It’s the classic late-’60s grand tourer, long, wide, sleek and imposing. And with the air of easy power, from its occupants as much as its engine. If you didn’t know better you’d assume it was penned by an Italian design house and either built by Bolognese artisans just down the road or by a dying breed of craftsmen in the dusty confines of a small English factory.
On the Italian styling, you’d be right. But you probably already know that the Monteverdi 375L was made in Switzerland.For over a decade, Peter Monteverdi’s eponymous company produced a range of exclusive machinery that initially aped the top GTs of the time – Jensen Interceptor, Ferrari 330GT, Maserati Indy – before (bizarrely) moving into 4x4 utility vehicles, worked-over Mercedes and even an F1 car. When he died in 1998 he left a reputation for toughness, tenacity and not a little rudeness. His cars could be described in a similar way.
He was born into a motoring background. His father, Rosolino, started as a mechanic and moved on to owning and running his own highly successful new car dealership, and while still in his teens Peter was building his own specials. Then his enthusiasm turned to racing and he soon bought himself a Ferrari Mille Miglia Coupé, swiftly followed by a Testa Rossa. In those days, the early 1950s, motorsport was still permitted in Switzerland and Peter was able to compete in many home events.
Though his racing car acquisitions had been enabled by the success of his father’s business, Peter had to prove that he was more than a playboy son when Rosolino died in 1956, leaving Peter in charge. He took a short break from racing, took a firm hold on the business, and continued with his adored motorsport in a Monza Spider, followed by a Formula Three Cooper and even a Mercedes 300SLR.
Did the business suffer? Not at all, for Peter pushed it upmarket, becoming the world’s youngest importer of Ferraris and taking official factory responsibility for the north-eastern region of Switzerland. But still the motorsport career bloomed and Peter’s next step was to form a racing team with one of his customers, Swiss industrialist Dr Alfred Hopf. By 1961 they had progressed to Formula One.
Maybe this would have been the making of Monteverdi, for he showed great potential, but instead it nearly proved to be his end. While racing at Hockenheim he lost control (due to transmission oil leaking onto a rear tire) and smashed into and over a wall. The car landed on top of him, breaking his arm and fracturing several ribs; he spent the following few weeks in hospital and his racing career came to an end.
Predictably, even serious injuries weren’t going to keep Peter Monteverdi from indulging his ambitions and over the following years he added not just BMW and Lancia to his dealership’s portfolio but also Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Through the servicing and repair side of the business his already thorough engineering knowledge increased; but it was the long conversations with owners of both luxury and performance cars that led him to the conclusion that he could build his own car that combined the performance and panache of the Ferraris with the luxury and build quality of the Rolls-Royces.
A few years earlier, Ferrucio Lamborghini had fallen out with Enzo Ferrari, which prompted the former to build his own cars. A similar disagreement had spurred Ford into producing its own Ferrari-beater, the GT40. So there’s a certain affinity in the way that Peter Monteverdi’s final push into building his own cars was the result of a disagreement with Ferrari in 1965, which caused the closure of the Ferrari side of the dealership.
The scene was set. Peter’s design for his first car, the two-seater 375S, formed the basis for most of the models that followed, including the 375L you see here. The chassis turned out looking very similar to those of the Iso Rivolta and the Jensen Interceptor, but that’s not to imply that Peter Monteverdi copied them; they were designed to a logical, easy-to-build formula in strong, square-section steel tubing with coil springs and double wishbones up front and coil springs and de Dion tube axle located by trailing links and a Watts linkage at the rear; not so common, but one of only a limited number of options for a car designed to handle high torque and deliver a smooth ride.
Like Iso and Jensen, Peter Monteverdi looked to the tough, established and powerful V8s of the US’s General Motors. He chose the 7206cc Chrysler 440 and its matching three-speed TorqueFlite automatic and four-speed manual. The power output of the Chrysler engine was an impressive 375bhp (hence the car’s moniker), but the big disadvantage that Monteverdi had against the Italian V8s and V12s was that the American unit was much heavier. He decided to mount it as far back in the chassis as possible for 50:50 weight distribution.
And so the 375S made its debut at the 1967 Frankfurt Motor Show, clothed in a steel body styled and built by Frua, with clean, crisp lines and a large glass area. The front end had a characteristically Pietro Frua look, very similar to his designs for the AC 428 and Maserati Mistral, although the side profile from the A-pillar back was closer to that of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s lovely Maserati Ghibli.
The car attracted plenty of attention at Frankfurt and by the summer of 1968 three had been built and delivered. The chassis were fabricated at Monteverdi’s factory in Basle, then transported across the Alps to the Frua carozzeria near Turin, Italy. Here they were fitted with their new bodies – albeit very slowly. Too slowly for Peter Monteverdi’s liking, and not to the quality that he had expected. Then the cars were returned to Basle to be kitted out with engine, transmission, suspension and interior.
Trouble was, Peter Monteverdi had plans for more variations on the theme and yet it was clear that the Frua operation wouldn’t be able to keep up. One such variant was a Frua-designed long-wheelbase version of the 375S that would allow 2+2 accommodation, and the other was a 2-litre coupé. The smaller car was dropped; the 2+2 turned into the 375L shown here, and was unveiled at the 1968 Geneva Motor Show.To accommodate the rear seats, the chassis was stretched and the windscreen, door pillars and engine were moved forward slightly. From the side and the rear, the styling was similar to the 375S but its twin-headlight front was more Interceptor or Aston DBS. The result was a more imposing, balanced look that suited Monteverdi’s aspiriations.
Reaction to the new model was good, but Monteverdi placed the construction of its (slightly revised) bodywork in the hands of a larger coachbuilding company, Fissore, based a little further outside Turin. Productivity and quality increased to the point that a revised version of the original 375S was also moved from Frua to Fissore.
The press was intrigued by these new Swiss GTs, and several magazines tested both the 375S and 375L. Many were effusive in their praise after short drives but Autocar managed to secure a longer test period; their 375L test car suffered reliability problems, with the throttle sticking open, a faulty fuel tank breather causing petrol fumes, and electrical failures. Swiss motoring paper Automobile Revue later confirmed that its test car had also been poorly built.
The quality improved, however, and what did become obvious was that Peter Monteverdi had succeeded in creating a relatively unstressed 2+2 grand tourer that could top 150mph and blast to 60mph from rest in six seconds, and yet managed to avoid the overheating problems that tended to plague powerful cars of the era. However, it did show typical low-volume manufacturer faults, from poor turning circle to disappointing accommodation (in size and quality).
When you look under the bonnet of the 375L you see why. Half the engine bay is loosely filled with radiator, hoses and, well, fresh air. And every inch of the other half is jam-packed with American iron, the rear cylinders of the V8 hiding coyly under the scuttle panel.
Inside, the fascia is unusually deep for a car of this period and yet the center console protrudes still further, with the radio and air-con controls pushed conveniently close to the driver. The air-con, incidentally, is crucial because with the engine so far back the heatsoak into the footwells is significant.On the road, a 375L still feels impressively fast, and pulls strongly through its three gears (no manual option on the L), not changing out of first until over 60mph in full flight, and only shifting into top once the 100mph mark has been passed. All this accompanied by a deep intake roar from up front and a reasonable absence of wind noise.
As for handling, it was never going to be perfect but it corners competently and safely. Modern tyre technology has tamed its predilection for sudden breakaway on wet roads and the 1790kg weight does mean that even on relatively short-travel springs, the ride is smooth and unruffled.Against the better-known 2+2s of the era – DBS, E-type, 911 and Interceptor – the Monteverdi was faster in top speed, 0-60mph and quarter-mile acceleration but lost out on fuel consumption and price. Oh yes – the price. At around £10,000 in the late-1960s, a 375S was twice the price of an Interceptor and nearly four-times that of an E-type. Ouch!
Despite this, the 375L became Monteverdi’s best seller and spawned a four-door variation, the 375/4 Limousine, which compared well with the most radical of all the Monteverdis, the curvaceous, powerful Hai of 1970. They remained in production until 1977, by which time Peter Monteverdi had turned his attentions to 4x4s and tarted-up Mercedes. By 1982 increasing safety legislation and tests made Peter Monteverdi realise that profitable low-volume car manufacturing was becoming an impossibility, and the factory was shut down (and later turned into the Monteverdi museum). All the same, he made a last attempt to revive his cars in the early 1990s with a Formula One project followed by a new sports car, the Hai 650. But they didn’t work out and, in 1998, Peter Monteverdi died aged 64.
Now his GTs are revered and his reputation as one of the tough men of the motor industry remains intact. And ironically, while the values of many exotic Italian 2+2s are held down by the fear of complexity and high running costs, the rarity and relatively easy-going nature of the 375L has resulted in a greater appreciation of the Swiss cars than ever before.