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.
What ultimately counted, though, was the steely determination of Lilli Bertone. She had promised her beloved husband before he died that she would see the firm through to its one-hundredth anniversary. As a woman in her sixties, she had naturally called on her daughters, but when she saw disaster looming, she fought like a tigress to wrest control from the feckless, unqualified men who didn't understand what Nuccio had always told her: that the money in the bank he had so carefully saved did not belong to them personally but to the firm and its safe future.
So, at the 2010 Geneva show, Bertone was back with an absolutely astonishing concept car, one that in the tradition of the glory years was a complete running vehicle. The Pandion, executed as an homage to the 100 years of Alfa Romeo, was a perfect symbol of the resurgence of Bertone. In 2009, after years of squabbles and skirmishes, Lilli Bertone gained complete control of five companies carrying her late husband's name: Stile Bertone, Bertone Glass, Bertone Engineering, Bertone Energia, and Bertone ITC, the latter involved with the integration of electronics and communications technologies in the automobile.
She has also created the nonprofit Bertone Foundation, dedicated to the heritage of the firm and to supporting the work of young creative people, which had been the hallmark of Nuccio's career. He found and developed the abilities of Franco Scaglione, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Marcello Gandini, Marc Deschamps, and many other less-renowned designers, always giving them due credit. That each of these men, viewed retrospectively, did his best work under Bertone's direction says a great deal about his own taste and prescience.
Bear in mind that Bertone had collaborated with Alfa Romeo for seventy-five years, during that time having created thirteen fabulous Alfa concept cars and ten production models, several of which were series-built in Carrozzeria Bertone's own shops. The timeless Giulietta coupe (featured in my By Design column in January 2008) that put Bertone into full-scale manufacturing in the 1950s was the first of these.
Control finally achieved, Lilli Bertone put in place a new management team headed by CEO Marco Filippa, the respected management consultant brought in to "clean up the mess." She installed American expatriate Michael Robinson as head of design and recently made Sandro Colella, former marketing and sales director, managing director. Then she set out to make an unforgettable statement of intent and capability with the Pandion, which has no more production potential than did the dramatic Scaglione BAT cars in the '50s, but like those classics, it demonstrates imagination and capabilities. That it was conceived in October and shown at Geneva early in March is indicative of Bertone tradition and Lilli Bertone's determination to bring the house back into worldwide significance.
Talking about her plans for the company last summer at Pebble Beach, the elegantly presented Signora Bertone was alternately gently humorous -- "I don't worry about the future. I plan to live to 150!" -- and ferociously severe -- "My daughters have nothing to do with the company. Nothing!" She talked about her devotion to what Nuccio had created and her determination to see the firm continue and prosper in an industrial climate that is far different from that of the '50s, when Nuccio guided the firm from a small workshop making bodies one at a time to a full-scale manufacturer of complete automobiles. One thing that has never changed, she says, is that Bertone has no debt.
Fiat now owns the former carrozzeria factory buildings, but Lille Bertone holds the creative parts that matter, the aspects of the business that will continue to appeal to mainstream manufacturers: design, engineering, and prototyping. Having the ability to offer turnkey projects for all -- or any discrete part -- of a new-car development program on time and on budget is invaluable to car companies. They may well have all those functions in-house, but there will always be times when they are overwhelmed, and a safe, certain, and reliable partner will save months and millions during those programs.
As design and brand director Michael Robinson says, success is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Clients that were left adrift when Italdesign-Giugiaro was swept up by Volkswagen were delighted to find that Bertone was back at full capability just as they needed its services. With clients all over the globe, Bertone now seems to be assured of not only achieving its centennial but also continuing far into the future.
Bertone's Greatest Hits Blazing Beauty and Bizarre Brilliance.
1952: The Abarth 1500 was the first design by Franco Scaglione for Bertone. Bought by Packard, its divided backlight inspired the 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket and the 1963 "split window" Corvette.
1953: The Alfa Romeo 1900 BAT 5 was the first of the spectacular Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica series that was completed only a couple years ago with the unlovely BAT 11. This first BAT established Bertone's reputation for audacity.
1954: The Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint coupe was meant to exist in a series of only 1000. This car put Bertone on the map as a serious production carrozzeria; 34,000 were made over twelve years.
1957: The Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale prototype aerodynamic coupe led to limited production in 1959. Before it was canceled in 1965, 2652 were built.
1961: The BMW 3200CS -- of which only 597 coupes were built, along with the one-off convertible pictured here-showed stylist Giugiaro's work to great advantage and added to Bertone's luster.
1964: The Alfa Romeo Giulia Canguro one-off concept was beloved by almost all the world's car designers. It was perhaps the very best Bertone-Giugiaro collaboration.
1966: The Lamborghini Miura was one of Marcello Gandini's first projects at Bertone. It was the first of many almost-incredible Lamborghini production and concept models.
1968: The Alfa Romeo 33/2 Stradale Carabo concept car was only 39 inches high. A startling iridescent green, it remains one of the most striking concept cars of the past fifty years.
1970: The Lancia Stratos Zero was even lower than the Carabo, at 33 inches. Nuccio Bertone used it as a road car from time to time, believe it or not.
1971: A peak of exotica for Bertone, with both the Lambo Countach shown at Geneva and the rationalized Lancia Stratos put into production.
1972: The Fiat X1/9 was a Bertone tour de force, carried through to production despite enormous resistance from Fiat engineers, who did not have Nuccio's dedicated enthusiasm.
1994: The Bertone ZER (zero emission record) used lead-acid batteries and took a number of records, including the flying kilometer at 189 mph. It was another example of Bertone being ahead of the curve.