The Italian coachbuilding industry has been diminishing in importance and influence for a long time now, with disastrous consequences for the few well-known firms that have not simply disappeared. One might expect that prospects for the oldest of them all, Carrozzeria Bertone (founded in 1912), would be as precarious as for the others. And Bertone was indeed teetering on the edge a few years ago.
Production contracts had dried up as manufacturers took niche models into their own production schemes, design contracts were fewer as carmakers established their own internal design departments, and some brave efforts, such as BMW's semi-enclosed C1 motorcycles that Bertone assembled, simply didn't sell.
Folk wisdom in Europe holds that when an inspired, dedicated leader creates a family enterprise, the second generation often is able to perpetuate, even expand, the business, building on the solid base established by the founder, only to have the third generation, coddled from birth and never having had to work really hard, dissipate all that had been built up over the decades.
When Giuseppe "Nuccio" Bertone, son of founder Giovanni, died in 1997 at 82, his succession followed the classic European family business pattern: direction should stay in the family, and it should be male. Except the shrewd Nuccio and his charming wife, Lilli, had only two offspring, Barbara and Marie-Jeanne, both pleasant young women not particularly qualified for or interested in manufacturing, so it fell to the daughters and their husbands, the sons-in-law, to take on the almost inevitable task of slow destruction. Through mismanagement andmisappreciation of the industry and business climate, they came quite close to succeeding. Carrozzeria Bertone, the series-production factory, was lost, and some of the subsidiary businesses that the farsighted Nuccio had created were in difficulty. Italian newspapers followed the ugly drama attentively, and it was widely expected that it would all collapse.
Various vultures and scoundrels wanted to "save Bertone," if one were to give credence to articles appearing in Automotive News, but things were declining desperately. Press-release battles among different factions took place, and there was the sad spectacle of Bertone's not taking its traditional stand at the Geneva motor show in 2008, instead exhibiting a trumped-up and unconvincing BAT 11 concept at an off-site venue in the Swiss city. It seemed hopeless, and those of us who consider Bertone to be the finest and most innovative of all the Italian design houses feared the worst. Many of the best people moved on, concerned that the turmoil would end not just the fabled firm but also their own careers.