Berlinetta ‘50s Rare Italian Coupes of the 1950s
By Christian Descombes Color Photography by Xavier de Nombel
ISBN 979-1-090267-28-2 Published June, 2017 by Dalton Watson
240 pages, 472 color photographs, hard cover with dust jacket and slipcase
Review by Pete Vack
This 9 x 12 book from Italy and published in English by Dalton Watson might seem like another potboiler-coffee-table-color-photo-exercise, but it is several rungs up the ladder from that. First, the author and photographer have, as the title implies, focused on Italian coupes built from 1947 to 1962. Why they excluded spiders is a good question, but by narrowing it down to the coupes, it better shows the Italian genius of the era. We are all for it: What could be more exciting than a tight, low and streamlined Italian berlinetta?
Second, the photography is superb. As editor of VeloceToday, I’m privileged to sort out and select thousands of photos, so one develops a bit of an eye for a good photo. The ability of the talented Xavier de Nombel to photograph the cars at beautiful locations with plenty of time and space creates a series of photographs that are very difficult to better. Photography is often all too subjective; but every time I sat down with the book I was more impressed with not only the quality of the photography, but by extension, the cars themselves. A Viotti Fiat 600 never looked better.
Third, the author is Christian Descombes, who was with the French magazine Automobiles Classiques for 25 years, making him well qualified to do the keyboard work. He is an excellent writer and the translation by Julian Parish is also above board.
The introduction is unusual, not so much in what it says, but who authored it. Lorenzo Ramaciotti began his career at Pininfarina in 1973 and was the head of design at the Fiat Chrysler group from 2005 to 2007. While Ramaciotti covers familiar territory when reciting the post war history of Italian coachbuilders, he does so with authority. He knows the geography, the history, the philosophy, and the art. His comments and enthusiasm give further weight to the subject of Italian coachbuilders.
It would be unwise, perhaps, to imagine that the team of Nombel and Descombes firstly determined by some criteria what cars would be in the book, then went out to shoot their selected prey and did the appropriate writing and research. Certainly there would be a lot of thought, arguments, and cutting to see what cars made the grade. And that would be of great interest.
It is more likely – not to be disapproving in any manner – that between the two they had a great selection of cars already photographed and just begging to be placed between the covers of a book. It makes the choices easier, but prevents us from asking “Why is this particular model included but not this one?” and ‘By what criteria were the cars selected?” Why for example are there so many Siata and Fiat Otto Vus including both Rappi versions?
Therefor the organization is bound not to make a great deal of sense, but it does provide a package of sorts.
The Italian Renaissance: Five cars in this section are a good cross section of the early post war years of Italian design. We can’t disagree with any: Fiat 1100S, Stanguellini Motto, Alfa Villa d’Este, Cisitalia 202 MM, Fiat 8V.
Escaping Uniformity: A section on why the Italian coachbuilders served a market niche for a few years, producing an incredible number of unique cars for customers wishing for something special if even only on a Fiat 600. A mis caption describes a Jowett Jupiter Farina as a Siata Amica. Sort of a mixed bag in this section; perhaps the Cisitalia 202 should have been in the Renaissance chapter, while the Maserati Allemano was way beyond the average car buyer. Four lovely Fiats highlight this escape from the ordinary.
Exclusivity at any Price: Ten cars are presented in this section and are all rare, expensive at birth, and perhaps the best of the era. The Abarth 205 A coupe, the Demon Rouge Otto Vus, and the Nardi Azzuro II and III dominate.
Fantasies of America: One might take these cars to have been inspired by American culture and ideas, but fins alone don’t account for this proposition. Can one really say that the B.A.T. – any one of the three – were inspired by anything in America in 1954? Descombes also, sadly, repeats the tired Ferrari propaganda that the Rossellini Ferrari 375GT was built for Ingrid Bergman. She is turning in her grave.
In Praise of Lightness: An all Zagato show, with a Bertone and Pinin Farina Alfa and Maserati thrown in for good effect. It shows the best of Zagato, the Maserati A6GSC cars as well as the less fortunate Alfa 1900 Zagato. No Abarth Zagato coupes in here though.
Michelotti on Parade
In our last book review, we mentioned the huge influence of a very few designers, first and foremost Michelotti. And this books back up the contention, although I’m not sure it is by design or the constraints of the material at hand. There are 37 cars profiled built between 1947 and 1960; a full one third are Michelotti creations. The Lancias, Nardi Azzuros and the Vignale Ferrari 250 GTs are well known enough, but Descombes attributes the Scaglione-like split window Siata 208 to Michelotti, as well as the bar of soap smooth Balbo 208S Siata.
All of which leaves Pinin Farina coming up short, as well as Touring. How one can do an Italian Berlinetta book focusing on the 1950s without including the Ferrari 166 MM Touring coupe is a good question. Or the TDF for that matter to say nothing of the aforementioned “Bergman” 375 Pinin Farina Ferraris.
While Descombes writes accurately and entertainingly, the profiles are not particularly car specific. He rambles out generic history germane to the subject, which for most readers will be redundant. Although I’m sure it was not meant to be a history of each particular car photographed, the reader ends up begging to find out more about the particular car in the photos. Serial numbers are often discussed in the text but not specific to the car; for example, Descombes tells the story of the Ferrari 250GT Zagatos, complete with serial numbers, but nowhere in the text is the serial number of the car in the photos listed. So we are left to guess which one of the five Zagatos is served up in the stunning photos. There is a small table for specs which add little to the discussion.
No index. No bibliography. No documentation. No footnotes, When will they ever learn? That sort of oversight puts an otherwise excellent reference book back into the potboiler-on-the-coffee table category. One nice thought, however, is the list of Key Dates. What is a key date? Well, did you ever wonder what the date for the 1953 Geneva Motor show was? The three major auto shows, Geneva, Paris, Turin, are all listed by date under each year from 1947 to 1961. Thank you! There is a short one paragraph history of each of the major post war coachbuilders in the back which is also handy.
Should you buy this book? Priced at $90 plus shipping, the price is certainly not unreasonable for the quality and photography. So, well, yes. I thorough enjoyed it and I learned a lot from Descombes’ factoids sprinkled throughout the book. And the photos are delicious and worth a spot on your shelf. In fact, this is a very nice companion to the incredible book, “Italian Coachbuilders” which was reviewed here.