Genuine Italian design-house cars on the cheap
Pininfarina. Ghia. Bertone. Touring. Zagato. They were the couture of the automotive world. When carmakers wanted something special in their lines, they turned to these Italian designers and coachbuilders.
The decades-long relationship between Pininfarina and Ferrari yielded some of the world’s most beautiful GTs and sports cars. Ghia created concept car masterpieces for Chrysler. From Bertone came the Iso Grifo, Alfa Romeo Montreal, Lamborghini Miura, and Countach.
Fortunately for collectors of less-affluent means, those same design firms and coachbuilders created a slew of far more-affordable models. You could pay hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars to get a genuine Pininfarina, Bertone, or Ghia design. You could also pay only a few thousand. Here’s a look at some tasty genuine Italian dishes from the affordable side of the menu. (There are certainly others, including the Cadillac Allante, so feel free to name more.)
Alfa Romeo Spider, 1966-1993
One of Pininfarina’s longest-lasting designs, the Alfa Romeo Spider debuted in 1966 and was built into 1993 with relatively minor nipping and tucking over the decades. Successor to another Pininfarina design, the Giulietta and Giulia, the Spider sported a boat-tail trunk and, like numerous Pininfarina Ferrari designs, it had covered headlights. Pininfarina also built the bodies and assembled the car. The Spider gained widespread fame as Benjamin Braddock’s graduation gift in the 1967 hit film The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffmann. (That pairing was so successful, in fact, that Alfa Romeo issued a Graduate edition in the 1980s.) A chopped-off “Kamm tail” rear and exposed lights arrived for 1970. Engines ranged from 1.6- to 2.0-liter DOHC fours. Some 110,000 were built over 27 years, an incredible production run. The last couple hundred were sold in the U.S. as 1994 models.
Fiat 124 Spider, 1966-1985
The Alfa Romeo Spider had a competitor in the Fiat 124 Spider, another Pininfarina design, for much of its run. The design actually came from American Tom Tjaarda, who also designed the de Tomaso Pantera while with Ghia. (Tjaarda passed away last month). Down in power and performance compared to the Alfa, the little Fiat had plenty of charm on its own. Some 200,000 were built through 1985, with about three quarters of those exported to the United States. By then, Fiat had left this market and the Spider, built by Pininfarina, was sold here by automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin as the Pininfarina Azzurra Spider. The 124 Spider was revived for 2016 as a joint venture with Mazda and is essentially a rebodied Miata with a turbocharged Fiat engine.
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, 1955-1974
Built on a wider VW Type 1 (Beetle) chassis, the Karmann Ghia took its name from the German coachbuilder that assembled it and the Italian design company that designed its pretty lines. The car was introduced as a coupe in 1955, with a convertible added in 1957. Both were built until 1974. The low-powered Karmann Ghia was more “sporty” than sports car, but its perky style, reliable powertrain, and easygoing road manners made it popular around the world. Volkswagen made about 445,000 of them. Fans of the 1960s TV show Get Smart will remember the Karmann Ghia’s appearance in the opening credits of seasons three and four, when Volkswagen sponsored the show.
Fiat X1/9, 1972-1989 (U.S. 1974-1989)
The wedge-shaped, Targa-top Fiat X1/9 had all the looks of an exotic at a fraction of the size and price—but, of course, also with a fraction of the performance from its 63-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine. The X1/9 was, like the Porsche 914, a mid-engine design using passenger-car components, in this case from Fiat’s 128 front-driver. It later had a 75-hp, 1.5-liter engine with fuel injection, and the X1/9’s 2,000-pound weight made it agile even on tiny 13-inch tires. Bertone built the body and shipped it to Fiat for completion. Fiat left the U.S. market in 1982, and Bertone assumed X1/9 production in 1983. It returned to the U.S. with a Bertone badge, sold by Bricklin’s International Automobile Importers until 1987. A Bertone dealer in California took over through 1989. Altogether, about 160,000 were built. Care to guess how many rusted away?
Volkswagen Scirocco, first generation, 1974-1981
Giugiaro ItalDesign, founded by famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (Iso Grifo, Maserati Ghibli, and too many others to list), helped Volkswagen modernize its line and image with the 1970s front-drive, water-cooled models. Giugiaro’s Golf became the template for hatchbacks to follow, and from the chassis he also created the Scirocco sport coupe. The name came from a Mediterranean wind. (If wind names worked for Maserati, why not VW?) The edgy, wedgy shape was quite distinctive, and the lightweight Scirocco gave fun performance with a 75-hp four. The Scirocco reached the U.S. for the 1975 model year, and only detail changes were made to the design over its production run. This was one of Giugiaro’s most elegant designs. Unfortunately, Sciroccos were notorious rusters. The second-gen car was designed by VW and lost much of Giugiaro’s sharp lines.
Isuzu Impulse, first generation, 1980-1990
Isuzu already had an Italian-designed coupe in its line, the 117, back in 1968, but it was not imported to the U.S. Penned by Giugiaro for Bertone, the 117 has its own cult following today, and some have made their way here. When Isuzu asked for a successor, Giugiaro designed a concept car called the Ace of Clubs. Public reaction at the 1979 Tokyo Auto Show spurred Isuzu to produce the car, with relatively minor changes, as the Piazza in 1980. When it arrived in the U.S. in 1982, badged Impulse, Car & Driver called it a “rolling piece of art.” Impulse underpinnings came from the lowly General Motors T-car platform (Chevette), although Lotus suspension tuning helped later. The Impulse came fully equipped as a luxury model, and a turbo version livened up performance considerably. Good luck finding a good one today.
Volvo 780 (aka Bertone Coupe), 1987-1991
When you say “Volvo Bertone coupe,” you’re actually talking about two very different cars. The first model, the kludgy 1978-1981 262C, was basically a three-inch roof chop on a V-6 coupe, with a wide C-pillar inspired by the Continental Mark IV. The follow-up in 1987, the 780, was far more elegant. Multi-link independent rear suspension came for 1988, and Volvo’s excellent turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine gave better performance than the V-6. The 780 came fully equipped and featured a dashboard with 11 separate layers of hand-rubbed lacquered beech wood, as one advertisement detailed. It was expensive—upwards of $40,000—at the end of its run in 1991. With 5,700 imported to the U.S., the 780 is not rare, and that’s what helps make it so affordable today.