When Beretta made a small car (and yes, it had a shotgun seat)
The end of World War II brought new automotive companies to life around the world. Kaiser, Frazer, and Tucker started in the United States. Ferrari and Maserati diverted their attention from racing and whipped up their first passenger cars for the commercial market in 1947. Saab began building its Model 92 late in 1949.
Another effort from that era was a tiny front-drive car called the Beretta-Benelli-Castelbarco, first seen in 1948. In the automotive sense, the BBC was innovative but ultimately insignificant. It was a small two-door sedan with a two-cylinder engine and top speed of 63 mph, not unlike any number of offerings from other postwar automotive startups in Europe.
What’s significant in the larger sense, however, is who was involved. The little right-hand-drive sedan represented the attempt by Giuseppe Beretta, Giuseppe Benelli, and Luigi Castelbarco to expand beyond their principal interests and get a toehold in the automotive market.
Extending the ancient northern-Italian tradition of metalworking, Beretta had manufactured gun barrels and firearms since 1526. Now the company’s role was to craft the BBC’s tube-frame chassis. It would also make the 530cc engine of Benelli’s design.
The Benelli brothers—there were six; Giuseppe studied engineering in Switzerland—offered their first motorcycle in 1919, won numerous Italian racing championships in subsequent years, and fielded the 250cc-class winner at the 1939 Isle of Man. After wartime destruction of Benelli’s factory on the Adriatic coast, the company (which also produced shotguns at one time) still had not resumed new motorcycle production when the BBC car project took place.
And for his part, Luigi Castelbarco, of an ancient noble family, had raced Maseratis in the 1930s and helped to coordinate the BBC project. That included sourcing body construction to an outside coachbuilder, the Rosso brothers of Turin. The design target was a car 4.01 meters in length, or just over 13 feet.
Beretta’s website says the BBC’s shape prefigured that of the Fiat 1400, a somewhat larger car produced from 1950 to 1958. The BBC car was fully contemporary in the postwar styling vernacular with enclosed fenders, no running boards, and a bustle back. Ornamentation was minimal, with bright window trim and bumpers. The flush-mounted headlamps and windshield exemplified the period’s emphasis on aerodynamic design.
The toothy front grille let air flow to the transversely-mounted, overhead valve engine. With a single-barrel carburetor it produced 21 horsepower. A compact four-speed transmission was used, and without need of a radiator and with coil-over-shocks mounted to a front control arm, space was available to bring the fuel tank to a location just ahead of the firewall.
BBC boasted that the compact four-link rear suspension and lack of a transmission tunnel allowed for five-passenger seating. Folding the rear seatback forward gave the little car a large amount of cargo space. Rack-and-pinion steering ensured plenty of agility on the twisting mountain roads throughout Italy.
The BBC in the Beretta collection is one of three prototypes produced. It features sliding window panels, unhandsome 15-inch disc wheels, and a single windshield wiper. While the prototype sedan was Beretta’s, there was another variant described as being similar to a modern pickup; that was Benelli’s. The third prototype was Castelbarco’s, but the body type isn’t known.
The Beretta collection also includes a couple of microcars and, quite poignantly, a 1989 Chevrolet Beretta. After that model’s introduction two years earlier, Beretta sued General Motors for trademark infringement. In a genteel settlement, the two companies exchanged gifts: the car came to Gardone Val Trompia and a pair of Beretta shotguns went to GM, which also made a $500,000 donation to a charity.
So why didn’t the BBC advance beyond the prototype stage? As postwar Italy began to stabilize, costs rose beyond initial estimates for the venture. And Fiat, a big and well-established company churning out the Topolino, would have been an imposing rival for a neophyte. For all the luster of those marquee names involved, BBC was stuck in place in the Lombardy Alps—a beautiful location, but no match for the manufacturing might of Turin.