Monteverdi was a Swiss automotive marque that few now remember, but it produced one of the world's most individual, exotic and exclusive supercars.
It all began when Peter Monteverdi inherited his father’s garage in Binningen , Switzerland in 1957. The elder Monteverdi had died suddenly when Peter was just 22, and the young mechanic’s apprentice suddenly became the owner of a solid, but uninspiring business.
At the same time, Peter Monteverdi began racing, with enough modest success to catch the eye of Enzo Ferrari, who offered him an opportunity to import and sell Ferraris. This led to other import deals with luxury marques; his humble garage became a showplace for fast, luxurious cars, and it was soon entertaining well-heeled clients from all over Switzerland.
As Monteverdi wooed his clients, and demonstrated the various makes and models, he noticed an interesting common characteristic. They tended to be mostly middle aged (and older) men who had finally accrued enough money to afford a world-class sports car. But to their aging bodies a Ferrari was, to put it charitably, the wrong geometry.
“A Ferrari is a young man’s car but no young man can afford it,” Monteverdi would later say. “Older people want things like auto transmission, but Ferrari refuse to give [it to] them.”
At the same time some friction with the notoriously difficult “il Commendatore” had arisen.
“Enzo insisted I buy 100 cars at a time and pay for them in advance. I wasn’t prepared to do that so he said he’d find another importer. I didn’t think it was fair but he did it anyway so I decided to build my own car.”
So Monteverdi struck out on his own, looking to fill a luxury niche for the client who had finally acquired the money for a sleek sports car, but in the process had lost the agility to fold himself (or herself) into a Ferrari.
His solution was a GT-type coupe, the Monteverdi High Speed 375, introduced in 1967. The car, which was styled by Piero Frua, used a tubular chassis, a steel body and one of a series of huge Chrysler V8s with Torqueflite transmissions.
Monteverdi achieved a modest success with the High Speed, and in late 1969, began developing a supercar to compete with the high-end offerings of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. The result was a two-seat mid-engined sports car introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1970.
Designed by either Trevor Fiore of Carrozeria Fiore or Pietro Frua (there are conflicting accounts of its designer), the curvaceous sports car revolving on the stand was a strange sort of magenta colour called purple smoke. And the name, Hai, was German for shark (Hai, or Haifisch – Monteverdi chose the short version), which was rather unusual for a car that had its roots in mountainous, landlocked Switzerland.
Equally strange was the engine – a monster 426 Chrysler Hemi that was placed amidships. The Hemi produced 450 horsepower, and was connected to a unique ZF transaxle that allowed for rear-wheel drive right behind the engine. It could accelerate to 100kph in 4.8 seconds, and had a top speed of over 289kph (180mph). The weight balance was excellent (54:46), with the Hemi placed low in the steel square-tube frame.
Placed over the firebreathing engine and its sturdy framework was a sculpted steel body with exaggerated haunches over the wheels, a somewhat bulbuous rear end, and a shark-like nose with hidden lights at the front. Hints of DeTomaso, Giugiaro, Frua, and a half-dozen other Italian designers, plus a little Bill Mitchell, can be seen in the design, which nonetheless looks fresh and crisp even after nearly five decades.
At the interior, the cockpit was similar to Italian sports cars of the time. The standard analog instruments were in place, along with some niceties like a clock. The two seats were trimmed in white leather as were the door cards; black was the colourway everywhere else.
But the principal element in the interior is the engine itself. Even with the cover on it dominated the interior and, as sound isolation was not a serious concern, any fantasy of conversing while driving was quickly laid to rest.
Test drivers reported monstrous acceleration and nimble handling, although the tuning circle was enormous and the brakes were worrying given the beastly power of the car. The cacophony of the engine left ears ringing long after the drive was over.
Reception for the Hai was very positive, but Monteverdi was rather cagey about sales. Some 49 cars were planned, with an announced list price of 90,000 Swiss Francs (roughly the price of two Aston Martin DBS Vantages). But only the Geneva prototype was sold – and that occurred over a year later.
Some have contended that there were never plans for production.
Paul Berger, Monteverdi’s assistant for over 40 years, told Classic Car magazine: “We only sold one. We could have sold much more, but Mr Monteverdi he [would] say ‘This car is so special you can’t deliver it to everybody’. We made it more to get the name Monteverdi to the public.”
It appears that the Hai was used mainly to lure prospective customers into the showroom and then sell them a more sedate High Speed 375 grand tourer, which was then in limited production.
Monteverdi would later claim that some 12-14 Hai cars were produced, but strong evidence suggests only four exist. Another slightly longer Hai, called the Hai 450 GTS, was presented at the 1973 Geneva show, and two replicas were built in the early 1990s and placed in Monteverdi’s private museum in Binningen.
The original Hai would eventually be sold in November 1971 and would pass from collector to collector, eventually making its way to the United States and a couple of appearances at Pebble Beach. The other three cars remained with Monteverdi and are now a part of the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne – the only place to see multiple examples of Monteverdi cars and SUVs in one place.
Monteverdi would cease building his own cars in 1982. He would continue designing (he designed the original four-door Range Rover, and received a royalty on every one sold) and consulting, and then in the late 1980s bought a Formula 1 team and briefly raced it with less-than-modest success.
He suffered from cancer in the 1990s, and, in a bit of poignant symmetry, would die peacefully in a furnished room above his shop in Binningen, the same place where his father had worked and where his own career had begun some 40 years before.