Alfa Romeo-based B.A.T. cars are the holy trinity of aerodynamic car design

Alfa romeo bat car rear

When Alfa Romeo launched its updated tipo 1484 1900C Super Sprint in 1954, it hoped to make an impression on an otherwise mundane car market. The model had been updated by Carrozzeria Touring with plexiglass side and rear windows, modified lights, and an improved interior, plus the engine had been bored out to 1.9 liters and fitted with twin Solex 40 PII carburetors and separate exhaust manifolds; but to the layman, the car wasn’t much different from the earlier C Sprint.

No, for that, Alfa looked to the other great styling houses. Ghia, Pininfarina, Boano, and Zagato all produced their own variants, but the most spectacular were three concepts designed by Franco Scaglione for Bertone.

Scaglione was a relatively new arrival at Bertone. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, he served in the Italian Army during World War II, was captured by the British in 1941 in Libya, and was held in a detention camp in India for five years. After being released, it took Scaglione a while to recover, but by the early 1950s he was supporting himself as a clothes designer. He had bigger things in mind, however, and decided to follow his passion and try to become an automotive designer. Scaglione moved to Turin in 1951 and approached Battista Farina, who apparently allowed him to design a car without giving him credit for his input, so Scaglione moved to Farina rival Bertone as a freelance stylist.

Scaglione’s aeronautical background made him the obvious choice to head the Berlinetta Aerodynamica Tecnica project. Nuccio Bertone’s B.A.T. design brief was to create a car with the lowest possible drag coefficient—something that would attract the attention of the world press. The project, although based on an Alfa Romeo, was entirely Bertone’s. It purchased the donor chassis, and although Bertone informed Alfa what it was up to, it never planned to put the cars into production.

Development of the first car, known as B.A.T. 5, took place very quickly. Very few sketches were made, and Scaglione and project manufacturing chief Ezio Cingolani created a full-size model that was then adjusted by Scaglione and approved by Nuccio Bertone. The result, unveiled at the 1953 Turin Motor Show, was truly spectacular. With pronounced, curving rear fins, a long and pointed nose to minimise air disruption at speed, enclosed wheels, and an elongated Buck Rogers-style rear screen, the car was unlike anything seen before. Although it was a driving car, it wasn’t exactly practical. The wheels had a tiny lock (thanks to the overhanging panels), it lacked headlamps, and performance from the unmodified 1900 engine was anything but futuristic.

Alfa romeo bat car front
Alfa romeo bat car rear
Alfa Romeo bat car side profile
Peter Harholdt / Phillips

The following year, Alfa Romeo returned with B.A.T. 7, another of Scaglione’s designs. Very similar to B.A.T. 5, this version at least had headlamps and achieved a drag coefficient of just 0.19 thanks to the large, curved tail fins and even lower nose.

Alfa romeo bat car front
Peter Harholdt / Phillips

In 1955, B.A.T. 9 was unveiled. It looked much more like a production Alfa Romeo, complete with distinctive front grille—the result of Alfa suddenly realising it was late to the party and deciding to lend its support. The rear wings, although still present, were also much more subtle than on the earlier cars. Bertone had achieved his aim; he’d shown what was stylistically possible and created a design that could be feasibly put into production. By doing so, he cemented his company’s relationship with Alfa Romeo that lasted well into the 21st century.

alfa romeo bat car side profile
Peter Harholdt / Phillips

The technological achievement of the B.A.T. cars should not be understated. A drag coefficient of 0.19 was—and is—a phenomenal figure. To put it in context, Porsche’s most recent 911 GT2, benefitting from all of the manufacturer’s state-of-the-art research and design technology, has a drag coefficient of 0.35. Scaglione and Cingolani achieved their design without computers or wind tunnels; pieces of wool were attached to the cars, which were then photographed whilst being driven at speed (similar to what is shown in the new Ford v Ferrari film). Handmade from concept to completion in less than a year, the cars also featured design elements that were to define the Alfa Romeo brand. The pointed nose and wheel arch details were carried over to the Sprint Speciale, and the scalloped waistline and cowled headlamps of the B.A.T. 7 became distinctive Alfa features for decades. The cars also undoubtedly had an influence on other designers, with cues visible in the cars of Virgil Exner and Harley Earl and the split-window Stingray sharing a marked similarity.

Sold shortly after their Turin debuts, all three B.A.T. cars found their way across the Atlantic, where European car importer and racer Stanley “Wacky” Arnolt drove each around Palm Springs, California. B.A.T. 7 even raced sporting a red and yellow repaint.

alfa romeo cars inline outside
Tom Shaxson / Phillips

In 1989, having changed hands and been fully restored, the three B.A.T. cars were brought together for the first time in public at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. In 1990, a Japanese collector bought the trio for a reported $18M, and four years later they changed hands again when Coys sold the group for $4M. The cars were later reviewed by a young Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. Finally, in 2005, the Blackhawk Museum bought them for $8M.

Although the B.A.T. cars are rarely seen in public, they have been on display this week, November 20–23 at Phillips in London, where they have achieved the same reaction they did in Turin 66 years ago. Scaglione’s designs are as stunning now as they were then.