Automotive historians, like historians in any field, occasionally commit unforgiveable errors. I’m hugely embarrassed to admit that in a 1991 Autocar magazine story, I killed off designer Franco Scaglione. Only to learn two years later that he had just died. Humiliating.
At the time I was living in Italy and wanted to know more about the man behind the startling aerodynamic Bertone BAT Alfa Romeos, more automotive sculptures than cars. If possible, I was keen to interview the bloke. Long before Professor Google provided easy answers to such questions, I relied upon Nuccio Bertone and Giorgetto Giugiaro as my informants. My search came to a premature end when first Bertone and then Giugiaro gave me the news that I was too late. Both design greats who knew and, in the case of Bertone, worked with Scaglione, told me the great artist was dead.
Scaglione – pronounced scalyoneh – turned his back on car design in 1976 and essentially disappeared from the sight of virtually all who’d known him. He remained ignored until in June, 1992 AutoCapital magazine writer Maurizio Tabucchi stumbled upon Scaglione in Suvereto, a small Tuscan country town in the Provence of Livorno. The journalist’s request for an interview was initially denied: Scaglione knew he was dying of lung cancer and asked that his privacy be respected. He changed his mind when, in 1992, Bertone organised a celebration of its 80th anniversary and borrowed the three famous BAT cars for a tour of Europe.
Bertone openly acknowledged Scaglione’s huge contribution to the cars. Upon hearing this, the introverted designer finally agreed to talk to Tabucchi. His story appeared in the June 1993 issue of AutoCapital. Two weeks later, as letters from his many admirers, who’d long believed he was dead, began arriving, Scaglione died on June 19, 1993.
Franco Scaglione was born in Florence in 1916 and began studying engineering before World War Two intervened. Franco was conscripted into the army, only to spend five years as a British prisoner of war in India. He returned to an Italy in a state of financial and physical ruin and seems to have worked in the clothing design trade in Bologna, Milan and Turin between 1945 and 1950. Details are sketchy, but it seems he developed a comprehensive knowledge of design and manufacturing, while also continuing to draw cars. In 1951 it occurred to him to write to Italy’s specialist coachbuilders offering his services as a designer. Only Pinin Farina and Bertone took the trouble to reply. He joined Farina, but two months later walked out after a heated argument with Battista Farina. At the end of the year, aged 35, he was immediately snapped up by the financially threatened Bertone.
Some years later Nuccio recalled, “He had no automotive background but had his heart set on becoming a stylist. He came from a fine old family, spoke four languages, was well read and well-equipped intellectually. I recognised there was good in him and said,’ I don’t know how realisable your ideas may be, but if you will agree to let me make them so, as I wish, I am willing to try working with you.’”
For years it was generally believed that Nuccio Bertone then asked Scaglione to design a coupe body for two MG TD running chassis he’d bought from the Italian MG importer. In fact, there is some confusion and it is possible that the MGs concepts were designed by Giovanni Michelotti. Either way, however, the cars played a critical role in Bertone’s move from artisan coachbuilder to producer of much larger scale production cars.
When the compact MG Coupe was shown at the 1952 Turin show, Chicago-based importer S.H. ‘Wacky’ Arnolt was impressed. He nonchalantly told Nuccio, “I like these cars. I’d like to buy them.” “Both of them?” Bertone asked. “No,” said Wacky. “I’d like to buy a hundred of each to start with.”
There is no doubt that Scaglione was responsible for the Abarth 1500, far bolder and obviously based on aircraft principles, with its three jet-like tapered intakes, each carrying a headlight. Displayed at the 1952 Paris salon, the Abarth also featured scalloped wheel arches, a slim roofline with large glass areas and a steeply sloping windscreen that instantly made all its rivals look antiquated. It was pure Scaglione and clearly a precursor to the BAT Alfas.
Further work for Arnolt followed. Scaglione claimed the 1953 Arnolt-Bristol was his most difficult design task owing to the difficulty of fitting the tall Bristol in-line six into a contemporary shape on a chassis that was extremely narrow. By adding a small central air scoop to the bonnet, he was able to lower the bonnet and give the sports car shapely wings that help disguise the less than perfect proportions.
Scaglione’s first Alfa Romeo design was a conservative, if extremely attractive, proposal for a coupe version of the 1900 competition chassis. The concept appeared at the 1954 Turin show, but did not proceed to production.
While he was working on the Sportiva coupe, Scaglione began work on the first his seminal BAT cars – Bat: Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica – also based on the Alfa 1900 Alfa, troubled by aerodynamic problems with the Disco Volante sports racing car, asked Bertone to come up with a solution. Scaglione designed four models before he was happy with the fifth, hence BAT 5.
With its huge rear fins, jet-like roof and smooth, enclosed flanks, it was both startling and futuristic. BAT 5 was astonishing 66-years ago and remains so today. Instantly, Bertone was thrown into world design prominence.
And it wasn’t just a crowd-pulling show car: Scaglione knew his aerodynamic theory. Tests showed that a Cd figure of between 0.19 and 0.21 gave a 15percent improvement in top speed over the standard Alfa 1900 coupe. Bat 7 was even more outrageous, with fins that turned inward in a dramatic curl to break air current. The 1955 BAT 9 was more conventional but still explored aerodynamic theory at a time when most designers were content to create fins without understanding anything of the principles behind their use.
It was Scaglione who refined the rough mock-up ‘mule’ of the Alfa Giulietta Sprint coupe. The resulting exquisite masterpiece lasted over 10 years in production and sold almost 40,000 examples to establish Bertone as one of the great carrozzeria. Other work quickly followed with Scaglione busy on designs for Aston Martin, Abarth and Alfa. His elegant 1956 Abarth 600 Spider featured pop-up headlights and a grille-less nose with so delicate and slim a front end that it could have been an alternative design for the Lotus Elan, six years away.
The 1957 Giulietta SS and the tiny NSU Prinz Coupe the following year were other masterworks. In 1959 Scaglione decided to set up his own design consultancy business. Rather abruptly he left Bertone, leaving a 22-year old Giugiaro to finish off the Gordon GT. It seems Bertone became tied of Scaglione receiving all the credit for his work in the motoring press. After the ultimate break the men never saw each other again.
Now in his mid-40s, Scaglione was asked to design a body for the Lamborghini that was being developed by the tractor manufacturer to challenge Ferrari. Scaglione’s hasty design was drawn under Ferruccio Lamborghini’s strong hand. He wanted something of the Aston DB4, a little of the Corvette. The result was a strange mixture of razor edges and curves but somehow the V12 engine didn’t fit in the body and the car had to be redesigned for production.
Scaglione’s reputation suffered and commissions from Italian car makers failed to eventuate. He was asked to modify the American-designed Apollo GT and was involved in the Murena Mustang-based sports wagons and even in the stillborn Fitch Phoenix before designing the tasteful Griffith GT which was to be produced under the names Griffith, Omega, Italia and IMX.
In 1967, working with Carlo Chiti, Franco was given the chance to work on a proposed road version of the Alfa Type 33 Stradale. The resulting, beautiful mid-engine coupe proved that he had lost none of his creative spirit. The 33 is another ageless Scaglione masterpiece.
His last known car design was the Opel Diplomat-based Intermeccanica Indra, which displayed a novel horizontal dart approach to the shape of the wheel arches, an idea later picked up by the Porsche 944 and Lotus Excel.
He then slipped into obscurity. On May 19, 1993, 30-days before Scaglione died, Nuccio Bertone wrote to the great designer:
“I remember with great emotion your contribution to our project: I remember your sharpness into the shape of futuristic cars; I also remember our fierce discussions looking into the excellence. Your passion and knowledge of aerodynamics fought you to a high level and I couldn’t do anything but to follow you.
“Do you remember our tests on the highways or at the airport with wool threads” Everything filmed and photographed by the car beside us?
“You must believe me, my dear Scaglione, that I remember you always and often. I appreciate your work with me for Bertone.”
Only two of his cars were made in any real volume – the Alfa Giuletta Sprint and the NSU Sport Prinz – but this does nothing to detract from the artistic genius of one of the world’s greatest car designers.