Street finds: the great Bizzarrini!

A great thing with writing this blog is that whereas in some weeks I know well in advance what to write about, in others I don’t have a clue. This is a bit of a thrill since inspiration (at least so far) then comes somehow, but very rarely does it do so in such an inspired way as this week! Taking a lunch walk on Tuesday in the currently locked-down and therefore half empty city of Zurich, I turned a corner and saw something low and red that looked very much like a 60’s Ferrari but was… something else. A model name I didn’t recognize, and a logo that said Bizzarrini. I know we have some really knowledgeable readers here and as those of you familiar with Bizzarrini will know, seeing one doesn’t happen every day; nor every week, month or year! I had never seen a Bizzarrini before which is perhaps not very surprising, given the whole production of Bizzarrini automobiles in the 60’s amounted to a few dozen cars (more on that below). The 5300 GT I had in front of me looked spectacular, and when doing some research around Giotto Bizzarrini and his brand, a wonderful story of great engineering in a bygone era combined with the temper of several protagonists, including a certain Enzo Ferrari emerged. So this week will be about Giotto Bizzarrini and his cars, from the age when cars were sketched with a ruler and built with sweat rather than computers!

What I couldn’t identify straight away – a Bizzarrini GT 5300 Strada!

Giotto Bizzarrini was born in 1926 close to the port city of Livorno near Pisa in Italy, and as a young engineer started working for Alfa Romeo where he quickly made a name for himself as a very promising and talented engineer with a special love for racing cars. He was in fact so promising that the great Enzo Ferrari became aware of him and quickly recruited him, so from 1958, Giotto worked at Ferrari where he led the development of several Ferrari GT cars, notably the legendary 250 GTO. No doubt that Giotto had his career cut out for him at Ferrari had it not been for Enzo’s strong personality, Latin temper – and love for his wife Laura. Laura was not as loved by other key Ferrari employees, especially on the sales side where Ferrari’s sales manager Girolamo Gardini was getting very tired of Laura messing up his sales plans by always requesting special deliveries of race cars for personal contacts and friends. Betting on his long and successful background at the firm, Gandini together with a group of other senior executives, including Bizzarrini, one day walked into Enzo’s office and basically told him “it’s her or us”, confident Enzo would see the logic. He didn’t. Laura stayed and Enzo fired the senior executives (consisting of most of the race team at Ferrari) in what was referred to as the Palace Revolt or the Great Walkout. You’d better know what you’re doing before you mess with the boss’s wife, especially if that boss is (or rather was) Enzo Ferrari!

The Ferrari 250 GTO – 36 built, all of them still in existance, changing hands at USD 50-75m…

Giotto Bizzarrini was especially passionate about engines and before the Palace Coup had started a department within Ferrari where engines were tested and notably the Testa Rossa 3-litre engine was developed. When he left Ferrari, Giotto went on to found a company named ATS with the ambition to build a Formula 1 car (which he never did), before founding his next company called Società Autostar as a freelance design house (chassis and engines) in Livorno. One of his first clients was a a certain Ferruccio Lamborghini who was set on building a V12 engine and much like Bizzarrini, wasn’t best friends with Enzo. Bizzarrini took on the project and thus built Lamborghini’s first V12, with an architecture that was far ahead of what Ferrari was producing at the time and so powerful it had to be tuned down from its original 375 hp for street usage. This is in other words how Lamborghini’s first V12 came about, and you have to believe Giotto wasn’t too displeased to indirectly get back at Enzo…

The first Lambo V12 – Bizzarrini to the far left

Autostar under Bizzarrini also worked on a number of other cars, notably for Iso, another small Italian automaker from the 60’s, including the Iso Rivolta and Grifo, especially the race version of the Grifo called A3/C. For these, as well as for the later cars in the Bizzarrini name, he would however not be using that Lambo V12 but rather the small block Chevy V8 from the Corvette. Throughout his career he had developed a love for the larger volume, US engines, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Ferrari to build a larger volume engine. A year later Giotto ended the collaboration with Iso, took the A3/C with him and fulfilled his dream by starting Automobili Bizzarrini Spa, where the A3/C was to become the first Bizzarrini car under the name GT 5300.

The GT 5300 was produced both in a Corsa (race) and a Strada (street) version, with a power output from the Chevy small block of between 350-400 hp. The car was front-mid-engined with the engine sitting behing the front axle, probably sharing quite a lot of heat with the passengers but above all, producing a sound out of this world… The body was a combination of aluminium and fibre glass, the rear axle was independent and brakes were inboard i.e. mounted on the axles such as to remove weight from the wheels, as notably on the Citroën SM. The box was a Chevy four-speed manual. Giotto raced the Corsa version himself notably in Le Mans, and it’s hard to believe today when you learn that doing so, he drove the car himself from Livorno to Le Mans, won his class and then drove back home!

The rear is the part most will have seen of the 5300 GT, and it’s a good-looking one!

Unfortunately, although there’s no doubt about his capabilities as an engineer, car designer or for that matter driver, Giotto Bizzarrini wasn’t very talented as a businessman. The race career never really took off, notably since Giotto didn’t have enough money to homologate the GT 5300 Corsa. Even worse, the whole company was permanently under-capitalized, the GT 5300 never became a success, and after the bankruptcy filing of the company in 1969, Giotto even admitted that he had not keep track of how many cars had been built. This is still a debated topic today. It’s clear that the GT 5300 Strada was the most popular car with presumably 50-75 cars produced. The Corsa version is estimated to have been built no more than 10 times, thus making it three times rarer than a GTO, and the following and last race car, the P 538, was only built a few times. So the total production of Bizzarrini during five years was probably no more than 100 cars. Those still in existance mostly sit in car museums (if you happen to be in LA, the Peterson Automobile Museum is said to have one) or personal collections, so I was indeed a lucky guy to see one parked in the street with the window half-opened!

I’m not a 100% sure but as late as last November Giotto was still alive, so chances are he still is, in that case 95 years old and most probably quite surprised to see the prices his cars fetch on the few occasions they change owners. A Bizzarrini would have been a great investment around 20 years ago when they traded for somewhere around USD 100.000, today you need to add a zero to that. But that’s of course not what makes the story special. Rather, it’s the story of a man who today counts as one of the gratest racing engineers ever, not only in Italy but globally, who developed Lamborghini’s first ever V12 and,who could probably have helped Ferrari became even more successful as a racing team, had Enzo had his wife and temper under control!

One thought on “Street finds: the great Bizzarrini!

  1. Philip Hjelmér

    Dear Christoffer,

    Thanks for the research you put into describing the history of Bizzarrini, which was unknown to me, although I spent quite some time in the 60s and 70s reading as much as I could about cars of that time.

    Being an avid enthusiast of vintage sports cars of that period I very much appreciate your regular comments. My area of particular interest is cars from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. All the air cooled ones, but particularly the first generation of the flat six engined (1963-1973).

    Kind regards,

    Philip H.

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