Italy’s proud postwar coachbuilders are all but extinct

Who hasn’t been awed by the heroic styling that elevated Duesenberg and Packard, among other grand marques of the 1930s, into icons of elegance?

For those who are not experts on the era, here’s a bit of fact-check: That majestic sheetmetal didn’t always come from the brand’s own design studio. Often, high-end carmakers produced a chassis and running gear, while the bodywork came from an outside coachbuilder. That’s why you’ll see names like Derham, Dietrich and LeBaron listed prominently alongside the more familiar brand.

As the Great Depression killed many of America’s prestige marques, it also shuttered some of the finest coachbuilders. Surviving automakers like Packard became volume manufacturers, designing and building their bodies in-house after World War II. Later, the advent of unibody construction, which integrated the frame and body structure as a single piece, further limited demand for the coachbuilder’s art.

Only in Italy did demand for special coachwork seem to persevere in the postwar period, with carrozzeria like Zagato, Pininfarina, Ghia, Bertone, Vignale and Touring each enjoying a spell of success. Coachbuilt cars of this era were generally not one-off efforts, but rather limited runs of special bodies based on an existing series-production car.

By the beginning of the 1970s, it was almost over. The major independent coachbuilders that remained – mainly Bertone and Pininfarina – survived on their design consultancy and contract assembly work. Still, the final models made by these great firms are widely regarded as comparable to the cars produced in the heyday of Italian coachbuilding, decades earlier.

The 365 GT Spider California was perhaps the last true coachbuilt Ferrari. Totally unrelated to the earlier 250 GT California Spider, the 365 was built on the much larger 330 chassis and was a luxurious and imposing car rather than a sporting one. Styled by Tom Tjaarda when he worked at Pininfarina, it’s full of sharp little cues making it unmistakably his work, including the downward canted rear fender crowns that showed up on the Fiat 124 Spider and the Ferrari 275 GTS.

There were curious touches like pop-up fog lamps and a door handle tucked into what looked like the air intake of a midengine car. Just 14 of these cars were built for important Ferrari clients; $3 million to $5 million is about what it takes to own one.

Nearly every series production Lancia of the 1950s and ’60s had at least one coachbuilt version, often by Zagato. Even the basic Fulvia offered a special variant, the unusual and attractive Fulvia Sport Zagato, which remains the entry point for this level of Italian craftsmanship. But it was the bigger and more powerful Flaminia that Touring and Zagato turned their attention to, creating what many consider to be the prettiest of all Lancias.

Touring built the Flaminia Convertible, GT and GTL in 1962-’65. They were among the only four-headlamp Italian cars not to look tragically awkward at the front. Lovely as these Flaminias were, the Flaminia Sport and Super Sport Zagatos were the real stunners. Taut and smooth, with beautifully developed compound curves and Zagato’s signature double-bubble roof, fewer than 600 were made; production ended in 1967.

Alfa Romeo was no stranger to custom coachwork, even in the postwar period. The 1900 series saw a dizzying array of coachbuilders — some well-known, some obscure — supply bodies. This practice continued through the Giulietta and Giulia series, Alfa’s first real volume-produced cars. The Giulietta and Giulia Sprint Speciale might have had a long run, from 1957-’66, but fewer than 3,000 cars were built during that time.

The Kamm-tail Sprint Speciale was one of the first cars designed by Bertone with close attention paid to aerodynamics, making it possible for a production car of just 1,300cc to hit nearly 120 mph. The car’s looks are polarizing, and certain elements of the B.A.T. (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) research cars and the Disco Volante concept appear in the Sprint Speciale. Few people seemed to appreciate the Sprint Speciale’s appeal, and values were long mired in the $25,000 to $35,000 range. That is, until about eight years ago, when the market began recognizing how special this car is. Even at $150,000 to $175,000, it seems like an especially attractive car for the money.

One of the last coachbuilt cars to see volume production came, oddly enough, from a Swedish brand. Volvo commissioned Bertone to turn the frumpy 262 into a personal luxury coupe. Unfortunately, all Bertone could modify was the roof and the interior. If the resulting 262C looks like a chopped-top two-door 262, the reason is simple — that’s precisely what it is.

By the 1980s, coachbuilt cars seemed all but dead. One could argue that the Pininfarina-designed Cadillac Allanté qualified, but that two-seater was more a matter of a design contract and body assembly agreement. It was not a coachbuilt offshoot of a standard production model.

Zagato seems to have missed the memo, though. It built the Alfa Romeo SZ on a modified Milano platform in 1989 and has a long history with Aston Martin, which recently announced a limited run of the Vanquish model bodied by Zagato. Maybe there’s a place for coachbuilders in the 21st century after all.

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