The Importance of Being Nuccio Bertone

Cars People

We’ve mentioned the House Bertone before, latterly lamenting the sad demise of one of car building’s great collaborators.

It’s instructive that the Noble house never had any financial problems while its long time patriarch Nuccio was alive and at the helm. It was he that was the true great collaborator, bristling with a host of individual talents which he could take to any party.

The word collaborate comes from the Latin collaborare -its root col (together) and laborare (to work)- and interestingly when Nuccio’s father Giovanni set up Carrozzeria Bertone in 1912 the word was just making its first entrance into common parlance.

In fact it seems to be born around the same time as the internal combustion engine itself and presumably owes its existence to the process of industrialsation that had been sweeping through Europe for the previous 50 years or so.

This was an era where the individual activity of the artisan craftsman was being superseded, or at least subsumed, into a process of mechanisation where both people and things needed to work together to create something greater then the sum of their parts.

Such speculative etymology apart, this was a process and system that Nuccio understood and embraced. Much of his success can be attributed to the skill with which he balanced the old world of the skilled craftsman with the new world of big business and mass manufacturing.

Giovanni Bertone’s business as a carriage maker had emerged along the same lines as many other Italian coachbuilders that were riding on the back of the motorcar revolution. They took on contacts for individual clients for one off cars, or sometimes got a break making small specialist runs for bigger manufacturers.

Nuccio’s father was friends with Vincenzo Lancia so was able to pick up just such work for Fiat, helping his business to thrive.

In the 1930s Nuccio learnt the ropes by selling his fathers designs, then after the war, shortly before he took over the company he sold a pair of MG chassis clothed in his own designs to US motoring entrepreneur Wacky Arnolt.

His career had started proper. In 1950 he took over the company and set about elevating the art of collaboration to a new level.

During the 60s he began moving into more press tooling and mechanised production and started angling for new and exciting contracts. He designed the successful Lancia Stratos, which lead to the contract for the 400 homologation models of the Abarth 131 Rally.

These machines impressed Alfa Romeo who commissioned Bertone to draw a successor to their Disco Volante. What he gave them were the famous BAT drawings (Berlina Aerodinamica Technica) that were the embryos of the Giulietta Sprint.

Giulietta_Sprint (1)It was the Giulietta that did it for Bertone. This was intended by Alfa as a small production run but in the end Bertone built 40,000 bodies for Alfa. It was this success that allowed house Bertone to get where they wanted, to move from small-scale producer to a major manufacturing force.

But to think of Nuccio as just a very clever businessman and dealmaker is miss a whole side of him.

He was also a creative genius; a look at his designs shows how far he was willing to push the envelope. He was Avant garde in artistic terms and positively cutting edge when it came to new materials and technology.

He was that rare talent that understood design, mechanics, business and engineering but perhaps most of all understood the psychology of desire. He implicitly knew what made people yearn for something. He once said:

“A car is the product of a feeling, or rather, a series of feelings. The most important of these is the sense of wonder and surprise generated by the form of the vehicle.”

Over the years he was able to get over 40 concept projects funded pushing the boundaries of motor design without ever pushing his company near the financial edge. His many resulting innovations are written into the fabric of the motoring world we all enjoy today.

Roland Barthes once talked of the world’s great car designs as being the equivalent of the great gothic cathedrals:

“ I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists”

We agree in general terms but would go further when it comes to Nuccio. Bertone is more like an old Renaissance master running a large and successful studio producing commissions on every scale, always with a finger on the pulse of what the public wants.

And far from being unknown it is easy to see his signature in his timeless designs, his angularity, the wedge shape the long bonnet and truncated backside.

Like a latter day Leonardo in a razor sharp business suit he could do it all. Great collaborator, engineer, nurturer of talent, businessman and visionary. He built a house based on this enviable blend of talents, that had one foot in the old world and one in the future.

Without him the magic has gone and the house may have crumbled to a memory. But it is, at least, one immortalised in monocoque.