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February 14th, 2007

Italian Auto Legends
Classis of Style and Design
By Michel Zumbrunn with text by
Richard Heseltine

Review by Pete Vack

US version, $49.95, Canada $69,95
Hardbound, 31.5 x 24 cm , 288 pages, 400 color photographs
Published by Merrell Publishing LTD, London
ISBN 1 85894 336 1
Order from Merrell Publishing

1939 Alfa 6C2500 by Touring.

The disposition of Michel Zumbrunn’s incredible photo collection, in the hands of and editor such as myself, would quickly become a battleground between an editor’s idealism and a publisher’s realism. Had I been given the pleasure to create a book based on a selection of Zumbrunn’s photos of Italian cars, I would have told my boss, a fictional publisher in this case, “We have got to do justice by these photos. We have got to create the ultimate work on the Italian automobile development and design. Let’s get historical photos from Franco Zagari, a complete history by Luigi Orsini, Tito Anselmi or perhaps Marcello Minerbi, or better yet several well known preferably Italian historians, comments from each of the great houses or representatives thereof, complete individual histories of the cars photographed, and do it right. Zumbrunn has provided us an opportunity to create a landmark work.”

Alas, our imaginary publisher has a tight budget, must pay the rent, write the salary checks, and at the same time make something called money while meeting deadlines. Therefore he would turn to our idealistic editor, and say deftly, without the slightest compunction, that such an effort at this time is out of the question. “We have, my dear man, an expert writer who will concoct a viable history, write relevant captions, and do so in a matter of weeks, for very few eros. The book will be published quickly and for maximum profit, with high quality at a very reasonable market price, and will not pretend to be an great work. And as much as Mr. Zumbrunn himself might like your noble idea, he would probably opt to get paid within a decade, six months for example, might be more suitable. Now get out of my office”. Of course the publisher would win, as they almost always do.

We doubt if a scene like this actually occurred at Merrell Publishers LTD., as any editor at a major publishing house could not afford to be so naively idealistic as an armchair book reviewer. But in that context, thinking in those terms, brings said armchair reviewer back down to earth, where he is better able to mute criticisms that fly in the face of reality.

Alfa Romeo 6C1750.

Italian Auto Legends is a book featuring one of the greatest automobile photographers in Europe. For an idealist, it is not entirely satisfactory, but the photography by Zumbrunn makes it not only worthwhile, but at only $50 USD, we’d urge you to get a copy whether or not you read on or not! Right off the mark we can promise you that you will enjoy the book and will find it well worth the money.

There can be no denying that Zumbrunn, now 70 years old is one of the finest studio photographers ever to measure light on a grey board. Unlike Pietro Carrieri whose images are almost post modern in their vivid and intense use of black and light, Zumbrunn lets the lens absorb more mechanical detail with less drama. Fifty five of Zumbrunn’s Italian car portraits were selected for this work, all nearly flawless in their imaging execution.

Rear view of Touring's 6C2500.

We wondered how Zumbrunn managed to photograph so many different cars in so many different parts of the world, all done within a studio. We asked Zumbrunn, “Have all the cars you have photographed over the years been shipped to your studio?” To which he replied, “No, not all cars came to my studio in Zurich. I traveled quite often to the cars. In the last 25 years I have traveled a lot worldwide. I built up a studio near San Francisco for taking 10 days pictures of the collection of Jacques Harguindeguy or I rented a studio in L.A. to photograph the fantastic Hispano Suizas from Jules Heumann.”
“Sounds expensive. Does the publisher pay for this to be done?”
“This traveling around always with an assistant is expensive but all that work was/is published in many car magazines all over the world. The book editor never paid any fee for that.”
Well, we told you about that publishing budget.

The 1907 Fiat Grand Prix car and the 2004 Maserati MC12 serve as bookends, fittingly almost exactly 100 years apart, and we see where we have come from and where we are now, as well as what we have lost and gained in the process. In between are 53 other examples, most of which are relevant, if not important milestones in Italian automobile history. Skipping through the years, we find the Alfa RL of the twenties, the Alfa 1750, 8C2300, and 8C2900 of the 1930s.

A 1939 Alfa 6C2500 simply takes one’s breath away. An off white, a color difficult to photograph, the Touring design resonates with luxurious warm, soft, creamy tones, as if the car were sculpt by the hands of Michelangelo himself. Light is everything, and here light is virtually living, highlighting the beauty and voluptuous lines of one of Touring’s best efforts to the absolute maximum effect. I daresay that after the photographs, the actual car may be a disappointment, like a movie star without makeup or artificial enhancements. Yet Zumbrunn knows not the airbrush, but is instead a master of rays and angles.

Zagato's Lancia Flaminia rendered by Zumbrunn. Artist on Artist.

Loving and deserved attention is given to the Fiat Topolino, Lancia Aprilia, and later, the Fiat 500 and Multipla, and post war Ferraris by Vignale, Pininfarina and Scaglietti. One of the highlights of Zumbrunn’s tour de force is the inclusion of both of the Giulietta Spider prototypes, the Bertone and Pininfarina version. Two cars on the same chassis, both spiders, but both so different in line and execution. Must have been a hard decision to make but we are probably lucky that Pininfarina won out. The Italians often have a unique perspective of what art will endure.

Stark spaceship, the immortal Lamborghini Countach.

Intro and text
Richard Heseltine, a British journalist whose work is familiar to those who read Classic and Sportscar, authored the long winded Introduction, which recites the history of the Italian auto industry. Heseltine takes us from the early 1900s to the twenty first century. Along the way, Heseltine spells Etceterini as “Ecceterini“, and implies that Ferrari’s first cars were basically etceterinis, which if not entirely incorrect, misses the whole point (Enzo Ferrari had much bigger things in mind than the Italian National classes when he built the 125). The text which accompanies each selection is at best inconsistent. In some instances, the text which accompanies the car illustrated is done well, historically correct, and relates to the exact car including serial numbers. But out of the 55 cars photographed and featured, 19 should and could address the particular car illustrated but don't. In one example, an Abarth 1000 is illustrated while the text goes on about the Abarth 750, including the header. In many other examples, the car is so unique that it begs for a deeper more personal history; the Alfa RL with a stunning one off Castagna body, a Pininfarina bodied Lancia Astura, and 8C2900, Ferrari GTO, Ferrari 330 P all come readily to mind here.

Lamborghini Diablo of another era, resplendent in what is now Lamborghini's 'color'.

The selection of the cars could also have benefited from a more rigorous process. All of the 55 choices are good, but the key here is that “each model...represents a key moment in Italian car design” according to the book’s dust jacket. It is hard to rationalize why the Maserati 8CM, as beautiful as it is, represents a key moment in any design, or the bastardized Fiat Mephistopheles, or a Isotta Fraschini with a Fleetwood body. Zumbrunn explains, “The first book Auto Legends (Text by Robert Cumberford) was presenting 62 legendary cars of the last century. So the concept for the next book was already clear. On the basis of my archive list with over 500 studio productions the authors always made the final selection."

In our idyllic armchair world, we see that if Italian Auto Legends had been properly edited, profusely researched, and fully completed, it would have been a classic work on classic cars. Alas, It would have taken five years to edit, it would have cost five times as much, and sales would have been limited to the truly nuts or insanely rich.

Maybe it is better the way it is, for more people will have a chance to enjoy Zumbrunn’s photography and yes, even learn a good bit from Heseltine’s text. And maybe we’ll create a larger circle of friends who are truly nuts.

And so, Italian Auto Legends is primarily a testament to Zumbrunn, who said that “In the future I plan to shoot other beautiful, exclusive classical cars either in the studio (by renting the studio) or moving a special travel equipment to the most important collections in Europe and if necessary in the States.”
He isn’t slowing down one bit, thank goodness.

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