Andrea Zagato took great exception to his firm being included in our list of Dying Design Houses in the March 2011 issue. He called, very politely disputed that Carrozzeria Zagato is agonizing in its last days, and suggested that I visit after the Concorso d’Eleganza at Villa d’Este this spring. I did that, was impressed by much of what I saw, enjoyed an excellent lunch in a trattoria I’d never have been able to find on my own, invited by Zagato and his charming wife Marella Rivolta. I’m not any more sure than I was when I wrote “we can hope for more but, sadly, must expect less,” but I do understand Zagato’s optimism.
Zagato says that he saw the end of series production by the carrozzerieri coming more than twenty years ago, and took steps to re-position the enterprise founded by his grandfather, Ugo, in the early days of the Twentieth Century, taking into account the aeronautical origins of the company. Ugo was a pioneer aviator, and much of what he did in cars was based on the concepts of light weight and low drag. The Lancia-based Mille Miglia car he created in the Thirties shows that very well: it was a pure pontoon shape, gracile and astonishingly modern for its time. I know that because there is an excellent scale model of the car in the imposing lobby/exposition hall at the Zagato works in Rho, near Milan. The car itself no longer exists, but it will soon, resurrected as if by magic through some new techniques Zagato has developed.
Those near-magical ideas, properly implemented, allow a good computer-aided drafting program to evolve accurate sections for the body of a car that exists today only as a few photographs. It is a complex iterative “cut and try” method that involves first making a very approximative digital sketch of a body, then superimposing it onto photos, re-arranging things so that such fixed elements as the wheels, body cuts and other recognizable features are perfectly aligned with the digital database. It obviously helps if some of the dimensions, such as wheelbase, are known for certain. By fine-tuning, it is possible to finally define all the surfaces of a no-longer-extant vehicle.
A case in point is the ongoing project to re-create the first-ever Ferrari coupe, the 1947 Zagato Panoramica. It is a car that will never, ever turn up as a “barn find,” because it was Zagato itself that removed that body and destroyed it in 1949 so the chassis could be re-fitted with a cycle-fender design more suitable for racing. A current client has a genuine early 166 chassis and wanted to re-create the Panoramica, but only if Ferrari Classiche would certify it as authentic. Zagato brought in a cadre of Ferrari executives, including CEO Amedeo Felisa to show them the technique. And they signed off, a powerful validation of the in-house-developed CAD-and-photos method. It is also being applied to re-create a long-ago Zagato Porsche 356 that was totally destroyed in a racing crash, this time in several examples for clients with donor chassis.
Right now Zagato is building cars of a single design in two series: they do 9 units for individual clients, as in a recent series of customized Ferrari 550 Maranellos, or 99 units for a limited production series, like the current Zagato Aston Martins. The firm has a relationship with a group in England that can make aluminum bodies-in-white ready to be fitted to new-build chassis. The prototype Aston was voted public favorite among the concept cars judged at the Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza in May this year, confirming that Zagato still has the old touch.
An interesting proposition I saw at the works was the Alfa-Romeo Zagato TZ 3. Despite the Milanese firm’s badge, the chassis is simply a Dodge Viper, complete with 8-plus liters of pushrod engine, the first pushrod Alfa in eons. You can say it’s not an Alfa all you like, just as you can claim that the 8C Competizione and the current range of Maseratis are really Ferraris, but in fact all the hardware belongs to Sig. Marchionne’s Fiat-Chrysler group, so mixing components and badges is just regular industry practice. I thought the front end of the TZ 3 beautifully recalled past racing Alfa Zagatos, and the convoluted rear not-so-beautifully recalled multiple past slightly botched Zagato designs.
I got the impression that the Zagato enterprise is still a little on the hand-to-mouth side of the ledger, but that there is an eagerness to find new ways to preserve the old crafts and to develop new ones. I believe that there will be many calls to re-create “lost” designs like the Lancia, Ferrari Panoramic and others — perhaps even from other-than-Zagato original sources — but whether all that can be a profitable on-going business is not at all clear. As I said once before, we can all hope for the best. Zagato is an enterprise that enriches the automotive world.