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Driven: Bertone Spicup

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Believe it or not, this is a BMW - but a BMW as reworked by Bertone at the height of 1960s psychedelia.

The traffic is stop-go: mainly stop. It’s early morning rush hour in eastern Holland and now is not a good time to be feeling self-conscious. Alongside us, a Fiat Punto discharges atonal dance music at the volume of artillery fire, its driver’s face a picture of blank astonishment. His female companion gives us a half-smile before taking our picture on her mobile. Why not, everyone else has. The traffic lights turn green, and the aged hatchback coughs forward, leaving us to repeat the process over and over again with each gawping commuter who crosses our path. Apparently the carnival is in town and we’re it.

You can understand their reaction. The badge reads BMW but our car clearly belongs to a different era, a different planet even. And then there’s the legend ‘Spicup’, writ large across the tail. These days we’re used to typographically ‘witty’ car names, where random capitalization and the substitution of numerals for letters are deemed perfectly acceptable. But Spicup? Just how do you pronounce that?

It’s a cryptic title for a brilliantly left field concept car, ‘Spe-e-coop’ being a contraction of ‘spider’ and ‘coupé’. Conceived by Stile Bertone while it was at the height of its considerable powers, the Spicup is a rare survivor from what was perhaps the last great period of concept car creativity. Unveiled at the 1969 Geneva Salon, the ‘Spider + Coupe’, as Bertone put it, may not be the best-known showstopper to emerge from the Turin styling house, but then it was shuttered away from view for decades. Only now is it enjoying a second career on the automotive catwalks.

Octane first encountered the Spicup three years ago in a facility that is now home to Milan’s Carrozzeria Touring. It was stripped down to its bare essentials, and much of the lower half was a latticework of emaciated steel and rust. Concept cars are by nature not built with permanency in mind. Once they’ve finished strutting their stuff at motor shows, they traditionally head for dusty obsolescence in a factory museum. Either that or the scrapper. The Spicup avoided both, and remarkably covered some 100,000km as a daily driver during the ’70s and early ’80s before being put into storage. It had earned its scars.

While nothing Bertone has done since has ever quite matched that white-hot moment when it unleashed the Lamborghini Miura, the late ’60s and early ’70s nonetheless witnessed a raft of outlandish designs from the same studio. Resident genius Marcello Gandini merely continued from where Franco Scaglione and Giorgetto Giugiaro left off, this being the same spell in which the opera singer’s son embarked on a single-minded mission to obliterate subtlety. During this remarkably fertile period he shaped everything from the Alfa Romeo Carabo to the Lancia Stratos via the Lamborghini Countach. The Spicup might not represent his career pinnacle, but then it wasn’t entirely his own work.

The car was conceived in 1968, in part to promote an idea conceived by Bertone engineer Enzo Cingolani for a retractable roof; one in which stainless steel panels would withdraw into an oversized roll bar at the touch of a button. Originally intended for what ultimately became the Fiat X1/9, this application was soon dropped on grounds of cost and complexity but the concept didn’t end there. The Spicup was built to showcase the ‘umbrella roof’, with BMW deemed the perfect partner for a more ambitious dream car.

The two firms had previously collaborated on the Giugiaro-penned 3200CS coupé, which was built at Bertone’s Grugliasco plant. Studio chief Nuccio Bertone also enjoyed a close relationship with the firm’s head of bodywork construction, Willhelm Hoffmeister. While the Spicup was dreamed up in Italy, BMW undoubtedly played its part as the donor for the project was a pre-production E3-generation 2500 saloon, chassis V*0010* (V standing for Versuchswagen, or ‘experimental car’), which came complete with the latest 2.8-liter straight-six. It was clearly hedging its bets as, according to BMW’s historical archives, chassis V*0011* was dispatched concurrently to Pietro Frua. It would appear that several experimental cars were given to Italian coachbuilders during this period.

Nuccio Bertone also played more than a supervisory role in the Spicup’s creation. He wasn’t a stylist per se, but this was a collaborative exercise with Gandini, insiders claiming that ‘Project 1010.0’ was very close to his heart. The end result was perhaps not conventionally attractive but it was undeniably striking. Style Auto waxed, not altogether coherently, that the Spicup ‘…[successfully] tackled the technical problems relating to an old dream of many car makers, namely the car which can be transformed from closed to open and vice versa with a metal top, and not the usual cloth hood of a normal convertible… It is therefore a valid prototype, even if at first glance it leaves one somewhat perplexed because of its unorthodox styling.’

Cyril Posthumus was a mite more caustic in his round-up of the ’69 Geneva Salon debutants. In Road & Track he wrote: ‘Bertone’s latest effort, BMW-based and bearing the ugly name of Spicup, is short, heavy-hipped, faintly wedgey and not so nice looking as a normal Teutonic BMW costing much less.’

Subsequently displayed at the June ’69 Concorso d’Eleganza in Alassio, and finally at the Frankfurt Motor Show two months later, the car was sold that same year. What followed next is highly speculative, but several sources say the Spicup passed between several German dealers including Auto Becker of Düsseldorf, which, in period, was well-known for selling exotica. What is known is that a Dutch motor trader acquired it in the mid-’70s, the vivid green body colour being changed for a nasty shade of orange while the elaborate cabin trim was painted black. Racking up a six-figure mileage inside a decade, it apparently never missed a beat, even if the roof wasn’t altogether watertight. The car was put into storage in the mid-80s and remained there until 2008, when it was acquired by a noted Belgian collector – and saviour – of coachbuilt icons.

No stranger to restoring one-off confections, Aldo Goi began the physical restoration in September ’08, with Peter Kunz of the Netherlands’ Red Willow Racing overseeing the mechanical overhaul and final assembly. The car was complete save for the bespoke windscreen, although much of the floorpan and both sills had rusted out. Remarkably, the car was up and running in just seven months and made its post-renovation debut at the 2009 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. You can only marvel at how they did it in the time, the handmade nature of the original build ensuring the complexities of such a restoration were squared, not doubled.

First sight of this flight of fantasy is as disorientating as it is dazzling. The Spicup has such an odd but compelling outline: ugly yet beautiful. It’s almost as though discordant elements were overlaid and then hammered into shape. Up front, the semi-concealed headlight treatment is pure Gandini, also featuring on his designs for the Alfa Romeo Montreal, the Iso Lele and Lamborghini Jarama. The beltline is particularly high towards the hind area, with creases in the flanks stopping it short of appearing cow-hipped. Same too for the silver-grey-coloured sills, which afford further slimming properties. Some of the detailing is decidedly strange, not least the traditional BMW grille forming part of the front bumper (itself made of vinyl-clad timber), and the intakes which scream BMW 507. Then there’s the bonnet scoop fixed to the air filter, which remains in place when the bonnet is opened. Very muscle car.

But the Spicup’s signature feature is that stainless steel roof, which glides smoothly into the chunky B-pillar, a second switch powering the rear window should you desire the full blustery convertible effect. And you can only fully appreciate this extraordinary machine from inside. The cabin was largely the work of stylist Eugenio Pagliano, who was clearly no stranger to ’60s sci-fi movies. Resplendent in searing shades of lemon green, olive and silver, it’s not quite a case of style over substance, but certainly one in which the latter is obscured by the former.

The leather seats may be shallow – with strange hexagonal inserts – but they’re surprisingly comfortable, although the vast tiller prompts a legs-splayed stance. The dashboard is vaguely reminiscent of a ’60s Chevrolet Corvette’s and home to VDO instruments, with minor switchgear lifted from proletarian Fiats. Novel details abound, such as the glovebox lid that slides right-to-left to mimic the roof arrangement. It really is an amazing office, one that wouldn’t look out of place in Barbarella’s pop-art pad. It’s truly, really brilliant.

Once free of rubbernecking commuters and onto some deserted backroads, the Spicup feels less alien. Unusually for a concept car, it was tested extensively in-period, with one source claiming a top speed of 143mph. While the chassis was shortened, with a wheelbase of 2340mm rather than the regular E3 saloon’s 2690mm, the running gear is standard save for the exhaust. And it weighs 1330kg, so with 168bhp on tap this velocity seems at best fanciful. That said, it doesn’t feel slow. It picks up cleanly from low down the rev range – it clearly has plenty of torque – but the strident exhaust note likely makes it sound quicker than it actually is. It certainly makes it hard to resist blipping on downchanges just for the sake of it, the four-speed manual ’box being benign so long as you don’t rush it.

What you don’t expect is just how refined it is. There is no banging or crashing through the structure; the Spicup feels as rigid as any other BMW. The ride quality is smooth, too, with the semi-trailing arm rear end coping admirably with surface imperfections. Power-assisted steering helps keep things relaxed, which is precisely how you feel when burbling along at an easy 60mph with the roof retracted. Extravagantly gilded though it might be, this is nonetheless a capable tourer that proves a versatility beyond the shock factor. You can understand why its last keeper drove so many miles in it.

While it’s highly unlikely that BMW ever considered sponsoring even a limited run of replicas, you could argue that the Spicup helped sustain the bond with Bertone. It led to further prototypes and the first-generation 5-series saloon, which history tends to forget was styled by Gandini. Think of the Spicup as a slice of starry-eyed futurism, a bridgehead between mainstream projects that blows the mind and assaults your eyes. To those of us who believe all concept cars should be wedge-shaped and painted in eye-popping incandescent hues, it doesn’t get much better. The years haven’t blunted its impact.

Thanks to Paul Koot and Peter Kunz, PK Coachbuilt & Classic and Red Willow Racing of Westervoort, the Netherlands.


1969 Bertone Spicup

Engine: 2788cc straight-six, SOHC, two Zenith 35/40 INAT carburettors 
Power: 168bhp @ 6000rpm 
Torque: N/A 
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 
Steering: Power-assisted worm-and-roller 
Suspension: Front: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers 
Brakes: Discs, servo-assisted 
Weight: 1330kg 
Performance: Top speed 130mph (est). 0-60mph 9sec (est)

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