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Fit for a Duke - Bizzarini Duc d'Aosta

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Commissioned by a wealthy young Italian noble, the Duca d’Aosta was the ultimate ‘street’ Bizzarrini – but it also marked the end of a turbulent ride for the company that took on Ferrari at its own game, and lost.

Noted engineer and automotive constructor Giotto Bizzarrini long dreamed of building a mid-engined road car. Several false starts in the early to mid-1960s finally became reality in 1968. The one-off Duca d’Aosta appeared late that year, but would prove to be the swan song for the company that bore the engineer’s name.

So who is Giotto Bizzarrini? And what gave him the credentials to make a legitimate contender for the title of the world’s fastest street machine of the 1960s?

While Bizzarrini defines himself in the simplest manner – ’I am a test driver, a formidable test driver’ – there is much more to his resumé than simply ‘driver’, no matter how formidable he says he is. Joining Alfa Romeo in the summer of ’54 he worked closely with Alfa’s mythical test drivers Consalvo Sanesi and Giovanbattista Guidotti. Also looking over his shoulder was Orazio Satta, Alfa’s talented chief engineer. Multiple decades of experience were revealed to him, Bizzarrini soaking up the lessons like a dry sponge under a slow-running tap. ‘I became a test driver who happened to be an engineer who used mathematical principles,’ he summarizes.

This gave him a skill that few other test drivers possessed: the ability to prove ideas on the road and on the drawing board. Not only could he test a car but, unlike almost every other of his breed, he didn’t need to tell an engineer what had happened or what he felt. He simply devised a solution himself and, later, anticipated problems before they occurred.

That skill-set saw Ferrari come calling in 1957, and the young engineer blossomed at Maranello. He first sorted the 250 Ellena’s handling issues, then became head of Experimental, Sport and GT Car Development. His CV grew – first with the 250 Testa Rossa, then the Spider California. Then came his masterpiece, the 250GTO.

But no sooner was Giotto in the final phases of GTO testing than he found himself outside Ferrari in the infamous ‘Palace Revolt’ in 1961. Unemployment for him and fellow revolutionaries, engineer Carlo Chiti and sales manager Girolamo Gardini, was only momentary; within a matter of weeks all were employed by a new start-up, ATS.

But Bizzarrini didn’t last long with ATS. His proposal for a 1.5-liter V12 was turned down in favor of Carlo Chiti’s 2.5-liter V8, so he left the company to become Italy’s ultimate engineering gun for hire. After some modifications his V12 found a long-lived home with another upstart, Lamborghini. Bizzarrini also worked closely with Milan’s wealthy de Nora family on the diminutive ASA 1000GT.

Though ASA made fewer than 80 cars from 1961 to 1966, the firm gave Bizzarrini his first opportunity to make a mid-engined car. The 1000GT used a 1032cc in-line ‘four’ developed by Ferrari, so with a gene pool such as that it’s no surprise ASA went racing to promote and improve its cars.

In mid-1963 Bizzarrini made the ASA 1000GTC, a front-engined competition berlinetta that looked, to all intents and purposes, like a shrunken 250GTO. Giotto then went one step further, developing a mid-engined version with the engine behind the driver. It remained a stillborn project, with only the frame and body being made.

Bizzarrini’s most active client at the time was Iso. Another upstart GT manufacturer from the Milan area, Iso was funded and guided by Renzo Rivolta. Bizzarrini worked closely with the industrialist and his chief engineer Pierluigi Raggi on the first car, the 140mph 2+2 Iso Rivolta. The handsome coupé had understated Bertone coachwork and, in a break from almost every other Italian manufacturer, a pressed steel chassis and a Chevrolet Corvette 327 engine.

This last item surprised the engineer. ‘I was shocked the first time I drove one,’ Bizzarrini told me. ‘It was superior to Ferrari’s V12s, offering the same power with more immediate throttle response.’

When sales floundered in 1963, Nuccio Bertone recommended creating a two-seater for publicity. The Grifo was born, and no sooner had Bizzarrini learned of this than he was pushing for a mid-engined model. The idea gained enough traction that Bertone’s Giorgetto Giugiaro made some sketches, which looked strikingly similar to Alfa’s Scaglione-penned 33 Stradale that appeared four years later.

But a mid-engined model was too far from Iso’s desire for performance with comfort and refinement, so Iso had two front-engined berlinettas break cover at 1963’s Turin Show – the Grifo A3/L done by Bertone, and the A3 made by Bizzarrini. The A3 was Bizzarrini’s first mid-engined road car, but not as he originally wanted. Instead, the 327 sat so far behind the front axle that one accessed the distributor through a small door on top of the dash!

The front-mid-engined Iso Grifo A3/C raced with some success in 1964 and ’65, and a number of customers purchased the A3 Stradale street version. By late summer 1965 Iso and Bizzarrini had gone their separate ways, so the engineer kept producing the A3 and sold them under his own name as the GT Strada or GT America, depending upon mechanical specifications.

And so came a third opportunity to create a ‘true’ mid-engined car, one that would ultimately lead to the Duca d’Aosta. Bizzarrini remained a firm believer in competition – what better way to prove your mettle than by beating the other guys, all the while increasing your own visibility? Ford’s GT40 made it clear that the front-engined configuration’s days were numbered in endurance racing, so the engineer created his world-beater, the P538.

He made a new tubular frame and mounted a 327 behind the driver, then covered the package with curvaceous coachwork. The open two-seater’s name derived from the engine and its position – posterior, 5.3-liters, eight cylinders.

Bizzarrini was so sure of the P538’s success that he literally bet the house on it. But the car struggled to produce the anticipated results, hampered by a lack of testing. In 1966 P538 no. 003 competed at Le Mans, where it was a DNF due to a cracked radiator pipe. The second one made debuted at Bridgehampton, but also DNF’d. At an Italian hillclimb in late October, ‘003’ placed fourth overall.

Bizzarrini says he designed the P538 to be competitive for several years, but overnight his dream of contending with the big boys came to a sudden halt. The CSI ruled that in 1968 engine capacity could be no greater than five liters, in an effort to curb speed, and 25 cars had to be built. With his world-beater suddenly obsolete, Bizzarrini changed P538 no. 003’s coachwork into a sensational road-going coup� to try to recoup some money, but found no takers.

Having leveraged everything to produce the car in small series, Bizzarrini’s money problems seemed to be solved when his lawyer brought in outside investors. They wanted new models to improve the cash flow, so Bizzarrini turned his attention to his ‘baby’ car, the GT1900. He also worked on getting the Spider SI, an open-air version of the GT Strada, into production, and conjuring up a new 2+2 model.

One Strada owner’s passion for his car led to the ultimate street Bizzarrini. The Duke of Aosta was in his 20s and resided outside Florence, and the engineer remembers him buying ‘…a Strada that he used a lot. From this we became friends. In fact, he liked his Strada so much he approached me, wanting a car that was even more racy. I offered him [P538 003], but he was too tall and didn’t fit.’

And so was born the car you see here, the Duca D’Aosta, designed and built from scratch. Bizzarrini and his men made a P538 chassis and invited the Duke to Bizzarrini’s small factory in Livorno. They took his measurements and went to work making a new car to debut at 1968’s Turin Auto Show.

The Duca d’Aosta’s design language was quite similar to that found on the enclosed version of P538 003 – beautifully proportioned, with swoopy wings, and enough air intakes to let anyone know the car meant business on the autostrada or Mulsanne. A removable roof panel would offer al fresco motoring, and undoubtedly help ventilate the car’s interior.

The Duke visited the Bizzarrini works during his car’s construction, and likely saw several of the other new models being readied for Turin – the Spider SI, the 2+2 and the first production GT1900s. Additionally, stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro received the stripped chassis of P538 003 so he could create a pure showcar, the Bizzarrini Manta.

In the months leading up to Turin, excitement buzzed through the factory: could one of Italy’s smallest manufacturers truly steal the show? Unfortunately there was one problem. Two of Giotto’s shareholders must have been related to the infamous Mr Ponzi and they leveraged their holdings in the company several times over, so, just as Bizzarrini focused all his efforts on getting cars done for Turin, the bank suddenly and surprisingly came calling, looking for money. The engineer was left holding an empty bag, albeit one with a number of uncompleted cars.

Unlike the Spider SI and Manta, the Duca d’Aosta didn’t make the Turin curtain call; instead it was completed in the months after the show. The Duke loved the car but drove it only sparingly, then sold it in the early 1970s to Marco Paoletti of Florence. In the early 1980s the Duke and I went and saw the car; it didn’t even have 6000km on the odometer, if memory serves me correctly.

Today the Duca d’Aosta is at Blackhawk in California. It is still in original condition and, in many ways, represents the perfect tribute to Bizzarrini – an audacious machine engineered for ultimate speed, made in a period when that was all that mattered. It’s also a testament to what could have been, had the engineer had the right shareholders, or better business acumen.

SPECIFICATIONS

Engine
5329cc (327cu-in) Chevrolet Corvette V8, single 4bbl Holley

Power
365bhp @ 5800rpm

Transmission
Five-speed ZF manual, rear-wheel drive

Suspension
Front: independent via double wishbones, coil springs, tubular dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear: independent via double wishbones, coil springs, tubular dampers

Brakes
Discs all round,
inboard at rear

Weight
1200kg (dry)

Performance
0-60mph N/A
Top speed 170mph (claimed)

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