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CCotW: Abarth/Bertone 1500 Biposto Coupé (1952)

05 October 2018 | by Karl Smith

Carlo Abarth needs no introduction to the readers of Car Design News. The Austrian-Italian engineer, racer, tuner, and creator of incredible concept cars had a legendary life and career. This week’s concept car belongs to a chapter in Abarth’s life just after he had left Cisitalia and established his own company.

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Carlo Abarth and a sampling of his wares

His departure from the troubled Cisitalia was not a pleasant one, and his severance was a few partially-built Cisitalia cars and a bin of parts. After the cars were completed and the parts inventory exhausted, Abarth went looking for a new opportunity.

He managed to obtain a FIAT 1400 engine and set about improving the basic little FIAT powerplant. The engine was bored out, the stroke tweaked and a pair of Weber carburettors were installed on an Abarth-fabricated intake manifold. All this work increased the horsepower from 44 to 75 horses, a significant improvement.

While the custom-made chassis was being constructed, Abarth contracted the design and fabrication of the body to Carrozzeria Bertone and Mr. Bertone’s newly-hired designer, Franco Scaglione.

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Franco Scaglione’s dramatic sketch for the new coupé

Scaglione’s development sketch revealed two strong pontoon fenders terminating in chrome-ringed headlights. A dramatic nose with a central third headlight (reminiscent of the Tucker Torpedo) completed the front mask.

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The Studebaker Commander Coupé from 1951

The overall composition recalled Raymond Loewy’s designs for the ‘bullet nose’ Studebakers of 1950-1951; note the front mask and wraparound rear windscreen – Scaglione’s Biposto design adopted both, but in a sportier fashion. The Studebaker was a family car, but this little coupé for Abarth could afford to be sleeker, less bound to the conventions that hamstrung Loewy.

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The front mask showed a distinct Raymond Loewy influence

Scaglione added distinctive flares or scallops to the wheel wells to make the car seem lighter. A lighter colour painted inside the well made the effect even more pronounced. Behind the rear wheel wells the pontoon fenders ended in tail fins more pronounced than even the American cars of the period. It was a preview of things to come.

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The interior was elegant in its simplicity – a real driver’s car

The interior was spartan, but racer-like, with a trio of major gauges set in an oval pod in front of the driver, with minor controls and a radio placed alongside. It was simplicity and elegance in a very sleek package.

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The Abarth/Bertone Biposto Coupé at the 1952 Turin show

The finished car was the centrepiece of the Bertone stand at the 1952 Turin show. The scorpion badge of Abarth was proudly placed prominently above the nose. Enthusiasts of Bertone, Cisitalia, Abarth and FIAT all crowded around the stand, as did visitors from other countries, including more than a few curious Americans.

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A 1952 Packard Patrician. A similar car was displayed by Packard at the 1952 Turin show

One pair, Bill Graves and Edward MacCauley, were, respectively, the lead engineer and lead designer for Packard, an American marque with a storied history that had fallen on hard times. The pair had brought a Series 24 Packard to the show, and were canvassing for ideas on how to make the design more elegant, refined and, if possible, even sporty.

Italian greats Pininfarina, Carrozzeria Touring and Ghia were all approached but they were all utterly flummoxed by the ungainly Packard, which looked like a wayward pachyderm that had wandered in from the circus. The Italians pointed the Packard men towards the Bertone stand and its all-star centerpiece, the Abarth 1500 Biposto Coupé.

After the Turin show closed, the two representatives from Packard approached Abarth about buying the little showstopper. A deal was struck (reluctantly by Abarth, it seems, who doubtless needed the money) and the little Italian coupé was soon on its way to Detroit to be studied by the Packard stylists, who were desperate to find a design language to revive Packard’s declining market share.

But while Graves and MacCauley were in Italy, Packard had hired James Nance as CEO. Nance was a no-nonsense executive from General Electric’s Hotpoint appliance division. Not exactly a car guy, Nance had no real interest in Packard’s storied history or core market. He was an appliance guy through-and-through, and to him a car was just another appliance.

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The Biposto – a contemporary photo. Quite a contrast to the Packards of the day

The Biposto sat around the Packard design studio, more of an ornament than a benchmarking vehicle. Then the Associate Editor of Fortune magazine, Richard Austin Smith, happened to see it while touring Packard for an upcoming feature. Smith gushed over the little Italian coupé, but Nance assured him that the Biposto was strictly for inspiration. Nance made it very clear that Packard designs were not going to be at all flamboyant.

Later in the tour, as Smith and Nance discussed the car business and the new products that Packard was planning to bring to market, it was mentioned that the advertising department was struggling with themes and slogans for their upcoming marketing campaigns.

Smith was no advertising man, but he was well connected to the advertising firms of Madison Avenue and automotive companies all over the nation, and, as a result, he had his finger on the pulse of the latest trends in automotive marketing. He outlined a few ideas and suggested several slogans, and some of Smith’s ideas were subsequently implemented in the new Packard campaigns that autumn.

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The 1954 Buick Wildcat concept car. Note the scalloped wheel wells – the design feature appears in several GM concept cars over the next 20 years

Meanwhile, over at General Motors, Harley Earl and his staff did not have the car, but the Biposto had been seen and extensively photographed at the Turin show. Earl had spies all over Detroit and doubtless knew that the Italian starlet was in town. Photos lined the walls of studios as Earl’s designers studied the car for new trends to introduce at its forthcoming Motorama shows. The scalloped wheel wells would find a place on the Buick Wildcat concept of 1954, and the Oldsmobile Golden Rocket of 1956 would also show a strong Scaglione influence around the front, as well as in its scalloped wheel wells.

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The Oldsmobile Golden Rocket – Biposto design themes, filtered through the design sensibilities of Harley Earl

As for Packard, the little Italian languished in the studio. Still a teasing inspiration, but nothing else.

Packard’s cars did improve somewhat on their frumpy early ’50s design, but they were large cars which could not easily translate the sporty details of the Biposto into Detroit iron. Also, like GM, Packard’s designers had to avoid being seen to copy too closely the Loewy-inspired details which were present in the little Italian coupé.

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The 1958 Packard – the end of the line. Studebaker design, but its fishmouth grille and tailfins destroyed the classic Raymond Loewy aesthetic

In a final ironic twist, Packard would foolishly purchase Studebaker in 1954 and the Studebaker design aesthetic and product lineup would be adopted. The Packard brand would be reduced to a badge-engineered Studebaker, thus giving the imperious Loewy the final triumph.

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The Biposto made yet another unlikely move in 1953, this time to New York

When Packard designers completed their studies of the Biposto in 1953, Nance called Richard Austin Smith and offered the car to him as a payment for his advertising advice (the new designs and campaigns had generated a modest uptick in sales). Nance was only too happy to be rid of the car, and keen to get it out of Detroit lest Harley Earl find a way to purchase it.

Smith, delighted, consulted his legal team and his superiors and got permission to accept the car as a gift. He would store it and maintain it for 40 years, driving it only occasionally, and mostly to keep it in running order. Smith’s sons, however, have fond memories of being picked up from school in the flashy little Italian car, to the astonishment of their envious classmates, so it did have its everyday moments. It was last registered in New York in 1977, and then apparently retired for good.

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The Biposto looks remarkably like Scaglione’s original sketch (above)

The Biposto, taken from Europe, became a tale of ‘the one that got away’ and was either forgotten about or assumed destroyed during the liquidation of Studebaker in the 1960s. Fans of the car presumed that it had met an unfortunate demise and consigned the Biposto to history.

However, it was rediscovered in 1999, in a garage, and sold at a Christie’s auction in 2003. The car then underwent a seven-year restoration, culminating in a presentation at the 2010 Pebble Beach Concours, where it won the Gran Turismo trophy. It was also shown at the 2011 Amelia Island Concours and at the Goodwood Cartier ‘Style et Luxe’ exhibit that same year. The car still makes the rounds of the concours circuit.

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The Alfa Romeo B.A.T. series – direct descendants of the Biposto

As remarkable as the life and resurrection of the Biposte is, its true legacy may be the remarkable series of aerodynamic car experiments commissioned by Alfa Romeo the very next year. The cars, known as B.A.T. – Berlina Aerodynamica Technica – formed a series of three, introduced at the Turin show in 1953, 1954,and 1955. The B.A.T. 7 was the most aerodynamic, with a Cd of only 0.19. Again, Bertone was the carrozzeria and Franco Scaglione the designer of these remarkable cars.

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The Biposto Coupé – the soon-to-emerge B.A.T. aesthetic is seen here

In the design of the Biposto you can see the future emerging. The tailfins, so prominent on the B.A.T. cars, find their beginnings here. And the dorsal fin, often overlooked but so prominent on B.A.T. 7, divides the rear windscreen on the Biposto, though it is a mere sliver compared to what would emerge in the forthcoming years.

The front mask on the B.A.T. 5 and 7 cars is an abstraction of the Biposto, while the B.A.T. 9 is more like an Alfa Romeo version of the Biposto.

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The B.A.T. cars – tailfins and dorsal fins. The split rear windows were a decade ahead of the classic split-window Corvette

The B.A.T. cars attracted huge crowds wherever they were shown – then and now – and brought much attention to Alfa Romeo, Bertone, Franco Scaglione, and, of course, Carlo Abarth. Successes for all would continue through the years, and it’s nice that this little coupé, found at the confluence of so many colourful personalities and design ideas, reappeared to write its own early chapter of the story.

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