Zagato History

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Ugo Zagato was born on 25 June 1890, the youngest of five brothers. The family was not wealthy, and both his mother and the priest in the small village of Gavello in Rovigo province where they lived decided that little Ugo should go into the church. But the youngster had other ideas, and at fifteen, emigrated to Cologne where he worked with a coach-building firm.

Carrozziere Varesina

Called back to Italy at nineteen to do his military service, he was fortunate enough to avoid conscription - it was during this period that Italian conscription was decided literally by lottery - and had to serve only forty days in the Army. His return to Italy however brought him in contact with Italian coach-building, and he was offered an apprenticeship in Milan with Carrozziere Varesina.

Zagato quickly fell in love with the visions conjured up at this time by the motor car, and insted of joing his friends in pursuit of a little skirt, Ugo studied design. Not that he neglected himself - or the opposite sex. He was known locally as a bit of a natty dresser, and he did find time for a certain Amelia Bressello.

In the summer of 1915 he left Varesina, where he had gained something of a reputation for brightness of attitude and application, and was instructed to report to the Pomilio factory in Turin, where aircraft were being produced. It was here that he developed the art of handling metal that was to shape his whole future. As designer and production manager in charge of his own factory team he was the first aircraft maker to utilise lightweight metal skinning on an aircraft body.

Carrozziere Zagato

Not only did he pioneer this revolution in structure, but his team's output was prodigious - expected to produce three aircraft a month, they proved themselves capable of functioning at a rate of two aircraft a day. Not surprisingly Ugo Zagato rapidly ascended the management hierarchy at Pomilio, and by the time the war ended he was not only well versed in metal fabrication and management, but had also saved a considerable sum of money. In 1919 he formed his own coachbuilding firm, Carrozziere Zagato, in Milan's Via Francesco Ferrer. At this time all car designers were busy shedding the lumpish carriage-based shapes of the Edwardian car, and Zagato was part of a very positive modernist movement in Italy.

Vittorrio Jano

ut he and his colleagues were among the most far-sighted and eager, and the first Zagato car, the sporting Fiat 501, owed much to Ugo's years as a plane-maker with its fuselage lines and aluminum skin over a wooden frame. Ugo married Amelia in 1920, and the following year his first son Elio was born. In 1923 Zagato needed larger premises and moved his workshop to the Viale Brianza, with a complement of eighty craftsmen, but expansion was rapid during this period and the following year another move came about, largely determined by the developing friendship and working partnership between Zagato and ex-Fiat designer Vittorrio Jano.

Jano, a year younger than Zagato and already rated the best designer of the day by Fiat, had moved to Alfa Romeo, whose P2 Jano-designed car swept the Grand Prix board in 1924 and 1925. Jano and Zagato discussed a new Alfa car which Jano was to design and Zagato fabricate the sort of lightweight body for which he was renowned following the success of the Fiat 501. On this basis Zagato moved his workshops to the Via Marco Ulpio Traiano, opposite the Alfa factory. The new car was to be an ultra-light model in the now-popular medium category. The chassis was introduced at the Milan motor show in 1925 with a 1487cc straight-six monobloc engine. By the time it had acquired Zagato's body the following year, this Alfa 1500 had the most elegant aerodynamic lines so far seen anywhere, produced 44 hp at 4200 rpm, and made 110 kph. It was offered in 4/6-seater four-door saloon form and in spyder version.

Master of Lightweight Construction

Both road and race 2500's confirmed Zagato as the master of lightweight construction, for with this car he abandoned the wooden frame for a light but very strong steel structure over which the aluminum skin was stretched. An even more striking car followed in the form of the Alfa 1750, unveiled in 1929 with all-metal construction, but with delicate proportions that became the standard for sporting cars. It weighed only 880 kg while previous cars of this sort had weighed up to 1500 kg. It was also the result of a Zagato-Jano collaboration and went into series production from 1929-1932 with nearly 2600 being built.

This car again took Alfa to the top of sports-car racing - in the 1928 Mille Miglia a 1750 prototype driven by Campari won first time out. In 1930 in this event an historic battle between Nuvolari in a Zagato-bodied 1750 and Varzi in another Alfa resulted in a win for the Zagato car at an average speed of over 100 kph. Zagato was becoming known as something of an innovator in everything he did. He was the first designer to rake windscreens noticeably, and to fair headlamps into the bodywork as an integral part of the design rather than hang them on the outside of a body after the design work had been done. He was the first to pierce disc wheels for lightness and brake cooling. He was also the first designer to recognise the value of bigger window area. In all these developments, however, he captured the natural elegance that stemmed from pure practicality.

1928 Alfa Romeo 6c Sport with Zagato touring body
1928 Alfa Romeo 6c Sport with Zagato touring body.

Elio and Gianni Zagato Elio and Gianni Zagato.

1963 Zagato Lancia Flavia Sport
1963 Zagato Lancia Flavia Sport.

Fiat V8 Zagato
Fiat V8 Zagato.

Zagato designed Lancia Flaminia Coupe
Zagato designed Lancia Flaminia Coupe.

Zagato designed Lancia Fulvia 1600 Coupe
Zagato designed Lancia Fulvia 1600 Coupe.

1975 Zagato Zele 1000
1975 Zagato Zele 1000.

The Fiat Topolino

The next milestone came in 1937 with the appearance of Fiat's little Topolino, the first Italian car of integral construction. Zagato, like other coachbuilders, seized upon it as a subject for his own design, and his special-bodied versions were an instant success. It is recorded that one customer asked Zagato to coachbuild him a really futuristic Topolino. A design was produced that boasted outstanding visual beauty - but the price of construction would be enormous. Despite the cost, the customer ordered the car to be built and started selling his possessions to pay for it. His family rushed him in front of a judge to have him certified as insane - but the judge ruled that to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty was certainly not madness.

During the 1930s Zagato's reputation for strong light-weight construction grew, and no greater tribute to him was paid by the Mille Miglia field of 1938 - where twenty eight competitors drove Zagato-bodied cars. With the coming of war, Zagato found himself involved in truck construction to designs by Isotta Fraschini - work which came to an abrupt halt one day in August 1943 when a bombardment of Milan flattened the Zagato factory. Zagato was as devastated as his factory, and turning his back on design he switched to becoming a hard-nosed businessman so that he could set about the factory's reconstruction in the Via Marco Ulpio Traiano, and in the process save the jobs of those who worked for him.

Days after the war ended, Zagato rented buildings in Saronno, near Milan, and two months later Isotta Fraschini trucks were rolling out of them at pre-bombardment levels. With the end of the war, few people in Italy believed that the car industry would readily recover. It was widely felt that it would be a long time before anyone could afford to buy a car. Characteristically, Ugo Zagato did not subscribe to this belief. He foresaw quick expansion, and looked forward eagerly to regaining his pre-war production levels. Putting his car factory together again, he was ready when Fiat resumed production of the Topolino, and he also began work on his own version of their new 1100. It was this car that led to Zagato's first new post-war design-and an eye-opener it was, too.

The Fiat Panoramica

At the 1947 Milan motor show he presented the Fiat 1100-based Panoramica. Curved windscreen and side windows intruded into the area traditionally occupied by the guttering and roof edges, and plexiglass was used instead of glass for lightness and curvature. Young Italians fell for it, and it provided Zagato's next dose of fame and fortune. But though Zagato was energetically reconstituting his firm's road-car position, he yearned for the good old days of motor racing - and it was through his elder son Elio that the Zagato name was to enjoy its greatest circuit fame. Elio had joined the firm at sixteen and had been given a series of administrative jobs of increasing responsibility, his father grooming him for a management capacity that had nothing to do with getting his hands dirty.

Elio Zagato

This was not quite Elio's ambition, however. For years, hovering at the edge of the pits while Zagato-bodied cars howled in and out, young Elio had cherished the dream of one day piloting the machinery himself. After the war he counselled his father that motor racing was a good way to project the Zagato name again. Ugo Zagato, keen as he was to get back on the circuits, did not like the ideas of Elio 'out there', but he agreed-on the basis that the young man should first complete his education, which had been interrupted by the war. Elio promptly showed the application that had won Ugo his early chances. He read Economics at Milan University, and over a period of 14 months took and passed 25 examinations to obtain his degree.

Having previously proved himself at Saronno by running the truck factory during his father's illness, there was nothing more that Ugo could say, and Elio went ahead. Not that his father offered him financial support. Elio built his own pretty little two-seater (boldly displaying the Zagato name on the front) out of a much modified Topolino van, and tyres were in such short supply in 1947 that he had to use the old van tyres on which to race. During the car's first outing in April of that year, running in the 750 GT class, Elio out-drove his ailing tyres and ended up among the trackside bales. But his manly efforts had already been noted by members of the Pirelli competitions department, who rescued the young man from his instant depression by offering him a set of new tyres. Such an offer in Italy in 1947 was incredible.

Bruno Martignoni

Nonetheless, success came slow and hard. Trained by Mille Miglia winner Bruno Martignoni, and driving a Fiat 750 Sport sold to him by racing driver Giorgio Giusti, he did not start winning until 1949 - and even then his first success was achieved in spite of heavy accident damage. Thereafter his success was outstanding, and the Zagato name reached its peak in Italy, for the early 1950s provided Zagato with something of a golden age. The works turned out a whole string of Fiat-based sports and racing cars which Elio took on to the circuits to good effect. In 1948 he campaigned a Testa d'Oro 750. In 1949 it was the 500 Panoramico.

The Testa d'Oro with uprated engine served him through 1950. A new-series Zagato 750 saw him through the 1951 season. An 1100E version of this car took him through 1952. He used an Alfa SS1900 in 1953, and reverted to Fiat in 1954/1955, when he scored an outstanding victory at Avus in the GT 2000 class of the Berlin GP, driving a Zagato Fiat 8V at an average speed of 170 kph. In November 1955, at the age of 34, he had a near-fatal road crash in the rain when confronted by two oncoming trucks. His prototype Fiat 1100 slid off the road while he was driving to a race meeting at Ospedaletti, nearly killing himself.

A year later he was racing again-under a variety of pseudonyms, since his father had ordered him not to compete again. Having been Italy's 750 champion before his road crash, he won three more championships in various cars ranging from Morris to Alfa 2600, from Aston Martin to Fiat Abarth 750, and in a bevy of special Lancias. By the time he quit the racing scene he had driven in 160 races and won 91 of them. Ugo Zagato's other son, Gianni, born in 1929, joined the firm in 1955 following Elio's accident. Gianni too had done some racing, winning at Modena in 1954 in a Zagato 1100/103, but he was not really devoted to the circuit and he became the firm's fulltime design and project executive.

The Fiat 600

1955 was an important year on the Italian motor scene, as Fiat launched the 600 model which brought motoring to thousands of new customers, confirmed the future of the car in Italy, and became the everyman car of southern Europe. From this 600 sprang the 750 Abarth sporting version - a car which Zagato seized upon as the basis for his new car. His version was announced in 1956 - an aerodynamic two-seater 'double-bubble' lightweight body with curved plexiglas and good interior comfort. It was an immediate success commercially, and soon proved itself in competition too. In the 1957 Mille Miglia, Alfonso Thiele won in this car at an average speed of nearly 118 kph, and two years later it took the Sebring 12-Hour race in Florida and was first in class and ninth overall at Daytona fifteen days later, in both cases beating much more powerful cars.

The Zagato Abarth 750

Here in the US the car was in high demand. Socially the Zagato Abarth 750 became one of Italy's most wanted cars among young people. Film stars were seen in it. And the later 1000 version won for Ugo Zagato one of his most cherished possessions - the 1960 Compasso d'Oro, Italy's top design award. This collaboration between Zagato and Casa Abarth had a greater influence on taste for Zagato than any other model he produced - though at this time the world had become highly conscious of the virtues of Italian styling. A host of limited-edition competition and road models came out of the Zagato factory during the middle and late 1950s - the Alfa 1900 Super Sprint and Fiat Zagato 1103 of 1954, Fiat 600-derived vans in 1955, the Alfa Giuletta SV of 1956-1969, various Lancia Appia versions in 1957, and a Zagato Fiat 500 coupe after the Topolino was replaced in 1957.

Maserati G2000, Lancia Aurelia 2500 and Ferrari 250 also claimed Zagato's styling-study interest. There were in fact sundry interesting essays outside his usual associations - including bodies on the two-liter car produced by Bristol (which became and has remained Zagato's representative in Britain) and on the Ferrari 250 GT and the Osca 1600 in 1960 - and even a study in that year, based on the Mini, and called the Mini-Cat. The British scene attracted Zagato considerably at this time, and his styling exercises of the early 1960s included bodywork for the Jaguar XK140 and 150, and also for Morris Minor and Hillman. In fact in 1960 Zagato pioneered the return to the London motor show of the Italian styling houses which had been absent for several years, and at the 1961 show he caused quite a stir.

Gianni Zagato

All this activity persuaded Zagato that another move was necessary, and in the spring of 1962 a new factory was opened at Terrazzono di Rho, to a design and specification laid down by Gianni Zagato. Through the rnid-rqoos the firm produced a considerable number of special bodies on a variety of models either for short production runs or for motor show exhibition. These went from numerous variations on Lancias-collaboration between Zagato and Lancia having been another product of Elio's racing connections, this one involving Alberto Ascari - to more Alfa's such as the 1600 GTZ, an exercise on the Hillman Imp, called the Hillman Zimp, and one more recently on the Rover 2000, called the TCZ.

This pattern remained much the same since for the next decade, each motor show bringing a new exercise or two. Zagato's staple production diet since 1967 has been production of the Lancia Fulvia Zagato, though the firm's British connection took on fresh interest in 1975 with the unveiling by Bristol of a new production 412 model with a Zagato drophead body. The styling of the 412 had a squarishness and visual weight which was out of step with most other current styling thought, but which the size of the car carried off. It also lent an individuality and kerb side presence that the familiar 1975 conventions did not always achieve.

The association of Zagatowith Bristol - noted for powerful Chrysler V8-engined cars is one that accords well with the Italian firm's tradition of quality. At the 1975 London motor show Bristol Cars exhibited a small square electric car with Zagato body to demonstrate both firm's awareness of current motoring realities. Through the 1970's and 1980's Zagato was run by Elio and Gianni Zagato, the founder, Ugo, having died in October 1968. Ugo Zagato's passed away in 2009, and Gianni Zagato (born 1929) would go into retirement so that Andrea Zagato could assume control.

Zagato Models

  • 1922: Fiat 501
  • 1922: Diatto Tipo 25 4DS
  • 1925: Lancia Lambda
  • 1929: Alfa Romeo 6C 1500
  • 1929: Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS
  • 1930: Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Testa Fissa
  • 1932: Alfa Romeo 6C 1750
  • 1932: Alfa Romeo 8C 2300
  • 1937: Alfa Romeo 8C 2900
  • 1938: Fiat 1500 Spider MM
  • 1938: Fiat 500 Siata
  • 1938: Lancia Aprilia Sport MM
  • 1938: Lancia Aprilia Sport Aerodinamica
  • 1947: Fiat 500 B Panoramica
  • 1947: Isotta-Fraschini 8C Monterosa
  • 1949: Maserati A6 1500 Panoramica
  • 1950: Ferrari Panoramica Speciale
  • 1952: Fiat 500 CZ
  • 1952: Fiat 8V Elaborata
  • 1953: Osca 4500 Biondetti
  • 1954: Maserati A6 G/54 2000
  • 1958: AC Ace-Bristol Zagato
  • 1957: Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ
  • 1957: Jaguar XK 140 Z
  • 1957: Lancia Appia GT
  • 1958: Lancia Flaminia Sport
  • 1960: Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato
  • 1960: Bristol 406
  • 1961: Bristol 407
  • 1962: 1960 Osca 1600 GTZ
  • 1962: Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint Zagato
  • 1962: Lancia Flaminia Tubolare
  • 1962: Lancia Flaminia Sport 3C
  • 1962: Lancia Flavia Sport 1.5
  • 1963: Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ
  • 1963: Lancia Flavia Sport
  • 1965: Alfa Romeo Gran Sport Quattroruote
  • 1965: Lamborghini 3500 GTZ
  • 1966: Lancia Fulvia Sport
  • 1967: Shelby Zagato
  • 1969: Alfa Romeo GT Junior Zagato
  • 1969: Volvo 2000 GTZ
  • 1970 Cadillac Eldorado NART
  • 1974: Zagato Zele 1000
  • 1975: Bristol 412
  • 1976: Lancia Beta Spider (Designed by Pininfarina, Zagato Produced)
  • 1984: Maserati Biturbo Spider
  • 1986: Aston Martin V8 Zagato
  • 1988: Autech Stelvio
  • 1989: Alfa Romeo SZ
  • 1991: Ferrari 348 Elaborazione
  • 1991: Nissan Gavia
  • 1992: Lancia Hyena
  • 1992: Fiat 500 Z-ECO
  • 1993: F.I.V.E Formula Junior Elettrosolare
  • 1993: Zagato Ferrari FZ93 (Formula Zagato 1993)
  • 1993: Autech Gavia
  • 1994: Ferrari ES1
  • 1996: Fiat Bravobis
  • 1996: Zagato Raptor
  • 2002: Aston Martin DB7 Zagato
  • 2003: Aston Martin DB AR1
  • 2005: Lancia Ypsilon Sport
  • 2006: Ferrari 575 GTZ
  • 2006: Toyota Harrier Zagato
  • 2008: Spyker C12 Zagato
  • 2008: Bentley Zagato GTZ
  • 2008: Perana Z-one
  • 2010: Alfa Romeo TZ3
  • 2011: Fiat 500 Coupe
Zagato designed 1963 Aston Martin DB4 GT
Zagato designed 1963 Aston Martin DB4 GT.
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