Part 11 Bizzarrini S.p.A.
By David Cavaliere
Giotto Bizzarrini – a name we have come across already during this series. If you recall from previous features, this engineer’s ideas and fingerprints were all over the world of Italian high performance automobiles during the late 1950s and 60s. From the Ferrari 250 GTO and ATS 2500, to the ASA Ferrarini and the Lamborghini V12 engine, Bizzarrini was not only active in the development of cars for other companies, he founded his own factory in the mid-1960s.
In 1961, Giotto Bizzarrini set up Prototipi Bizzarrini in Livorno, Tuscany, where he designed and consulted for marques like ATS, Lamborghini and Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A. In 1963, he designed the Iso Grifo A3/L for Renzo Rivolta, who was looking for a follow-up to his Iso Rivolta IR 300. The body was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone and Bizzarrini put his expertise into the mechanicals. When designing his beautiful and impressively fast Iso Grifo, Giotto turned to the reliable and easily-tuned Chevrolet small-block V8 engine and 4-speed gearbox from the Corvette. He designed a welded-sheet platform frame, sophisticated suspension, while Giugiaro penned a svelte, aerodynamic body. Later Bizzarrini worked again for Rivolta on the Iso Gordon GT project. This car became the Iso Rivolta GT. The Iso Gordon GT prototype was developed from the Gordon-Keeble GT, whose body was designed in 1960 by Giugiaro. If everything seems to spin around, that was the European automotive world in the 1960s!
The cars that I just mentioned all had a common theme, in addition to the aforementioned designers – cheap horsepower. One of Lamborghini’s initial criticisms of Bizzarrini’s V12 was that it was too highly-strung for road use. Producing 1.5 horsepower per cubic inch, the 3.5 liter engine (213 cu.in.) was a thoroughbred, but it was expensive to produce. On the other hand, an off-the-shelf Chevrolet 327 fuel-injected engine produced 250 HP. By changing to large Weber carburetors and a high lift camshaft, the engine could be tuned to 400 HP for a fraction of the cost of a Lamborghini or Ferrari engine. Bizzarrini said of his initial test, “The Iso “Rivolta had me test the prototype. I especially liked the Corvette engine. It was the first time I had driven one. It was superior to Ferrari’s engines, having the same power, but with a more immediate throttle response.”
The Grifo provided the starting point for Bizzarrini’s own car – the 5300 GT Strada. In 1966, he changed the name of the company to Bizzarrini S.p.A. and began to produce a small number of highly developed and advanced sports cars and a beautiful racing machine called the P538S.
The Strada was launched by his company in 1965. It was similar in concept to the Grifo and used the welded monocoque platform of the Iso Rivolta 300. Ultimately, 133 Stradas would leave the Livorno factory between 1965 and 1969. The Strada was powered by the 327 cu.in. Corvette engine (displacing 5358 cc) and produced 375 HP in street form and over 400 HP for racing. He fitted the car with large Dunlop four-wheel disc brakes, a BorgWarner four-speed manual transmission, a de Dion tube rear suspension and a limited slip differential. The Bertone-styled body of hand-hammered aluminum was striking in its day. Its beautiful lines hold up well today.
At his core, Giotto Bizzarrini was a dedicated race car designer and builder. One of the sources of disagreement between Renzo Rivolta and Giotto was Bizzarrini’s desire to build race cars, while Rivolta desired only to build high quality GT cars and family transportation cars. Bizzarrini had mixed success in racing. The lowest point for Bizzarrini undoubtedly was an endurance race – The Sebring 12 Hours on March 27, 1965. Both Iso/Bizzarrini race cars crashed heavily that day and were total write-offs. Car No. 8, driven by Silvio Moser, went off track when his brakes failed and he crashed into a VW bus. Fortunately no one was injured. Later in the race, the heavens opened up and during the heavy rain storm, car No. 9, driven by Mike Gammino aquaplaned to the side of the track, hit the pedestrian bridge and split in two! When Gammino stepped out of the car to assess the damage, he only then realized that the rear end of his car was no longer attached.
The highlight for Bizzarrini came later that same year on June 19–20 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There his Iso Grifo/Bizzarrini won the 5 liter and over class and finished ninth overall.
Bizzarrini’s advanced ideas emerged again with the superb Bizzarrini P538S. The P stood for posterior (rear-engine), 53 for the 5300 cc Corvette engine, 8 for V8 engine and S for sports car. Two P538s were built with V8s, while two more used Lamborghini V12 engines – one of 3.5 liters and the other 4 liters. The cars used a five-speed transaxle. Braking was by inboard four wheel disc brakes, with a fully independent suspension. The body was made of fiberglass over a tubular steel chassis. This ultra-low barchetta raced in the 1966 Le Mans, but had a poor result. It spun at the start and retired by a cracked oil pipe after three hours of the 24 hour race. During the short race time, the P538 was clocked as one of the fastest cars down the Mulsanne Straight.
In 1968, engine displacement rule changes meant that the Corvette engine P538S was no longer class eligible. Bizzarrini sold one of the now redundant chassis to Giorgetto Giugiaro, who re-bodied the car as the Bizzarrini Manta. Remarkably, Giugiaro had only 40 days to get the car prepared for the 1968 Turin Motor Show.
Bizzarrini also managed a scaled-down 5300 GT project. Designed for GM-Opel, it was based on Opel 1900 platform. Bizzarrini’s proposal was both aggressive and good looking. The car is officially named as the Bizzarrini 1900 GT Europa was intended to transform Bizzarrini into a volume manufacturer. The planned production Europa would have used the Opel 1900 engine and the estimated price would have placed it put it in competition with such established sports cars as the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA and Lancia Flavia 1.8. When the 1900 Europa debuted at the 1966 Turin Motor Show, it received a lot of attention and good press. The body looked like a scaled down version of the expensive Strada, which made it a good fit in the model range. Unfortunately, the deteriorating financial condition of the company killed the project and only a handful of Europas made it out of the factory. What the masses received instead was the Opel GT and while that car (sometimes known as the “poor man’s Corvette”) garnered quite a following, the Bizzarrini 1900 Europa has been lamented as the Opel GT that should have been.
In 1990, Bizzarrini was involved in the design of a one-off supercar model. Based on the Ferrari Testarossa, Bizzarrini and his team designed a superb car. The Bizzarrini BZ-2001 is the true follower of the P538. The car was the first one of a supposed production run, but only one more car was completed.
The name Bizzarrini still remains in the automotive industry. The brand was purchased by VGM Motors, an Italian company founded by John Mariani. At the Geneva Auto Show in 2006, the Bizzarrini GTS 4.1 V was shown. It is a mix between a state of the art technology and the best of Italian style. The two-door GT has a 4.1-liter V8 producing 550 HP. It flies to 60 MPH is 3.8 seconds and has a top speed of 224. The million dollar sticker price ensures exclusivity of the car
Today, at nearly 90 years of age, Giotto Bizzarrini is still busy teaching and collaborating with the Roma University, developing advanced projects, designing, building and developing his own sport cars. On October 23, 2012, Professor Bizzarrini was given the Honoris Causa Degree in Industrial Design. He remains an amazing man and a living legend.