performance sports car was born. It was during the 1920s that Giovanni forged his relationships with two of Italy’s most important manufacturers – FIAT and Lancia. During the 1920s, Turin was one of the world’s centers of excellence in the automotive industry. Bertone was poised at the center of the hub and formed partnerships with almost all the manufacturers of the day. Giovanni Bertone began doing bodywork on the Fast, Chiribiri, Aurea, SCAT and Diatto chassis.
Vincenzo Lancia commissioned Bertone to produce special limited production automobiles on standard Lancia chassis. This resulted in exciting designs that gave enormous experience to Gruppo Bertone for small production runs of superior quality cars. Giovanni Bertone designed luxury cars such as the Fiat 505 limousine and the Itala 51S in 1924. He later designed the Lancia Lambda VIII Series in 1928 and in the same year, the sports model Ansaldo 6BS.
By the early 30s, while much of the automobile industry in Italy was in poor shape, Bertone was flourishing. By 1933, his company had grown to 50 employees. This was also the year that Nuccio Bertone came to work for his father. In 1934, Bertone created the Fiat 527S Ardita 2500. This was a turning point in body style and design. The front “wings” of the cars were integrated into the sides of the hood and the headlights were faired in. These design features would be repeated on countless cars throughout the remainder of the pre-war years. Giovanni’s bold innovations and elegant creations were universally lauded by the press and by car experts alike.
With the outbreak of World War II, the car market experienced a sudden drastic downturn. Virtually every bodywork manufacturer turned toward military production of one sort or another, Bertone included. Bertone managed to remain open by building ambulances and even a few Lancia Aprilias during the war. Once peace resumed, the slow process of reconstruction began in Europe. As the larger industrial companies ramped up production, the bodywork manufacturers received more and more orders.
The 1950s brought significant growth to Bertone. In 1952, it received its first foreign orders, coming from MG and Bristol Cars Limited (of the UK). Around this same time, Bertone was approached by cash-starved Alfa Romeo and asked to quickly design a body for a sporty GT car. The result was the Giulietta Sprint prototype, completed in time for the 1954 Turin Auto Show. Nuccio built a factory in Grugliasco, and over the next 11 years, produced 40,000 Giulietta Sprints. The factory eventually grew to 3.3 million square feet, with as many as 2,500 employees at a given time. Nuccio began turning out bodies for special models, prototypes, show cars and one-offs. In the first year of the 1960s alone, Carrozzeria Bertone built 31,000 cars. Over the next two decades, the company designed, modified, engineered or built 43 vehicles and concept cars. Nuccio’s lifetime total stands at more than 90 models.
The relationship between Bertone and Alfa Romeo reached its creative peak with the Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica (BAT) concept cars. These cars pushed the boundaries of design and aerodynamics in the 1950s, but it was the next decade that saw the true rise of the Italian Gran Turismo. Nuccio Bertone and his designers came up with numerous variations of the GT theme – the Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB, the Aston Martin DB4 GT ‘Jet’ and the Maserati 5000 GT. Nuccio also designed the Iso Rivolta and Grifo during the decade, but the greatest financial success came in the form of the Fiat 850 Spider. This model led Nuccio to increase the company’s production capacity to 120 units per day (between 1965 and 1972, nearly 140,000 were produced, with the majority sold in the United States).
In the mid-1960s, Bertone began a design relationship with Ferruccio Lamborghini that would make history in the automotive world. First there was the Lamborghini Miura, presented at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show. This represented a complete reinvention of the supercar design concept. The Miura was followed by the Marzal in 1967 and the Espada in 1968. During this same period, the design studio also produced the Alfa Romeo Montreal and the Fiat Dino Coupe.
By 1970, Bertone had a workforce of 1,500. In that year, the prototype Lancia Stratos Zero was built, based on a Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF chassis. The following year, using the Zero’s styling cues as a starting point, Bertone created the Lancia Stratos Stradale, a compact coupe destined mainly for the racing circuit and won multiple world rally championships.
In 1972, at the age of 88, Giovanni Bertone died. In that year, the Maserati Khamsin and the Fiat X1/9 were released. The latter went on to become a runaway commercial success. Based on the Fiat 128 chassis, but with a mid-engine layout, the X1/9 was in production from 1972 to 1988, with 160,000 units manufactured.
Nuccio Bertone’s drawing board saw a succession of supercars including the Lamborghini LP500 (later the Countach), the Ferrari 308 GT4 of 1973, the Audi 50 and Innocenti Mini 90 of 1974, the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally in 1975 and the prototype Alfa Romeo Navajo in 1976. From the start of the 1980s, the Fiat Ritmo Cabrio and the Fiat X1/9 were produced and sold directly under the Bertone brand, meaning that the company was now responsible not only for production, but also for the sales network and after-sales assistance for the two models. In 1982, Nuccio Bertone turned out another important design, the Citroën BX. A commercial agreement drawn up with General Motors Europe in 1986 saw production of the Kadett Cabrio handed over to Bertone.
Bertone entered the 1990s with its focus on technological innovations, capturing the attention of public at the 1992 Turin Motor Show, the futuristic Blitz Barchetta, a showcar that featured an electric engine and innovative construction solutions. In 1993, the Opel Astra Cabrio and the Fiat Punto Cabrio begun production, with the entire production cycle for both cars at the Grugliasco factory.
On February 26, 1997, on the evening of the Geneva Motor Show, Nuccio Bertone died. He left no real successors to fill his shoes. The shares in the company were divided among his family and it was his family members who decided that they would run the company. Things looked at that point as though the goal of keeping the company running for 100 years was well within their abilities. In the year of Nuccio’s death, 21,000 cars rolled out of the factory and Bertone had a multi-year contract to make convertible versions of the Opel Astra and Fiat Punto. By the turn of the century, the factory was still making money. The factory turned out 34,991 Astras in 2002, generating almost $500 million in revenue. Yet, if one looked at the books, you could see that the wheels were coming off. In 2002, Bertone had a net profit of less than $973,000 – a fraction of one percent. In early 2003, the factory produced 150 Opels a day in two shifts, but as the contract wound down, production fell to less than half that number and 700 workers were put on temporary leave from July to November. The remaining 1,000 employees were off duty every other week. No new work was coming on board.
The last of the contract Opels concluded in 2005. That spring, Opel ended a 20-year relationship with Bertone after corporate parent General Motors announced it would build next-generation Astras in-house. It then awarded a highly coveted Opel Tigra Twin Top project to Heuliez, a niche manufacturer from France. A GM Europe official rubbed salt into Bertone’s wounds by telling the press that quality and cost issues were responsible for the break. By 2009, the worsening financial situation caused Bertone to sell its Grugliasco plant, along with its manufacturing activities to Fiat. Bertone underwent a major restructuring to become a service company in the automotive, transportation and industrial design sectors. By then, the Bertone workforce had been reduced to roughly 300, mainly engineers and designers. The financial turmoil however continued, leading the company to sell off a portion of its treasured collection of concept cars in 2011.
At the 2010 Geneva Motor Show, the Alfa Romeo Pandion concept car premiered. This was to be the swansong of Stile Bertone. The Pandion coupé was designed as a tribute to Alfa Romeo’s one hundred year anniversary. Later that year, the courts and creditors declared that Nuccio’s life’s work had been undone by gross mismanagement – the factory had been technically dead since 2006, the books had been cooked to hide the debt, the refusal to declare bankruptcy had only worsened the environment and ability to retain asset values. The last months of the company’s existence were characterized by lawsuits and counter lawsuits. And so ends the story of the House of Bertone. Their hollowed doors closing with a whimper and a tear.
Next week we will revisit with one of the outstanding engineers mentioned several issues ago and examine the cars that bore his name.