Pininfarina. Bertone. Giugiaro. Gandini. Ghia. These brilliant creators helped shape Italy’s reputation as a nexus of automotive design genius. Among this all-star set is another impressive legacy—the one set forth by Signor Ugo Zagato. A century ago this year, Mr. Zagato commenced his career in automotive coachbuilding, before he went on to produce some of the most beautiful and memorable designs in automotive history.
The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance honored 100 years of Zagato at this year’s festivities on the lawn. Every year, Greenwich opens its Roger Sherman Baldwin Park on the city’s southside to some of the world’s most unique and desirable automobiles for the region to admire. On top of that, the show often carries a central theme that changes each year, often paying historical tribute to a particular moment or figure in automotive history. Last year the Concours celebrated the cars of Briggs Cunningham, and this year, Zagato took the main stage, followed by tributes to the cars of Arnolt, and Bentley (which also celebrates its centennial this year).
More than 25 of the finest examples of some of Zagato’s most iconic designs made their appearance at the concours, recognizing three generations of the design firm’s influential creations across several famous marques and models.
“I’m excited to be here to see all these cars representing the three generations of my grandfather’s company in a wonderful environment,” said Andrea Zagato, the CEO of Zagato and the grandson of Signor Ugo. “The company was started in 1919, 100 years ago by my grandfather. He was successful in the airplane business, building lightweight airplane technology. Then he transferred this technology to cars.”
After an engineering stint at the Officine Aeronautiche Pomilio (an Italian airplane manufacturer known for its production of military-spec biplanes) and the end of the First World War, Zagato left the company for his own ventures to put his unconventional knowledge to work in an emerging industry.
During the automobile’s earliest years, cars were heavy and bulky. Wanting to fix this issue, Zagato believed he could apply his knowledge of lightweight construction from aeronautical engineering to the advancement of automotive design. Carrozzeria Zagato in Milan set to work on that mission.
Zagato’s philosophy of lightweight and structurally sound bodies resulted in some of the fastest and best-performing automobiles of their respective eras.
On display were cars like the 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500, one of three winners in a tie for the Zagato Centennial Award at the show, and a model that marked a significant turning point and a giant leap forward for European automotive design. It helped establish Zagato’s reputation for lightweight construction, via victories in the first few Mille Miglia races.
Next to the 6C 1500 was a 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Corto Spider, the sole example made-to-order for renowned race car driver at the time, Tazio Nuvolari, who raced and won the 1933 24 Hours of Le Mans with it. The 8C 2300 later went on to the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps three weeks later, where it placed second overall at the hands of Sommer and Henri Stoffell. It later won the Mount Washington Hillclimb in New Hampshire in 1937, driven by Barron Collier. After subsequently changing through various owners in the U.S., it eventually came under the ownership of Scuderia N.E.
No Zagato display is complete without Lancias. One notable example included this incredibly rare and one-off tribute to the 1938 Lancia Aprilia Sport Zagato. Originally designed and built by Ugo himself, the actual first-built example was sadly lost during World War II. But because of Lancia’s long history with the coachbuilder, Zagato produced a faithful recreation in 2006.
Other notable Zagato-bodied Lancia’s included the later Fulvia Zagatos of ’67 and ’69, both of which are known for their oddball styling—a 1967 Flaminia Super Sport Coupe by Carrozzeria Zagato, one of just 187 built; and a 1969 Appia GTE Coupe by Zagato, one of only four.
Adjacent to the Aprilia sat one of the design firm’s most notable collaborations with Fiat Abarth, the 1956 750 GT Zagato—a purpose-built race car based on the Fiat 600 and modified by Abarth. Not only did Zagato help reduce its weight significantly, but the reduction also increased the car’s power-to-weight ratio, allowing it to place second in its class during the 1956 Mille Miglia. It later went on to race in the Monza Circuit in July 1957, where over the course of four days it set 15 new records, including the fastest average speed of 165 kph for 72 consecutive hours.
Moving up through Zagato’s history into the mid-1950s is this equally rare 1956 Maserati A6G/2000 Zagato, one of only 20 examples ever built. Maserati built a total of 60 A6G cars between 1956–57, 20 of which were rebodied by the design firm. It’s most notable for its performance in the 1956 Italian Sports Car Championship, earning Maserati more recognition for its sports cars in the first wave of the post-war boom. One of these examples recently sold at RM Sotheby’s for a cool, $4,515,000.
Showing up in greater numbers were various examples of Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ and TZ2s, arguably one of Zagato’s most iconic post-war collaborations with Alfa Romeo. Built off the Giulia platform as a replacement for the Giulietta SZ, the TZ marked the name, Tubolare Zagato. Manufactured in both road-going and motorsports specification, the Giulia TZ certainly lived up to Zagato’s lightweight philosophy, weighing in at only 1430 pounds. The succeeding TZ2 weighed even less, at 1380 pounds. Both the Giulia TZ and the TZ2 featured short, aircraft-inspired Kamm tails, or “coda tronca” in Italian. Only 112 Giulia TZs were built, with 12 TZ2s coming out of the factory.
As a tribute to Zagato’s efforts during the ’60s was this 1965 Alfa Romeo 2600 “SZ” Sprint Zagato Coupe. Built off Alfa Romeo’s 2600 platform, it was the last of the Alfa Romeos to feature a dual-overhead-cam inline-six. The 2600 Spring Zagato featured an uprated version of that 2.6-liter straight-six with 165 horsepower and is one of only 105 cars ever made.
Zagato eventually branched out to collaborate with automakers outside of Italy. One of the most iconic collaborations was a total one off: a 1958 Jaguar XK140 Zagato Coupe. It started life as a typical 1957 XK140, owned by Italian business magnate Guido Modiano. However, it was terribly damaged from an accident under his ownership. Instead of rebuilding the car to its former specification, Modiano, who was a close friend of Elio Zagato, Ugo’s son, asked Elio to rebody the car. The result is this uniquely beautiful XK140 Zagato.
“Zagato’s been in business for over 100 years,” said Ken Gross, the chief judge to the Greenwich Concours. “It’s pretty extraordinary for any coachbuilding firm since many of them went out of business. As technology advanced and changed, the move away from body-on-frame constructions meant opportunities to rebody cars went away, unless you were Pininfarina with Ferrari, or Bertone. For a firm like Zagato, who’s worked with Italian coachbuilders and Aston Martin to survive is quite extraordinary and everyone should know that.”
Some of its most more recent collaborations with the likes of Aston Martin, such as the Vanquish Zagato Speedster and Shooting Brake of 2018, the Alfa Romeo TZ3 Stradale, and the boxy oddity of the early 1990s, the Alfa Romeo RZ.
One truly unique Zagato car that stood out, however, was an incredibly rare 1991 Nissan Autech Stelvio Zagato Coupe, based off the Nissan Leopard of the late 1980s and early 1990s (that Americans know as the Infiniti M30).
Altogether, Zagato’s impact on the European automobile industry left a reputable legacy that set the benchmark for lightweight and compact structures that nearly all European automobile manufacturers owe a debt.
“I believe we’ve been lucky because we’ve always been consistent. So we always decide to be consistent with our past, only coupe cars, lightweight, compact, designs,” Zagato said. “Being consistent is one of the keys to success and to survive 100 years, it’s already a success.”