If there's one thing I learned on my recent trip to Italy, it's that style matters. Looking good is more important than looking where you're going. So it's no wonder the storied art of coachbuilding — creating customised bodies for cars — is still well and truly alive in the nondescript town of Arese, Northern Italy. Here you'll find the headquarters of two of the most famous and important names in coach building: Zagato and Touring Superleggera.
It was quite amazing to see these two great names literally just next door to each other. Only a few feet separates them, both doing similar things in very different ways.
There's something romantic about coachbuilding and in our day and age of mass production. Back in the early days of motoring, this was how cars were built — you ordered an engine and chassis from one company and a body from a coachbuilder. A lot of the big names you might be familiar with today such as Zagato, Pininfarina, Scaglietti, Touring Superleggera, and Mulliner started out doing this.
Today, as high-end buyers want something unique that really stands out, there's a resurgence in demand for these sorts of cars.
Ugo Zagato founded the company on April 19, 1919, and the principles of maths tell us that means it's got a centennial to celebrate next year. It's also worth mentioning that Zagato is probably the last coachbuilder that's still independent and run by a member of the founder's family.
Alfa Romeo 2600 SZ
Zagato the man started out working at an aeroplane factory during World War I. It was here he got the idea to bring some of the aeroplane technology into the manufacturing of cars. Back then cars were massive lumps of iron and steel, so Zagato was more interested in the lightweight aluminium material. Not only did this make his cars lighter, he was also able to mould more unique shapes with the material.
Lancia Flaminia Sport Zagato
When Zagato cars started competing in racing, they caught the attention of manufacturers and owners alike. Most notably, Zagato formed a close relationship with Alfa Romeo.
It's no coincidence Zagato's factory is quite literally a hop, skip, and jump away from Alfa's HQ. It was because of this relationship, Zagato were tasked to building special editions for Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and Fiat.
Throughout the 1960s and '80s, Zagato was responsible for some of the most incredible cars and interesting designs to bear an Alfa, Lancia, or Fiat badge. Speaking of badges, Zagato always keeps the manufacturer's badge on the front and rear. A subtle "Z" badge on the side is the only Zagato branding you'll see outside.
Zagato has never developed a car from the ground up due to complicated homologation regulations — just the Gran Turismo of special series versions. These versions ended up being the more collectable versions. Today, Zagato still aims to produce "classic and contemporary collectables", said Andrea Zagato, CEO of the company. He uses the example of the 2012 Aston Martin V12 Zagato, based on the Aston Martin V12 Vantage, which has increased its value by 100 per cent since its launch 6 years ago.
The Aston Martin V12 Zagato.Photo: Zagato
Diana Grandi does comms for Zagato, and she was kind enough to show me around their showroom and walk me through some of the incredible cars they had on display. It's not a museum per se and it's not a case of walking in there anytime you like, but if you're able to it's definitely worth a look and was great to hear the colourful history of a company like Zagato from someone who's clearly passionate about it.
After working as a motoring journalist in Italy for publications such as Quattroroute and Top Gear Italy, she said working for Zagato opened her up to a whole new world full of high-end cars and the high-end clientele they attract.
These types of cars appeal to a very different kind of enthusiast. Andrea Zagato describes them as "connoisseurs of the car history". These clients like having a specially coachbuilt, tailor-made car that, at the same time as being totally badass, are also good investments.
Despite this, Zagato believes they're not speculators. Take a look at recent auctions or the current market, there aren't exactly a lot of Zagatos for sale.
Zagato's owner circle is a very exclusive bunch. They don't have dealers, instead they have "Ambassadors" to promote their projects. Zagato traditionally only make five to nine examples of each special build. Occasionally they will do 19, but nine is a special number for Zagato. That's why Zagato's latest collaboration with Aston Martin resulted in 99 examples of the Vanquish Zagato Coupe, Volante, and Shooting Brake. It was originally going to be 99 coupes but customers who missed out wanted another chance to buy a new Aston Zagato. Oh, to be rich.
Aston Martin DB7 Zagato
Speaking of, the Shooting Brake will be the final version of this collaboration and will make its debut at this year's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Diana said Zagato only does these special projects with manufacturers at the end of a particular model's life cycle as to not interrupt sales and production of the "regular" car. It was the case with the DB7 Zagato, Bentley Continental GTZ, and Ferrari 575 GTZ. It's also a way to build up extra interest in the model at the end of its life, like the Zagato program did for the outgoing Aston Vanquish.
Only some of Zagato's special builds are done in collaboration with manufacturers. In most cases, clients bring in their ideas or Zagato will pitch their very special clients ideas to brainstorm and develop together. Norihiko Harada, design director at Zagato, then draws out these ideas. You can see the results such as the Alfa Romeo TZ3 Stradale and Maserati Mostro here in the "showroom."
Maserati GS Zagato
It's not a typical showroom or musuem, per se, but just as impressive. Most of the cars here are on loan from private owners. The majority of Zagato's customers are from overseas due to regulations in Italy which makes it difficult to own a coachbuilt car these days. Which is weird, considering the best ones, new and old, are coming out of Italy. Anyway, the showroom is quite literally double-bubble roof heaven.
Zagato's signature design feature is prominent on the handful of cars displayed here. Each car has a fascinating story from the Maserati GS Zagato, which was based on the Maserati Spyder due to the shorter wheelbase compared to the Coupe which made for better proportions. Then there's the Aston Martin DB7 Zagato, which along with the Alfa Romeo SZ was responsible for my love affair with this company.
Lamborghini Canto Zagato
Perhaps the most curious car in the showroom is the Lamborghini Canto Zagato. Originally designed as the replacement for the Diablo, the contract was terminated in 1996 when Audi came in and bought Lamborghini. The 12 existing examples were ordered to be destoryed, but this particular car only survived because it was out on the Nürburgring doing tests. It's supposedly the only full working model left.
But imagine if this ended up becoming the Murcielago. It's got the wild styling we used to expect from Lamborghini. There are some retro hints in the design too, such as the black surrounds on the headlights which remind me a bit of the Miura.
The Alfa Romeo TZ3 and Maserati Mostro were both made to celebrate Alfa and Maserati's centenaries in 2010 and 2014, respectively. However, both cars aren't what they seem. Yes, the TZ3 Corsa one-off was based on an Alfa 8C but the Stradale version, only nine of which were made, uses a Dodge Viper chassis and engine. Hell, even the interior is straight from a Viper.
Alfa Romeo TZ3 Stradale
The Mostro is an interesting thing as only the engine is from Maserati, a 4.7-litre V8 familiar to those with current Maserati GTs. The rest of the car is new from the ground up including a carbon fibre tub and body panels.
Diana very kindly also organised to show us their latest creation; the Iso Rivolta Vision Gran Turismo Concept. We already saw this car at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show but seeing it again with all its other Zagato cousins was a special treat.
Only five of these will be made and Zagato hopes they will have a customer from each continent. Like Iso Rivoltas of the past, the production car's Italian-styled body will be powered by an American engine. It will most likely be a General Motors unit — the 6.2-litre V8 from the Corvette seems like an obvious choice, and one that's hard to argue with. The chassis will be made by DOME in Japan (yes, DOME is still around!) making this a true globalized product.
What really got my attention was Zagato's Sanction Lost Program, a photometric process to recreate old and missing cars from the past. In the entrance of their showroom was the body of a Ferrari 166 Panoramica, the chassis was away getting some work done.
The Original Ferrari 166 Panoramic. Photo provided by Zagato.
The 166 Panoramica was originally a one-off coupe, then the owner changed it to a Barchetta (which is Ferrari-speak for "convertible.") The original Coupe body was destroyed to make way for the open-top body. With this new program, Zagato were able to bring it back from the dead by following the list of "figurini" (drawings) recreated from original pictures in their achieves.
Modern techniques ensured the recreation was accurate and respectful of the original. The body was hand-crafted by Zagato's skilled aluminium craftsmen, so the end result is a body that's arguably more precise and perfect than before. So while this may look like a classic, it's actually a modern car. This opens the floodgates to a whole host of possibilities in bringing back lost and forgotten cars from Zagato's illustrious past.
With more than 400 different models produced in its 100 year history, it's no surprise some of them have been lost in time.
"Maybe not all deserve to be re-made today, but some of are milestones in the car history," Andrea Zagato told me. In theory someone could commission the recreation of a car that was never originally made, like the Lamborghini Canto. The sketches for a coupe and spider Andrea's grandfather, Ugo, made for Enzo Ferrari for his pre-Ferrari company, Auto Avio, are still on paper. The cars were never produced but Andrea believes there's a Zagato client who'd want to see them come to reality.
Between new projects, restoration of classics, and the recreation of cars from their back catalogue, there's no shortage of what Zagato can do for new and existing customers. The fact they're still independent and run by a Zagato family member means Ugo's original vision and ethos are still very much intact.
I for one am glad it's still around making all the wacky and beautiful cars it's known for. And remember, it has a 100th birthday coming up. I expect it will go all out for that. Would you expect anything less from Zagato?
The original Isetta before Zagato licensed it to BMW
Zagato has won the Golden Compass design award twice