Giovanni and Nuccio Bertone

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Giovanni and Nuccio Bertone

Nuccio Bertone
Nuccio Bertone


"NOW LISTEN TO this carefully, Nuccio," one of Fiat's top men said to Bertone in 1952. "The coach-building business is finished, dead. Stop spinning your wheels and find a new career."

These crushing words came from a friend who knew where the industry really stood. Fiat was the one company that always had gone out of its way to help the small coachbuilder, even when it wasn't particularly in the firm's interest to do so. And now Fiat, the trade's sole remaining big source of ladder-frame chassis, was converting to monocoque construction.

That left Alfa Romeo - still a relatively small manufacturer - as almost the sole avenue of livelihood for the entire swarm of Italy's designers and builders of special car bodies. The future seemed disastrous for all of them.

Nuccio Bertone, then only 38 years of age, was immensely dynamic and loved his work with a passion. So he looked beyond Italy for a chassis to build on and chose to take a chance with the MG. He bought a pair of MG TD chassis and, with his design assistant Franco Scaglione, developed coupe and cabriolet bodies for them which, while losing none of the MG's Britannic sporting flavor, nevertheless were little masterpieces of the then-emerging Italian Line.

Bertone put them on display at the 1952 Turin Show, hoping against hope that something might happen. It did, on the morning of the show's opening, when a beefy figure in American cowboy hat and high-heeled boots stomped onto the stand and demanded: "Say, did you make these things?"
"Indeed," said the equally-massive Bertone, raising; his shaggy black eyebrows. "Do they please you?"
"Please me, hell," the man said, "I'll buy 'em!"
"You mean both of them?" Bertone managed to reply with calm.
"No," said Wacky Arnolt, "I can use 100 of each if the price is right. I can sell these cars in the States."

Leaping at the chance to get new, international exposure, Bertone gave the American entrepreneur a price that would only enable Bertone to break even. But this was the beginning of the rebirth of Carrozzeria Bertone and, to a most important extent, of Italian coach-building in general. It was, in fact, the beginning of a revolution in the car industry. Bertone would go on to become a giant of that industry and Nucci Bertone would later look back with humor, humility and gratitude upon that fateful year when a friend predicted the end of his world and a stranger transformed it with a casual stroke.

Giovanni Bertone

Nuccio entered the world of coach-building by following his father's footsteps. His father, Giovanni Bertone, was born about 100 km from Turin in 1884. He went to work for a wagon-manufacturer at the age of 12 and at 23, in 1907, he went to Turin. There he found a job with Diatto working on the construction of railway cars. He worked, studied, saved, accumulated a good set of tools and, in 1912, rented a small shop space in an open courtyard. There, under a canvas rood, he began repairing wagons, and then started building them. His craftsmanship was exceptionally fine, his products were extremely durable, and he enjoyed a modest success.

Traditional wooden-frame open four-seater body by Bertone for a 1921 Ceirano Chassis
Traditional wooden-frame open four-seater body by Bertone for a 1921 Ceirano Chassis.

Bertone racing body for 1923 Fiat 501
Bertone racing body for 1923 Fiat 501.

1929 Fiat 525 with Bertone Sports Phaeton Torpedo bodywork
Bertone built very few bodies for show or for the carriage trade. This sports phaeton torpedo four-seater was a 1929 Fiat 525.

Fiat Balilla with custom Bertone body
One of the many custom Bertone bodies for the Fiat Balilla.

Arnolt-Bristol and Arnolt-MG in front of the Arnolt factory in Indiana, USAArnolt-Bristol and Arnolt-MG in front of the Arnolt factory in Indiana, USA.

The Bertone prototype MG was first shown at the 1952 Turin Show
The Bertone prototype MG was first shown at the 1952 Turin Show. Promoted by the American Wacky Arnolt, it was the start of Bertone's post-war success.

He also had a very fine eye for design and began to build one and two-place byggies for harness racing. These were as strong as they were ultra-light and fast, and he bagan to get a reputation in Turin the cradle of the Italian car industry. He entered it when his old employer, Diatto, now also a car manufacturer, gave him an order for a few baquets - mere ballast boxes with a couple of jump seats, used for the testing and delivery of bare chassis.

Vincenzo Lancia

From this rudimentary start he went on to build racing bodies for Diatto. These were strong, light and elegant, and other great early Torniese manufacturers sought out Giovanni Bertone, including Aurea, Ceirano, Chiribiri, Fast, Fiat, Italia, Scat and Spa. He did some one-off work for the carriage trade but preferred to build in small series for established manufacturers. All that he knew of business administration was the priceless value of an honest man's word. His reputation continued to grow and in 1919 it attracted Vincenzo Lancia, one of the greatest of all benefactors of the Italian coachbuilding industry.

The relationship of Lancia and Bertone began on a purely business basis with the provision of bodies for the Lancia Kappa chassis. But in spite of the social gulf which separated the two men they became close friends as well as close business associates. The monocoque construction pioneered by the Lancia Lambda model did nothing to change this rapport and throughout most of the Lambda's long years of production Bertone was the chief supplier of raw bodies for the open four-seater. The point came evenruaiy when Lancia recognised the need for an all-metal, closed monocoque body for the Lambda and he took his thoughts ro Giovanni Bertone. "I would like for you to build these for me. he said, "I know that this will mean big changes for you; they will mean a lot of new investment, but I will heir you with that. And you'll need plenty of technical help and I'll see that you get that, too."

This was too much for Giuseppe Bertone's tradition-rich mind to digest. All-metal body construction, beyond the limits of the Lambda, was pure heresy to him. But the thought that "technical help" might be imposed upon him was worse. "I am an experienced coachbuilder," he told Lancia firmly, "and in my factory it is I who do the teaching." Lancia shrugged, left and arranged his problem by building a new body plant of his own. Giovanni Bertone's stubbornness was rewarded by the loss of his Lancia business - wbich had accounted for most of is his output - just as the Great d Depression settled in and a bankruptcy began overtaking most of the Italian automotive industry.

Nuccio Bertone

It was at this moment, in 1932, that 18-year-old Nuccio realised that his adulthood had arrived. His name was a multiple diminutive of his father's: Giuseppe = Giuseppino = Pino = Pinuccio = Nuccio, He was born in Turin on July 4, 1914. and never dreamed of any personal future other than designing and building bodies for cars. At seven he began drawing cars, under his father's approving guidance. At nine, in a little German Fafnir, he learned to drive in the alley behind the small factory. At 10 he began learning to work with the tools of the trade and at 12 started working in the plant part-rime. By the age of 17 he was skilled in all the manual arts of coachbuilding.

Nuccio Bertone was trained to inherit the management of the ever-growing business and in that year received his college degree in accountancy and entered the University of Turin as an economics major. But the practical economics of the deepening world crisis were more imperative and, with his father's consent, Nuccio dropped out of university and went to work for the family firm full-time. He continued his studies at night school. Father and son kept the business alive by taking in repair work, waiting for things somehow to straighten out Then came the war-horse of Italian coachbuilding in the 1930s, the pert and lively little Fiat Balilla. Nuccio and his father conceived a plan for selling their wares not to car manufacturers but directly to the dealers all over the country.

Nation Wide Sales Tours

Together Giovanni and Nuccio developed a portfolio of six special and elegant body designs for the Balilla chassis. In the spring of 1934 Nuccio travelled the length and breadth of Italy, plus Sicily, showing these to dealers in every large community. Many would have nothing to do with non-factory bodies. Others placed orders, while dictating changes to suit local market conditions. Others bought cars straight from the catalogue. When Nuccio returned to Turin it was with enough new business to give the company a solid new start. He also came back with a very acute knowledge of the regional preferences of the Italian consumer, from the Swiss border to the tip of the boot. This resulted in a new catalogue of about 30 different body styles for the Balilla chassis, and for almost infinite variations upon these themes.

These nation-wide sales tours became an annual responsibility for Nuccio. He soon added every important racing event in Italy to his itinerary, not just because be loved racing but because the myriad of events served as clearing houses for his clientele. Papa Bertone was also an avid racing fan and often made these trips with his son. Thus Carrozzeria Bertone weathered the 1930s. The war, of course, brought conversion to the building of vehicles for the military effort. After it, Italy lay in ruin and it took years for any useful supply of new chassis to become available. Although the demand for repair work was great there also was a great deal of forced leisure.

The School of Speed

From 1946 through 1952 Nuccio spent most of his leisure as a racing driver. He began in hill-climbs and mountain races with a Fiat 500 punched out to 750 cm3. Then he moved on to a competition Stanguellini 1100, a series of Oscas, Maseratis, and Ferraris, and to circuit racing. He competed constantly during those years, always as an independent amateur. His father was proud of his son's achievements. All this delirious racing activity was to serve many practical ends. Nuccio got to know machinery as intimately as he knew all the techniques of coachcraft. He got to know everyone in the racing game, including big-factory executive personnel. They got to know him, not just as a salesman but as a man of above-average skill, courage, determination and sportsmanship.

And it was in this school of speed that he acquired his unusual feeling for aerodynamics, chassis design and the distribution of masses. School let out in 1952, when Wacky Arnolt hove into the Bertone stand at the Turin Show. He explained his fantastic plan to Bertone: Buy MG chassis in England, ship them to Genoa and then by track or rail to Turin. Mount the bodies in Turin, haul them back to Genoa, ship them to the USA, sell them and still make a profit.

"Even if MG let us have the chassis'' Nuccio protested, "the financial obstacles would seen to be overwhelming.
"Leave MG to me," said Arnolt. "As their big Midwest distributor, they will listen to me. As for the economics, don't worry, I can handle anything in that line."

A Masterpiece of Postwar Car Sculpture

Incredibly enough - at least for Bertone - the whole thing worked out according to Araolt's original vision, and the 200 Arnolt-MGs found buyers. Meanwhile, Arnolt - himself a hyperactive racing man - had developed an interest In the British Bristol two-litre chassis. He saw it as the base for a racing marque of his very own and this, of course, resulted in the classic ArnoIt-Bristol. It was an inherently high chassis, due to the three downdraft Solexes on top of the engine, yet Bertone, aided by Scaglione, created for it an open two-seater body which many critics consider to be a masterpiece of postwar car sculpture in metal.

The ArnoIt-Bristol was a complete break with the relatively angular tradition represented by the Arnolt MG and marked the birth of an entire generation of Bertone designs distinguished by a uniquely voluptuous organic quality. In all, Arnolt bought about 460 bodies from Bertone - an immense volume for a specialist coachbuilder at that time. The really great significance of the Bertone-Arnolt collaboration was that it dragged the attention of the Italian car manufacturing industry back to the entire field of native talent which it had generally consigned to oblivion. Nuccio would later tell automotive historians that his "...great friend Arnolt understood both immediately and that act had the most historic repercussions."

Building Car Bodies on Rolling Jigs

It was purely as a result of this breakthrough that Alfa Romeo came to Bertone in 1953 to find out if perhaps it had been overlooking a native resource. Alfa had not yet dropped the Idea of buiiding the Disco Volante sports car in small series: it discussed the project with Nuccio, inspected his plant, and asked for cost estimates. The latter were startlingly low, because of what it had seen in the plant. Bertone had developed, for the first time according to him, the modern technique of building car bodies on rolling jigs, without the mechanical components of the finished car. Because of its superior efficiency this revolutionary technique was adopted throughout the coachbuilding industry.

Although the Disco Volante program was cancelled, Alfa's interest in Bertone had been aroused, particularly relative to his ideas for the blending of aerodynamic virtues with aesthetic form. His first assignment from Alfa was in the realm of pure research. It was to consist of a series of experimental designs on the Alfa 1900 SS chassis for the purpose of finding a coupe configuration which would yield maximum performance and minimum fuel consumption. The control for these experiments was the sleek, patrician Superleggera Touring 1900 SS coupe.

Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica

Nuccio named this program Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica - BAT for short. He began with wind tunnel studies but soon renounced this theoretical approach in favor of full-scale tests at speed and the photography of air-flow patterns over wool tufts glued to the body's surface. Four shapes were build, tested and rejected before one was found that gave all the visual evidence of being aerodynamically clean. It was produced as a finished vehicle, was named the BAT 5, and its 200 km/h top speed encouraged Alfa to tell Bertone to continue.

BAT 6 was abandoned on the drawing board, but BAT 7 was built. Its weirdly radical rear fins reduced the low-pressure area at the rear of the vehicle and added another couple of km/h to the speed of the BAT 5. Alfa absorbed the new data, then asked for a design which would be volume-producible, saleable, and would incorporate a maximum of the aerodynamic gains made in the experimental series. This more down-to-earth but gorgeous and exciting machine was called the BAT 9, the precedent having been set for assigning odd numbers to these cars.

In all, only three BATs were made, each a dazzling success in terms of speed, fuel economy and, of course, worldwide attention-getting. As soon as Alfa had finished studying BAT 5 it was bought by Arnolt, and the other two cars also were acquired by Americans. Thanks to the enormous international recognition accorded to these spectacular machines Bertone achieved new heights of fame and his name became linked with that of Alfa Romeo in the public mind.

Bertone Giulietta Sprint - One of the Classics of All Automotive History

As BAT 9 was being completed in 1954 Alfa were gearing for production of the somewhat stark, basic Giulietta 1300. This was Alfa's first thrust into the mass-production, mass-market field and the body was utilitarian, even though la meccanica was as thoroughbred as ever. There was a test "mule" with a cobbled-up, somewhat streamlined body and out of it and the recent BAT experiments arose the idea of building a high-performance version of the 1300. Only a few hundred could be sold, of course, but the publicity and prestige that might be gained could help to launch the bread-and-butter product. So, naturally, this very minor project was handed to Bertone.

Production of his Giulietta Sprint finally was suspended about 10 years and 40,000 cars later. Its design stands as one of the classics of all automotive history, a monument to supremely gracious and harmonious sheet-metal sculpture. The insane and totally unexpected demand for the Giulietta Sprint opened up for Alfa Romeo an undreamed-of new market for small-displacement gran turismo cars. It confronted Nuccio Bertone - a small-time artisan until now - with the challenge to become a big-time industrialist, and to do so out of the blue, without losing step for a moment with the howling demand.

The Giulietta Sprint Speciale Coupe

At this point Bertone manifested his qualities as a real industrial leader, and a brilliant one, As his small plant in Turin thrust at its walls he bought a huge tract of land beyond the city, designed an ultra-modern and immense new factory and had it running at full tilt in 1959. He was fully capable of meeting his own destiny, the rather staggering results of which one contemplates today. The success of the Giulietta Sprint, of course, brought new clients to Bertone, among them BMW, Iso, NSU and Simca. Alfa Romeo continued to call on him to collaborate in the design of factory bodies and, occasionally, to do new experimental studies. Outstanding among these was the Giulietta Sprint Speciale Coupe. It was first shown in prototype form at Turin in 1957, promptly becoming another living classic and a companion masterpiece to the Giulietta Sprint.

That car derived only its top from the BAT series of studies. The Super Sprint, as a whole, was a close derivative of the BAT 7, minus the fender fins, plus the cropped tail, and with conventional headlights. The basic, overall form - top. sides and windscreen - stemmed directly from the experiments of 1953 and 1954. The torsional rigidity of the body structure was second to none in the world, as were its qualities of aerodynamic penetration, making the driving of it an unforgettable experience.

Thus Bertone passed from small-time artisanry to a position in which it alternated with Pininfarina as the world's largest specialist coachbuilder. There were many common denominators in the success of these two firms. There were deep traditional roots, the helping hand of Vincenzo Lancia, being touched by the American Dream, remarkable luck and the capacity of the men in charge to seize the industrial opportunity by the throat and to master it when it came. Others were simply crushed by this challenge. Also, in both cases, there were three kinds of genius - genius for organisation and management, for the solution of technological problems and for beautiful design. In the latter category the two houses may have had little in common, and much to set them apart.

The great work which bore the Bertone crest was distinctively original and through all of it there ran that particular quality of taste which Wacky Arnolt was the first to recognise. The period from inception to the late 1950s was also a success thanks to Franco Scaglione, who translated Nuccio's ideas into working drawings and made his own important contributions to them.

Also see: The History of Bertone | Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry
Fiat 1500 with Bertone Sports Roadster Coachwork
Bertone Sports Roadster coachwork for the 1938 Fiat 1500.
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