Obituary: Nuccio Bertone

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The Independent Online
The car as an object of desire was conceived in Italy and brought to birth by the great Italian automobile design houses. Of these, Carrozzeria Bertone has been one of the most enduring and successful, but more importantly, Nuccio Bertone himself initiated designs that were radical and passionate as well.

Bertone was a man whose aesthetic awareness combined with a sharp business brain and a flair for spotting talented young designers. He inherited the company from his father, Giovanni, who founded it in 1912 as a small carriage works, well known for making racing sulkies. Giovanni was born in 1884 into a poor farming family living near the town of Mondovi, in southern Piedmont. He moved to Turin in 1907 and inevitably became involved in the fever of automobile development that had gripped the city since the start of the century.

By the time Nuccio Bertone was born, in 1914, the little company was beginning to grow. Car bodies were being built for the manufacturer Diatto and the sulkies were soon abandoned. Seeing the need for good management, Giovanni had his son study accountancy before going on to Turin Polytechnic to read economics. But plans to expand the business overtook Nuccio's graduation and he left before completing his degree. This did him no harm, for throughout the uncertainties of 1930s Italy and the subsequent turmoil of the Second World War, Nuccio Bertone learned his trade - as he put it himself, he learned to "breathe air and automobiles".

During the Thirties Carrozzeria Bertone, sometimes working closely with Studio Revelli, built orthodox, well- finished bodies for Fiat and Lancia, among others, and their work on Balilla and Aprilia chassis was well regarded but seldom outstanding. It was not until 1950, when Nuccio took complete control of the company, that the international reputation for innovative design that Bertone was to acquire began to emerge. The workshops he inherited were still craft based and, although knowledge of the industrial techniques developed in the United States was steadily infiltrating Turin, much of the work was done by hand. It was a mark of Bertone's prescience that he understood clearly the need to introduce mass production systems to the firm while never losing sight of the importance of innovative design, distinctive prototypes and, where necessary, small production runs.

The first significant work was done in 1951 for the American importer, Arnolt, for whom several experimental designs were executed by Franco Scaglione, Bertone's chief designer. They were based upon the Fifties MG and were followed in 1952 by the beautiful Arnolt-Bristol. This car, one of the loveliest of the company's early post-war designs, led directly to a deal with Alfa Romeo to develop a new small coupe, the Giulietta, that was to change the course of Bertone's fortunes for ever.

Prior to this, however, Bertone had Scaglione produce some utterly bizarre and beautiful cars on the established Alfa 1900 chassis. They were known as BATs, a truncated form of "Berlinetta Aerodinamica Technica", and were characterised by curving rear wings that arched upon themselves like the nacelles of a jet aircraft. These strange machines, never intended for production, resulted in a contract to develop a Giulietta prototype and subsequently to build bodies for the production car which went on sale in 1955.

The Alfa Romeo contract was a great success. Bertone was consequently approached by other manufacturers like Fiat and Abarth, for whom he produced a minute 500cc World Speed Record machine that broke innumerable records. Such novelties, built alongside the steady stream of pretty cars for the public that were emerging from his factory, exemplified perfectly Nuccio Bertone's approach to motor manufacturing. It was an approach that paid off, and by 1961 Carrozzeria Bertone was established in vast premises at Grugliasco, on the outskirts of Turin, and was set to become an important part of the automotive industry.

The practice of radical design begun by Scaglione was continued in 1959 by a 21-year-old, Giorgette Giugiaro, whom Bertone appointed as head of design when the older man left the company. Giugiaro was given his head by Bertone, who demonstrated yet again his ability to identify talent. The young designer received the most generous and sympathetic support from his visionary boss and over the next six years was not only responsible for the Alfa 2000 and the Fiat 850 Spider but contributed largely to the Testudo, based on GM's Corvair-Monza, to the Alfa Canguro and to the fine, front-engined Fiat Dino coupe.

In 1966 Giugiaro moved to Ghia and was succeeded by yet another outstanding designer, Marcello Gandini. The catholic generosity of Nuccio Bertone's approach to design could not have been better demonstrated than by this appointment. Gandini's vision was quite different from Giugiaro, and different again from Scaglione's. Yet Bertone never hesitated in giving him the same freedom and encouragement that he had given the others for, as he said in an interview that I conducted with him 10 years ago, "I pick people for what I feel about them, for what they will do rather than what they have done already." In Gandini's case this was fortunate, because at that point he had designed some furniture and nothing else.

During the time Gandini worked for him, Bertone produced the wickedly beautiful Miura for Lamborghini. Then, via the Alfa Carabo, followed by the little dart-shaped Lancia Stratos and the redesigned rally-winning Stratos proper, he revealed to a bemused public the Lamborghini Countach, a car quite unlike anything seen before or since. This period of 10 years showed the Bertone design philosophy at its best. Bertone recruited talented people, each as visionary as himself. He gave their ideas free rein but, through sometimes daily contact, refined them into projects that regularly refreshed the annual ritual of car design. And all this time the company was designing and producing more than 30,000 car bodies annually for a range of manufacturers.

Bertone had a profound influence on the shape of European cars. Never dogmatic, he encouraged the use of curves, straight lines and wedges as seemed appropriate. He was not afraid to break a smooth surface and could encourage mass producers to be bold. As a result of the work that he did with mid-engined cars in the 1970s, he established certain ground rules for the way they should look and at that time, in a period of expansion, he deliberately chose to restrain the company in favour of establishing his ideal design studio at Caprie, in the foothills of the Alps approaching Susa, where he encouraged innovation not only in cars but in other industrial and consumer products.

Giuseppe "Nuccio" Bertone, automobile designer: born Turin 4 July 1914; married (two daughters); died Turin 25 February 1997.