The 1950s and ‘60s was truly a marvelous time to be an automotive engineer. Back then there wasn’t the specialization seen today, so a single individual could, in essence, truly be the “father” of an entire car.
One of the most prolific of these wizards was Giotto Bizzarrini. I first met him in 1981 when he had been forgotten by the vast majority of the automotive world, but not this budding (and rabid) Iso and Bizzarrini enthusiast. Rino Argento was an acquaintance with a small role in Iso’s U.S. history, and was friends with one of Italy’s top automotive journalists. Rino figured if anyone could put me in touch with Bizzarrini it was Franco Lini.
Franco and I met for the first time at 1981’s Ceasar’s Palace Grand Prix (remember those two or three years when F1 came to the Nevada desert?), and we hit it off. A few weeks later I was on a plane to Europe for the first time and, after heading to Italy, hooked up with Franco. He’d been involved in the country’s automotive scene since the early 1950s, and was so highly regarded that Enzo Ferrari hired him to run the factory team in 1967. Maranello won the world endurance racing championship that year, and Franco promptly retired, returning to journalism.
Always a Ferrari
One of the many things Franco and Bizzarrini had in common was time at Ferrari. Giotto’s career also started in the first half of the 1950s when he took a job with Alfa Romeo. Once he entered the experimental department the budding engineer was like a sponge, absorbing lessons from great drivers and testers such as Giovanbattista Guidotti and Consalvo Sanesi. Because of them, “I became a test driver who happened to be an engineer who used mathematical principles,” Bizzarrini told me.
Giotto moved to Ferrari in 1957, and there he truly made his mark on automotive history. It began with more lessons from Ferrari’s master test driver, the experienced technician Luigi Bazzi. A year later Bizzarrini was promoted to Ferrari’s Director of Production and Testing Control, and one of his first assignments was improving the handling on the expanding 250 GT series.
With the 250 GT by Pininfarina on the horizon, Bizzarrini went to work on a 250 GT with Ellena coachwork. He recalled the car being quite unruly when pushed hard, with twitchy handling. Surprisingly, the suspension wasn’t the problem. “I suggested to Ferrari we use a ZF steering box,” he recalled, “something that worked well at Alfa. I did the work, tested the car, and it was transformed.”
He also performed his magic on the 250 GT Spyder California, the eventual world champion 250 Testa Rossa, and then turned his attention to the 250 SWB. Ferrari’s superb berlinetta first appeared at the Paris Auto Show in 1959, sporting seminal steel or aluminum coachwork designed by Pininfarina and built by Scaglietti. Bizzarrini said at first the car had “the ride of a Wild West wagon” from a firm rear suspension. He thus stiffened the chassis, altered the spring rates and supplemented them with tube shocks. That and more helped the 250 SWB become one of history’s greatest dual-purpose cars—one that could be driven to the track, win its class, and driven home.
That Bizzarrini could quickly diagnose an issue and implement the necessary changes set him apart from most every other test driver and engineer. “Typically,” Giotto explains, “a test driver would find a problem, and then call an engineer who would fix it. Conversely, an engineer had to use a test driver to find a problem and then test the solution. I could do everything from start to finish.
Best of the Best
That unique skill set led to the creation of what many consider the greatest Ferrari (if not car) ever made. The 250 GTO was born in 1961 at Geneva of all places, for that’s where, at the auto show, Ferrari’s influential sales manager Girolamo Gardini saw Jaguar unveil its sleek E-type coupe and roadster. “He felt the upcoming season would be a disaster,” Giotto says. “He repeatedly stated, ‘they are going to beat us with their GT, so we have to make something!’”
Ultimately, Enzo Ferrari approached Bizzarrini about building a new car in secrecy. Giotto recruited several technicians outside of the normal Ferrari circles and went to work. They started with an alloy-bodied 250 SWB Competizione (chassis 2053 GT), and moved the engine and transmission rearward while revising the suspension. He also applied his hand to the shape, going for better air penetration compared to the more blunt-nosed 250 SWB. After a number of weeks of continuous work, Stirling Moss and Willy Mairesse tested the car at Monza in September 1961, and Bizzarrini says it was several seconds faster than the regular SWB.
Just as the engineer further refined his world-beater, his world turned upside down. In November Bizzarrini became embroiled in the “Walkout” or “Purge,” depending upon who is telling the story. That’s when eight of Ferrari’s top men left in unison, most of them banding together to start Automobili Turismo e Sport (ATS) in February 1962.
Intriguingly, Bizzarrini wasn’t quite done with Ferrari. One of ATS’s backers was a young and very wealthy Count Giovanni Volpi, whose Scuderia Serenissima was likely the ultimate privateer organization in the early 1960s. The Count was in line to get two of the first 250 GTOs, but when Enzo Ferrari learned of his role in ATS, very quickly Volpi became persona non grata in Maranello.
The Count simply shrugged it off, for as he told me the most fun part of the racing game was going up against the manufacturers, and beating them. After the annexation Volpi turned to Bizzarrini to make a GTO beater, noting, “while he was good with engines, regarding a car’s underpinnings he was the best.”
Volpi and the Scuderia Serenissima had a 250 SWB Competizione (chassis 2819 GT), and gave it to Bizzarrini to do his magic. The Pininfarina coachwork was removed, and the engineer worked with Modena specialists Luciano Bonacini and Giorgio Neri on making a very radical, slippery body that earned the car the nickname the “Breadvan.” Concurrently the car’s suspension was revised, and the engine and transmission were moved rearward for a better center of gravity. Volpi said the finished car would run away from the 250 GTOs, but the Breadvan retired at Le Mans with transmission issues. Later the radical SWB saw three top-4 placings and two class victories.
Afterward Giotto went on to become one of the most influential figures as the ultimate “gun for hire” in the 1960s’ burgeoning sports and Gran Turismo scene. In addition to the Scuderia Serenssima and ATS, he also worked with ASA, Lamborghini, Iso, American Motors and the company bearing his own name. Next week we will look at a car with Bizzarrini’s fingerprints on it, one that literally launched a marque that would go on to change the high performance game.